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Monday, August 14, 2006

Dear Liz

The City Beat was lollygagging at the Urban Stampede this afternoon, when I found myself talking to Liz. I'm guessing Liz is 20 or 21. Liz heard that I write about the City Council and wanted some advice about political activism.

Specifically, she thinks the chemicals the city uses for mosquito control is poisoning the environment and wants to know how she can get the city to stop. Should she talk to the City Council, she asked. Will that do any good?

I babbled something about getting a petition and filling up Council Chambers on Monday night. But, after letting the idea rattle around in my skull for a while, I decided that I could probably come up with something better than that.

So, given what I know about the council, here's what I think, Liz.

Let's start with four principles.

First, change is inconvenient. Some say people fear change. I say people are set in their ways and don't want to bother.

That leads to the second principle. If you want to effect change, you have to make it not too painful and not too expensive. We're assuming, here, that not everyone agrees that change is critical.

Third, persuasive arguments are more persuasive with numbers. That's what that comment about packing Council Chambers was about. If you're a cynic, you'll say that council members are politicians and the only way to get their attention is to demonstrate that you have a lot of voters behind you. If you're not so cynical, you'll say that council members are elected to serve the people and the more people speak up on something, the more convinced they'll be that that thing is what the people want.

Fourth, know yourself. You might not think you're being an extremist, but if you're not in the mainstream, then there's a chance that you are. Maybe extremism is a pejorative. Maybe you're ahead of your time. The practical side of being ahead of your time is that you might not get anything done until you're dead.

Given all of the above, what should you do?

[Update 3:09 p.m., 8/14/06: DadinGGF has some good advice that I should've given. The first thing you do is call your council member and get a sense of how the council feels about it and if there's been any similar effort in the past.]

You need find an alternative to mosquito chemicals that is environmentally friendly and affordable. Look into what other U.S. and Canadian cities do about their mosquitoes and how much it costs them.

If it costs a lot more than what we're doing, is there a way to blend our cheap and ungreen approach with their pricey and green approach?

Ask those cities why they decided to pay the higher price. Do they have research that shows the harm mosquito chemicals can do?

Then you start your public education campaign.

Get a core team together and announce your intention to gather signatures to petition the council. Don't gather signatures, at first, just start getting the message out. Talk to opinion makers, like say the Herald editorial board. Write letters to the editor. Get yourself on a radio talk show. Be prepared for massive criticism. Focus on being sincere and reasonable and force your opponents to take an extreme position, which could turn off the undecided.

As you get people familiar with your issue, find allies among local civic groups and gather additional volunteers.

Then it will be time to start gathering signatures. Since this is a citywide issue, you'll want a couple of thousand signatures. Get them from every ward. It's nice to have people in each ward to call their council member. Be careful how you word your petition and how you sell it. Don't use scare tactics, don't exaggerate, don't lie. If you do, it'll be ammunition for your opponents and you'll deserve anything you get.

Once you're ready to present your signatures, sign up with the mayor's office to speak at a Committee of the Whole and get as many of your volunteers as you can to come with you. Pack the Council Chambers. It looks good in pictures and on TV and probably has a psychological effect on council members. When you make your spiel continue to be sincere and reasonable. Extremism and arrogance make a poor mix.

If the council doesn't bite, don't give up.

Find a council member that's sympathetic to your cause and get him to form a task force, which would, of course, include your volunteers. Be aware that task forces are where ideas are sometimes quietly strangled or mutated into something unrecognizable. Fight smart. Give ground on the little things and be immovable on the big things.

If you're really swimming against the tide on this one, compromise. Get the city to do a little first and, if things work out, you can try to get it to do more later.

Chances are, it'll be several months or even a year or two or three before you get what you want. Look at how long it's been since that dog park idea was introduced. But don't give up or the issue goes away.

It doesn't hurt to get someone to make a big stink about the city dragging its feet, if that's the case. Make sure that person isn't a core member of your group or on the taskforce (in other words, it's fringe member of the group "speaking out of turn"). You can't attack the city and work with it at the same time. I know that sounds sneaky but, believe me, knowing what I know, it's well within the rules of the game. I've seen far sneakier things and, haha, they're all off the record.

Anyway, that's my take on political activism. Readers, does this make sense or am I full of it?

Note: If you readers wish to comment, there's no need to lambaste Liz and her idea. She's not crazy, just green and maybe liberal. Since I don't know a whole lot about mosquito chemicals and, chances are, you don't either, let's stick to the topic of political activism. There's a potentially very fruitful discussion to be had.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has the city even sprayed this summer?

8:23 AM  
Blogger Zaya said...

In terms of your steps to effectively generate change, I would agree. Especially as very few people would back no mosquito control at all, she would definitely have to have some environmentally friendly cost-effective alternatives before many would listen to her.

Curious what the city sprays... We spray tempo in our yard since it is safe for animals and people and we have pets. However, on a city-wide scale it's probably cost-prohibitive.

According to this site they sprayed about 20 times last year, but none this year. They don't tell you what type of chemicals are being used, though I'm sure you could call them.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few years ago a farmer and councilmember in East Grand Forks (Mark Holy) suggested saving money by letting nature (bats other insects etc) control the mosquitos. Holy was of the opionon the spraying was not only killing mosquitos but their natural enemies thus creating a greater problem. It doesn't take the mind of an insect to know he was right. What happend to the idea?

9:34 AM  
Anonymous ec99 said...

"What happend to the idea?"

The bird specialist at UND said that there were not enough bats or birds to control insects in the area.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous squito killer said...

The city web site says:

Some of the larvicides used in the Grand Forks Mosquito Control Program include, Altosid, (an insect growth regulator) Vectolex and BTI (biological insecticides) Abate, (an organophosphate insecticide).

The insecticides used are synthetic pyrethroids. These products are labeled safe to use in residential areas for adult mosquito control by certified personnel. These synthetic pyrethroids are biodegradable in sunlight, which minimizes any hazards to our environment from the ground spraying.

9:50 AM  
Blogger NanoBison said...

I think the best kinds of change are those that cause a large number of those "whom are set in their ways" to look at something differently and realize, "maybe this isn't so bad after all". Many people can't see the "bigger picture" and many people could care less unfortunately. Thankfully it only takes a LOUD single voice to change something, or at least spark the fire.


11:46 AM  
Anonymous dadinggf said...

Tu-uyen, before all of this she might want to simply give her council member a call or email to discuss her thoughts on the issue. We still are a fairly small community, and if the council member does not have the time to discuss this and offer some time to research this further than maybe we need to go back to 14 Wards(aggh!). It should be that simple, right????

12:36 PM  
Blogger Tu-Uyen said...

Haha, Dadinggf, I didn't think of that. I suppose that would be the first step. Now I feel stupid. I guess I assumed that there would be a lot of resistance. Yeah, calling your council member first would be a good idea and see if they have some advice.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Semireg said...

Zaya. How's it going? Long time no see.

Curious. How did this conversation even start? There have been such few sprays this year...

3:56 PM  
Blogger Tu-Uyen said...

It got started because it's been on Liz's mind and made me think about what it takes to change city policy from the grassroots. There have been few spraying in the air, that's true. But, as I reported earlier, the city was still applying a lot of larvicide to ponds and ditches. Liz said she was worried about all that stuff getting into the ground water. I don' know if it does or not, but that's a good question to ask.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Tu-Uyen said...

Thankfully it only takes a LOUD single voice to change something, or at least spark the fire.

No, no, no. There have been quite a few loud and persistent voices around here and they haven't changed too many things. I'm thinking of former Council members John Hoff and Terry Bjerke. It takes numbers.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Zaya said...

Hi Semirig... I've been told this evening I should be visiting #general. so I'll bug you there.

squito killer: thanks for sharing, I didn't have much time to look this morning and just quickly skimmed the pages and didn't see that.

Personally, if Liz feels passionate about it, she should pursue it.

9:36 PM  

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