How can I build a coalition of strong citizens in my town?

Strong Citizens are people who get involved in the life of their community and do whatever they can to make their town stronger, one small action at a time. Acts of a Strong Citizen could include:

The outcomes of these small actions are inspiring. However, the effort to build the coalition necessary to turn your neighborhood-boosting ideas into a reality can be overwhelming. 

That’s why we’re going to share best practices for creating Local Conversations, where groups of readers and members meet locally to discuss ways to make the Strong Towns approach to development real in their unique place. 

In this article, you’ll learn about: 

  • Starting a group

  • Finding people to join

  • Meeting in person or online

  • Discussing the Strong Towns approach

Starting a Group

Strong Towns has over 70 Local Conversations internationally, spanning from the United States to Japan. If you’re town isn’t on our Local Conversations map, we encourage you to start your own group. 

You’ll need to decide where you’d like your group to meet—online, in-person, or both. We recommend the following options: 

  • Start a Facebook group. We recommend giving it an easily recognizable title (e.g. Strong St. Louis, Strong Indianapolis…) and we’d be grateful if you’d invite our Director of Community Engagement, Kea so she can stay up to date with what your group is up to. 

  • Start a channel for your city, town or region on the Strong Towns Slack board. Anyone is welcome to start a channel—just use the prefix “#place_[your region name]” so we can keep things organized. It’s a great way to gather your neighbors for ongoing communication. 

  • Start a Google group. Google groups are especially great for those who prefer to communicate via email. 

  • Start an in-person meet-up group. We at Strong Towns really believe in the power of meeting up, having a conversation, and making change together in person. Meetup.com can be a great resource for organizing an ongoing series of in-person conversations; here’s how to start your group on their platform. 

An important note: This is a new group for you; therefore, we recommend you start a group even if you’re uncertain who in your town will join. As we’ll explain below, our team will tell Strong Towns readers in your area about the group.

Finding People to Join

When you add your group to the Local Conversations map, we’ll send a personal email on your behalf to Strong Towns readers in your region who’ve subscribed to our email list. In addition, we’ll list your group publicly on our site.

As you get a list of interested neighbors’ email addresses, we recommend you send an email that emphasizes that while your group is guided by a core mission, what you’ll do together will be shaped by the unique talents and prerogatives of the people who show up.

Here’s an example of how you might consider marketing your group to your fellow Strong Towns readers (if you’re coming up empty creatively, feel free to copy and paste this; you’ve got our permission to steal it): 

Hi there! My name’s [your name], and I’d love to invite you to join Strong [Your City Name] on [your platform/details about your first meeting.] This group will be an informal place to discuss the Strong Towns approach to development and growth and how it might work for our town, and have a little fun together. What we do from there is up to all of us; I hope you’ll join, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions!

And here’s how you might consider marketing to a general audience who might not have heard of Strong Towns: 

Hi there! I’m [your name] and I’d love to invite you to join Strong [Your City Name] on [your platform/details about your first meeting.]  If you’re not familiar with Strong Towns, they’re a really cool organization that’s trying to show North American cities why our dominant model of development is making too many of our towns go broke, and supports a radically different vision for how to build our world. You can learn more about them at www.StrongTowns.org. This group will discuss the ins and outs of the Strong Towns vision, what that approach might mean specifically for [your city name], and identify what we can accomplish together to make it real. No prior experience reading Strong Towns is necessary; all that’s required is an open mind and a readiness to talk about what you’re most passionate about in our community. You can join our group by visiting [Link] or contacting [email]. 

Once you’ve corresponded with neighbors interested in joining your group, you can meet up—online, in-person, or both—to discuss the Strong Towns approach.  

Meeting in Person or Online

Once you’ve got a critical mass of interested people, it’s time to start the conversation. Here are a few tips: 

  • Keep it informal. Whether you’re meeting in person or gathering online, treat the early days of your group as a chance to get to know one another, talk about your city, learn a little about the Strong Towns approach, and start to get a sense of how you might work together to utilize it in your neighborhoods. 

  • Keep it open to all experience levels. Emphasize that while anyone is welcome to visit (or review) the newcomers tab at Strong Towns, if they’d like to learn more about our vision and mission, absolutely no experience, vocabulary or urban planning savvy is necessary to join the conversation; just open minds and a passion for making your region stronger. 

  • Especially if you’re chatting online, set some ground rules. Here’s a couple examples of a few basic guidelines that you might consider posting to the group (and if you’re using a Facebook group or Slack channel, pinning to the top of the page):

    • Welcome to Strong [your region name!] This group is dedicated to discussing how the Strong Towns vision applies in our area. Please take a moment to review Strong Towns’ About page, and feel free to ask any questions you have here. No previous Strong Towns experience is required to join the conversation—only a willingness to learn. 

    • Posts on this group should be relevant to the Strong Towns mission and/or our shared region. Posts that are too far off topic, overtly promotional, overtly partisan, or offensive in any way may be removed at the discretion of the group leader. 

As your group grows, you may consider appointing a moderator or making more explicit rules that fit your group. 

  • If you’re meeting in person, plan ahead. Send out a Doodle poll with a few days and times for a first meetup to find a slot that works for a quorum of people, rather than picking a random date and time. Shoot for about 3-4 weeks out, unless you have a venue in mind that you know will require more lead time. You may also solicit suggestions for a venue from your group; we recommend someplace public, with enough space to fit your group and not so noisy that no one can hear. Pick a bar, restaurant, library meeting room, or other space that you think might be suitable, and when you call to make the reservation, be sure to ask about noise level and number of chairs. 

  • Keep it accessible. Especially for in-person meet ups, ask your list whether they require childcare, handicap accessibility, interpreter services, or any other special needs that you can reasonably provide. We also encourage you to think about accessibility when you choose your venue; a neutral space with a low cost of entry for attendees, like an inexpensive restaurant, a library meeting room, or a community center often work best. 

With the group feeling welcomed, you’re ready to begin discussing the Strong Towns approach and how it relates to your unique place. 

Discussing the Strong Towns Approach

There’s no right way to discuss what Strong Towns does, and we can’t wait to hear about your unique conversation. Here are a few suggestions to help your group run smoothly and effectively, and to keep it fun over time: 

  • Introduce yourselves. We recommend starting each meeting—and for in-person groups, especially your first meeting—with a get-to-know-you activity for the new people in the room. For example: ask people’s names, something they love about your town, and why they’re interested in the Strong Towns approach. Get creative! Online groups can start a thread for introductions or welcome newcomers as they join. 

  • Empower your attendees to lead the conversation. Especially for in-person meet ups, it can really help to clarify that while you initiated the conversation, the group belongs to everyone, and anyone who’s interested in helping lead the group, even on a temporary basis, should let you know. While Strong Towns knows that specific individuals will naturally take the initiative in each group, we highly encourage you to share resources and responsibility by forming a leadership team or rotating leadership duties, with one person designated to initiate group communications at all times. Your group will be stronger with more perspectives and energy at the helm. If no leaders self-identify, make a note to yourself to follow up with the group later to encourage volunteer leaders to let you know of their interest. 

  • Talk to every experience level in the group. Don’t assume that everyone will be as fluent in Strong Towns or the built environment as you are, or that everyone will recognize acronyms like ASCE or ADU. Create an environment where newcomers feel welcome and comfortable asking questions; celebrate new strong citizens who are stepping outside of their comfort zone to take part in the conversation about how their community is built, and recognize how uniquely vital they are to making our communities stronger. 

  • Ask more questions. When it comes to healthy conversation, starting with a spirit of curiosity can make all the difference. Here are a few questions to consider asking the group to keep your first meeting (or the early days of your discussion channel) positive and productive:

    • What’s an example of something you already see your town doing (or that it’s done in the past) to make yourselves more financially resilient? 

    • What’s an example of an effort you’ve participated in with your neighbors to accomplish a community goal—financial or otherwise?

    • Why is increasing financial resilience important for your town? If we got rid of our expensive long-term liabilities, like unnecessary stroads and poorly implemented infrastructure, what would we gain? 

    • Even sharing a favorite Strong Towns article and asking a simple “What do you think?” can be a great jumping off point for conversation! 

  • Keep it respectful. Chances are, many of the members of your group will be very passionate about your region—and they may not all be passionate about the same things. Here are a few tips and guidelines to make sure your conversation is respectful, productive and fun. Feel free to distribute them to your group for discussion, designate a moderator, or otherwise be creative about ways to keep the conversation going:

    • Be sure to express respect for one another, whether or not you agree. Respect is a basic pre-condition for good conversation, and it needs to be established early, often, and out loud—even if you’re sure that person you’re arguing with already knows you respect them, find a new way to say it again. 

    • Remember: non-partisan does not mean non-passionate. Thank people for bringing up the things that are most important to them, even if you don’t share their views or don’t share their passion for the idea. 

    • Focus on what you all have in common—especially the numbers. Strong Towns is all about doing the math, and regardless of what’s important to each of us politically, we can all agree when finances just don’t make sense. 

    • Think carefully about your own vocabulary and framework, and be inclusive. If you’re a planner, acknowledge that not everyone in the room knows the same professional language as you do; if you’re a bike advocate, not everyone thinks of how the world looks from behind a set of handlebars. Address these differences out loud and make it your responsibility to be generous and invite people into your perspective and experience.  

    • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially when a member of the group uses language, stats or concepts that you don’t know. Again: it’s the whole group’s responsibility to create an atmosphere of welcome and collaboration, and it’s everyone’s job to clarify and advance the conversation. 

    • When in doubt, go back to the Strong Towns mission. Remind yourselves about what appeals to you about the approach and why you’re here.

And don’t forget: we want to know what you’re up to. Stay connected with Strong Towns about what your group is up to. Did your group do something particularly cool this month? Let us know, and maybe even consider pitching our Content team.

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