Civic Engagement Toolkit
“Fall in love with a problem, not a solution.” — Paul Sorenson, Social Innovation St. Louis
The only way to fully understand the landscape of an issue, especially at the local level, is to speak with those who are currently engaged in it. That is why the third step is to LISTEN.
Find those who are already working on these issues and listen to them with an open mind, whether or not you agree with them or their approach to the problem. Start by attending public meetings of any organization you are interested in. If there is no meeting you can attend, seek a sit down with someone who is involved. Tap your friend and colleague network. Who do you know who shares these interests? Do they know who is working on these issues locally? If not, they might know someone else who does.
Networking and Introductory Face-to-Face Sit Downs
One of the most useful skills no one talks about in becoming civically engaged is the cold call meeting. Someone has told you about this great group that is starting up to do X. You want to find out more … how do you handle that first contact?
A few key pointers:
Be respectful of time and energy on behalf of whom you are meeting.
- When setting up the meeting, suggest a few date and time options and plan ahead to accommodate busy schedules.
- Ask them for a location suggestion convenient for them.
- Once the meeting is set, send a calendar invite.
- Send a quick email the day prior to the meeting to confirm they are are still available.
- Be on time, if not early.
Be clear and up front about why you are there and what you are seeking.
- If you asked for the meeting, you should do the initial talking, but keep it on point and end with a question! “I am, we are, we do, we want” should be out within the first 5 minutes.
- For example: “My friends and I are really interested in the issue of homelessness in St. Louis. We currently talk about the issue all the time, but we want to get more engaged. “I know your organization does a lot of work in this area. I would like to learn more and perhaps find a way we can help. Can you tell me more about your organization and its work?”
Don’t try to impress, try to learn.
- You aren’t there to audition or try out for “activist” by listing all the things you have done in your life to this point.
- Instead, you are there to demonstrate your serious interest in getting involved and to answer for yourself the question: is this an organization/person/initiative I want to get on board with?
Listen more than you talk.
- The best way to do this effectively is to ask questions! A good question indicates that you are serious about learning and opens the door more than self-promotion.
- If you feel it’s important to share some of your experiences/credentials, list them quickly and with general descriptions. (This should take no more than two minutes.) Then say something like, “I would be happy to tell you more aoout those if you are interested, but I am mainly here today to find out about what you do.”
Connecting the Dots
One of the most important things to listen for in such a meeting is names of other people who they know that you should talk to. You will rarely find the person/organization you can dig in with on the first round. The most likely successful outcome of such a face-to-face is getting a few other names of people you need to talk to, and an offer to connect you. You will know you were successful if you get these, because anyone that is willing to offer up their network to you doesn’t think you are wasting your time. Follow up on these connections promptly! This is like a treasure hunt. Connect the networking dots.
Finally, a word about social media and the “Listen” phase. Social media is great for keeping up with the work of people you have connected with, seeing what they are doing, and whom they are talking to and about. It is NOT great for making new connections on its own. Just because a local activist has accepted your friend request does not mean you are in the network. It can be an avenue to get an invitation out to someone you want to meet. But you still have to set up that face-to-face!
Now we’re ready for the final step – LEAP.