National v Local: Where you can have the most impact

Many of us spent last Saturday glued to our Facebook or Twitter feeds as white supremacist violence upended the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. But before the day ended, many across the country had turned to their neighbors: organizing rallies, vigils, and other gatherings. (More are happening this week: find an event near you.)

These actions bring life to the phrase “think globally, act locally”: responding to events elsewhere by collectively affirming your own community’s values.

However, we can’t stop there. Once we express our opposition to what’s happening elsewhere, we have to turn our attention to our own community.

Where we have the most power

Local action keeps us focused where we have the most concrete influence. Some of that is math: you’re one person out of over 320,000,000 in the whole country, but one out of 700,000 in your congressional district. You have 435 times more leverage.

Still don’t sound like great odds? Try breaking down the numbers. Picture 10 citizen groups in your district, each with 50 members. Suppose each of those members can reach 50 neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family outside their group. 10 × 50 × 50 = 25,000 people. Right there, that’s enough to swing some congressional races, especially in low-turnout primaries. Your influence is even higher for your state house, city council, or school board.

Put simply: your leverage as a group of citizens is greater over elected officials at the lower levels. You’re better positioned to get the right people elected and persuade them once in office. And since local elections are the pipeline for higher office, your influence will bubble up to the federal government over time.

Concentrated local membership also means you can get into the weeds. National and statewide organizations can’t focus on every re-zoning or school curriculum change or public budget proposal across all the cities and towns they cover. But their local chapters and independent local groups can track all those, working with and pressuring elected officials as needed.

Effective local action

Start by assembling a few people to lead the work. Look for those who know the issues and have contacts with local government, or are eager to build knowledge and contacts. They’re probably the ones who are already raising related concerns at general meetings.

Empower that team to lead the charge. They can start by brainstorming issues for the whole group to address, researching as needed. Then they pitch the full membership on a local agenda. It may be easier to focus on two or three priority areas, rather than trying to cover the full range of possible issues. If you’re new to local action, consider partnering with others. (Find more on working in partnership here.)

How to make the most of national issues? When something springs into the news nationally, find the entry point for addressing the same issue locally. Rather than letting national news drown out local action, you can leverage it to focus attention. The Sanctuary Cities movement has done this: pushing for policies that protect vulnerable communities from federal anti-immigrant action.

In the wake of Charlottesville, activists across the South are re-iterating calls to take down their own Confederate monuments. Some are getting support from elected officials, like the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. And some rallies across the country are expanding their calls, attacking all forms of white supremacy and racism. Attention on a wide range of national issues—from the Republican health care repeal efforts, to the Trump administration’s ethics violations, to its disastrous education policies—can provide other entry points for local action.

Lastly, you can flip this the other way: If your local issue needs an extra boost, maybe national attention will do the trick. Local officials love being seen as national leaders, and they certainly want to avoid being shamed for their failures. You may even find other cities and towns facing the same issues, further amplifying your voice.

Focus on what matters

Respond to tragedy with empathy and humanity. But never stop with just “thoughts and prayers”—as the common refrain from cynical politicians goes. Think strategically about how a national story can help bring new allies on board, reframe an ongoing issue, or put opponents under pressure. That’s what makes local change possible.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue. Vigil for Charlottesville in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 8/13/17, via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

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