Hometown Here or Main Street Martyr

April 30, 2021

When you hang your apathy fighting cape in the closet at the end of the night, do you feel like you are in this battle all alone? Do you fee like no one understands what it’s like to be in your shiny red boots? Combating civic apathy might feel like lonely work, but it doesn’t have to be. 

I get a lot of messages and engage in a lot of conversations with community members that say how hard it is to try and foster change without any help. I think there is something about those of us that are drawn to this sort of work- we tend to think we are the only ones that feel the way we do. We tend to think, if it wasn’t for us, no one else would do anything, but fortunately, that is not the case. 

There are other people in your community that feel the same way. There are people that are frustrated by the declining buildings and the lack of progress at city hall and other people that are pissed off. All over your town are people that see what’s happening- that something has changed and they don’t like it, but they just don’t know what to do. 

If you asked 100 people in town, if they like the look of the blighted buildings downtown, they would all say no. If you asked them if they would like to see more businesses, more renovations, more things to do downtown, they would all say yes. Would they like a prettier town with more places to walk and more options for meeting up with friends? Of course they would. Think about it like this- they vacation in such places, they head out of town on the weekends to go out in those same places, so why wouldn’t they want those things at home?

These people in your community all want the same thing as you, but you just haven’t connected with them yet. You aren’t speaking the same language yet or may not realize you are working toward the same end. Nearly everyone in your town would like to see things improve, but they just have no idea what to do. But you do. You are the one with the cape and boots, after all. 

You don’t have to go it alone. You may have to change your approach, but you certainly aren’t the only person seeking change. 

If you find, no one will work with you, ask yourself the following 

  • Do you say “I am the only one that cares” out loud and in front of other people?
  • Do you speak at every council meeting for the max allotted time, no matter what the topic? 
  • Do you act righteous about every community issue? 
  • Have you started more than 10 committees? 
  • Do you use overly technical language when speaking about community issues?
  • Do people avoid making eye contact with you when you are in public for fear of getting placed on a committee?

If you answered yes to one of these questions, you probably answered yes to all of them. Your good intentions are being diminished by your own approach. I am sorry, but this has to be said, for the good of your town… your alter ego has been revealed- you are The Main Street Martyr. 

To bring about the change you desire, you are going to need help from other people. People in your community want to see the same changes you do, but you have to meet them where they are. You can’t always act indignant. Stop creating committees. Speak plainly so you can connect. Don’t speak poorly of the people that haven’t come around to your way of thinking yet. You have to build a coalition and you can’t do that by pissing everyone off. You are going to need friends to bring about change. Lots of them. 

People want to get involved, they find it rewarding and it makes their life fuller. Your job, is to sort out how to make it easy for them to take the first step towards joining up. 

Here are some simple strategies for building your Apathy Army-

  • People like pizza and beer. Invite them over and ask them about their concerns. Don’t dictate, but listen, then discuss potential solutions. 
  • Speak plainly. Talk about weeds and vacancies and the issues everyone understands. People are weird about preservation, so find other words to discuss the same thing. 
  • Focus on action. No one wants to hear you complain, so talk about potential solutions. 
  • Stay optimistic. Talk about how you know you can be successful. No one wants to get involved with whiney losers and their failed efforts. 
  • Provide a vision. Help make people believe that real change is possible. Give them something exciting to get behind. 
  • Remember, even the most transformative changes, started as a conversation between the right people.

The biggest thing I want to make sure to get across when getting your effort underway is this- focus on action and stick to projects. You don’t need big plans in the beginning. Don’t worry about passing some new piece of legislation or about putting in a bike lane just yet. Running a marathon starts with a walk and transformative community change starts by pulling some weeds. There is so much that needs done, but you can’t get to step 10 before step 2. So start with manageable tasks. 

And- for the love of all things holy, don’t start by asking anyone to sit on a committee. If you try and gather people to talk about the community issues, they are going to roll their eyes and go back to their Facebook feed. People want to work on projects, not sit on committees. Find a simple project that people can tackle over the course of one Saturday morning and start there. 

It is a thousand times easier to get a volunteer to commit to doing a project that has a start time and an end time. It’s always easy to get people to volunteer for events, because they know what they are getting into. Think of this the same way. Yes, you might like to pass a vacancy ordinance or keep a building from getting torn down or whatever it is, but you don’t have any allies yet. Your army is just you right now and whichever one of your kids is stuck at home on a particular day. 

By starting with a simple project, you can make an easy ask. “Hey, mind joining a couple of us to clean up an empty lot on Main Street Saturday morning? I am buying pizza for everyone when we finish.” This is how you start building your army. Giving people something easy to say yes to. 

A project like this makes people feel good. They get to be social, they get to make a difference and instead of talking, they put in some sweat equity. This is where people truly start feeling engaged. They put their muscle into the improvement of their town. You have won those people over. Now do it again! 

Give people want they want. A chance to be social and make some new friends. Give them a chance to feel good about themselves by giving a little bit back. Make the commitment an easy one so it’s harder to say no. Reward them immediately with some food and beer. Then thank them later and ask if they would be willing to return and invite a friend. 

Engagement doesn’t start at level 10. You have to build up to it. Most of us were never taught how to be civic, we learned it over time. We didn’t know it felt good to be civic until we actually were. You are going to have to teach your community how to be civic. That will be your real super power. 

There are all kinds of people in your town that feel the way you do, but they don’t know how to get started down this path. This is your challenge. You don’t have to be the go-it-alone super hero. Your quest is to build an apathy army to help you along the way. So think about how people behave, what matters to them, and what they like. Make it easy for them to get involved. Ratchet up their engagement over time. Don’t approach people by asking them to speak at the next council meeting. Start by asking if they want to do a little clean up and drink beer. Once they learn to care about their community and all the wonderful people in it, you won’t be able to keep them from speaking up about what matters. They will speak to their friends, they will speak up at council meetings, and they will speak to others in the community. And you will no longer be the ‘only one fighting’, so put away your cape and boots- you now have an army behind you. 

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