Meeting People Where They’re At

Four tips for activists

Illustrations: Leya Anderson

When I was a university student, I had two distinct sets of friends – there were the people that I lived with and partied alongside in residence, and there were those with whom I did social justice and environmental organizing. I was excited when a group I was involved with, the Sierra Youth Coalition, held a beer night fundraiser because it provided an opportunity to bring my two sets of friends together. “All-you-can-drink beer for five dollars?” my friends in residence asked. “What’s the catch?” “No catch,” I said, “and you’ll be raising money for a good cause.”

A few weeks later, one of the friends I had brought along to the beer night was leading chants over a megaphone at a political rally. However, after a few more weeks of spending time with my “activist friends,” she and another friend told me they didn’t want to go to an upcoming gathering with the other activists. “We feel like they’re always judging us and like we’ll never be good enough,” they said. There wasn’t enough cheap beer in the world – or at least not in Saskatoon – to help my friends feel like they belonged among the “granolier-than-thou” crowd, and I felt caught in the middle.

This story is just one example of how people who actually agree with us on issues and relate to our values are often turned off by the ways that we behave as activists. Changing this is critical if we hope to have more hands on deck to work on the issues we care about.

In the 15 years since my failed attempt to bridge the gap between my dorm-mates and my activist friends, I haven’t developed a fail-safe approach to meeting people where they’re at, but I have a few principles that I try to practise.

1. Listen and relate

When we fail to listen, we meet people where we assume they are at, which can do a lot more harm than good. For instance, a couple of years ago, a friend of mine was livid after a conference we had attended together because, as one of the younger people in the room, people had often looked directly at him when explaining a basic concept or spelling out an acronym. He may have been young but he was already familiar with the terms they were using. Despite the good intentions of the speakers, singling him out for more explanation without having asked him anything about his background made him feel less welcome, not more. Taking time to listen and get to know people also allows us to relate the issues that matter to us to the things they care about in the world (and we ought to be humble and open to learning from others’ experiences, too).

2. Be inviting

Sometimes when I am scrolling through my Facebook friends list to invite people to political events, I notice myself not inviting certain people because I’ve never seen them at that type of event before. In some cases, the person has told me they aren’t interested – but the vast majority of the time, I am just assuming those people aren’t keen, even though I actually don’t know and have never asked them to come out to anything. And yet I often wonder out loud why more people don’t get involved! Reaching out to people in person or over the phone goes a long way toward making people want to be active. Better yet, ask people to play a specific role in your organizing that is suited to their interests or skills. Even a personalized email with a specific “ask” will go a lot further than a mass email or Facebook invite.

Similarly, I don’t know how many events I’ve been to (or organized) where at no point in the event is anything said about how people can continue to be involved or what the next step is in a strategy. Whenever possible, building in specific “asks,” both of the whole group and of individuals directly, should be a key part of an event-organizing checklist if we want our movements to grow.

3. Be affirming and encouraging

Jenn Bergen is a commun­ity organizer currently pursuing her PhD in education with a focus on youth civic engagement. When I asked her about tips for meeting people where they’re at, she said, “Always remember that at some point in your life you didn’t know what you know now and at some point people were meeting you where you were at. No one has gotten to where they are without having been a recipient of that kind of relationship.” Kindly and gently supporting people as they learn, including making space for their mistakes, is important. People did (and probably still do) the same for us whether we realize it or not.

Furthermore, when new people get involved in something we are organizing, noticing their contributions is extremely important. Often, what seems like a small contribution by someone new to our group has actually taken a lot of effort and has required the person to step outside their comfort zone. Feeling appreciated and valued is key to making someone want to continue to be involved in our organizing.

4. Seek common ground

Recently, I went to see a children’s play with a friend who is 10 years old. When a performer asked the kids what they would do if they were royalty for a day, my friend’s hand shot up and she responded, to the uncomfortable laughter of the adults in the audience, “I would make it so that all of the power in the world came from nuclear power plants.” I cringed inside and took a deep breath. After the show, we talked about her moment in the spotlight and why people had laughed. I admitted that we didn’t actually agree on the subject of nuclear power, and that not everyone saw nuclear power as a safe, clean technology. I thought she was old enough to know that not everyone agrees with her. However, knowing that she is a girl in a world that discourages women from being smart and assertive, I also chose to look for what I did agree with in what she said. I told her that it was perfectly fine to disagree with people you like, and that I thought it was cool how much she seemed to know about energy issues and that she was very smart. I was affirming, and I also didn’t want to use age as a power play. I may have great analysis and be able to win a dispute against a 10-year-old, but empowering her as a young woman was more important to me than winning the argument.

As activists, we often agree about 99 per cent of things but spend much more than one per cent of our energy fighting about where we disagree – frequently in ways that are damaging to our movements. It’s important to seek common ground when we can. If I know that someone agrees with me on an issue and is kind and likable, I’m much more likely to seriously consider their view on a subject where we disagree, and they are likely to do the same. Finding common ground isn’t just a good idea because I might be able to win someone over on other issues; it’s also a good idea because the common ground we find may lead to entirely new possibilities and ideas.

Tracey Mitchell coordinates Next Up Saskatchewan and also coordinates a mental health peer support program in Saskatoon. She is a member of the national board of the Council of Canadians and a founding member of the public transit advocacy group Bus Riders of Saskatoon.

Tags:   activism organizing