Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Great advice on how to advocate

I was much impressed with the guidance on how to do advocacy properly, provided in the Bike Summit agenda document (pages 12-14)

STEP ONE: figuring out what you want

Prepare carefully and thoroughly for your meeting. Take the time before you arrive in Washington, D.C. to get to know your legislator(s) by reviewing their Web site to learn more about issues that may be of importance to them, as well as find out what committees they are on and/or leadership positions they may hold. Work with state contacts and other state delegates to develop a meeting agenda that participants can clearly understand.


Meetings have been set up for you with your respective members, so be sure to identify yourself as a constituent at the outset of the meeting. You should also be aware that many of the meetings will actually be with staff.

Many grassroots advocates underestimate the important role of legislative staff. A supportive staff person can often make the difference between success and failure. Staffers play an invaluable role in shaping a legislator’s agenda and position on issues. It is important that you make every effort to cultivate a positive working relationship with staff. Over time, staff may even come to regard you as a helpful resource for information on your issue.

If you do meet with a staffer, most likely it will be with the Legislative Assistant (LA) who handles transportation and/or natural resources and the environment. Remember that you are the expert and that most staff handle multiple policy issues and may not be familiar with all the details about our issues. Fortunately, you’re there to help them out on bicycling.


Stay on message, stick to the issue(s), state only a few key points in support of your position and make a definite request for action. Many meetings are ineffective because a participant brings up other issues or strays from the key arguments supporting your position. Have a message and stick to it. Your effectiveness is based on geography. Legislators want to hear your thoughts and opinions because you are a constituent. One of your most useful strategies is to relate the issue and your position to your community. Legislators have many other avenues to get national or state analysis, reports and statistics. Excellent local success stories and examples are critical in making the case for the National Bike Summit asks. If you participated in the pre-summit webinars, you will have done your homework ahead of time to see if there are any personal stories you can share that relate to the 2011 Legislative priorities.

We are aware that you may also have local issues you want to discuss with your senator or representative – we encourage you to ask for a meeting back in your home district to address these. There is considerable power in having a simple, unified and consistent voice when we are up on Capitol Hill representing the bicycle movement; covering the key national Summit ask is the priority for this one day.

Prior to the meeting, give some thought as to whom in the delegation might be best suited to make the request based upon what you know about the member or staffer. For instance, there may be someone in your group that has a good relationship with the member or staff you are meeting with.

Additionally, a business person may be better suited to speak to a more conservative member, while an activist might be better suited to lead if the meeting is with a more progressive member.

Do not forget why you are there. It is appropriate and expected that you will make a request at your meeting. The key is to make sure that your request is clearly articulated and actionable by the legislator.

It is always best to make a direct and specific request that is tied to pending legislative activity (if possible). For example when you ask that a legislator co-sponsor a bill, make reference to bill numbers and be knowledgeable about the status of the bill. Making a specific request gives you the opportunity to evaluate the legislator’s response.

Finally, thank the Member and/or staffer for taking the time to meet with you and your delegation to discuss our legislative priorities for the 2011 legislative session.


Following up after a meeting is almost as important as the meeting itself. Sending a thank you letter after the meeting that expresses appreciation and reinforces your message and any verbal commitment of support made by the legislator or staff is key. Not many people take this simple step – you’ll stand out positively if you do so!

If you promise during the meeting to get back in touch with additional information, be sure that you do so. Failure to follow up on your promise will call your credibility into question. Follow-up is important even if the legislator does not agree to support your request because you are building a long-term relationship.

I was very much impressed with this advice. Very direct and to the point. It is Step 3 where many advocates screw up.

One of my biggest frustrations is a failure to be cogent and a failure to have a focused message.

It's also good to understand how power works and who makes decisions and who doesn't...

When I was a bike and pedestrian planner in Baltimore County last year, sometimes people would start lecturing me about why bicycling is sustainable. I would stop them--hopefully gently--and explain that they needed to talk to their legislators about this, not me, because I already know...

And I can't count how many times I've heard advocates not stay on point, or bring in amazingly irrelevant points. E.g., a "well-respected" Brookland architect, in discussing the 12th Street NE streetscape project, raised the point with DC DOT (!!!) in a strident voice about how US funds are wasted in Mideast Wars and went on and on. Last I checked, DDOT couldn't impact that...

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