How to have a better shot at making change [commentary]

I go to a lot of meetings, specifically government ones, where people come to make themselves heard on all kinds of issues, from traffic to education to environmental problems to crime to you name it.

Sometimes they show up en masse, sometimes en a big angry masse.

But it's not always easy to turn your outrage into something that's actually productive.

I've learned this lesson myself, from going to various events and rallies in the past. It's one thing to stand around with a sign or a (nicely designed) T-shirt, which can definitely help bring awareness to something, but it's another thing to really try to make change.

So I thought I'd put together some tips for people to give them a better shot at making change. I'm not a government official, and I can't promise anything. But I feel like it always helps to put your best foot forward:

1. Talk to the right people, at the right time. I have definitely seen a whole lot of people make dozens of angry comments at a county council meeting when they should have been at a board of education meeting, or vice versa. I've seen people comment after something has already been voted on, or after the designated time for public input has ended. Yes, sometimes just coming out in large numbers can make people notice you and potentially pass the word along to the right people. But why not just make sure you are in the right place, at the right time, to begin with?

2. Do the research, as much as you can. Any research is better than none, and the more, the better. A bill or a proposal can have many twists and turns, through different departments or different hands. If you don't know where the process stands and what has already happened, your argument will be a lot less relevant.

3. Focus on the facts, not the feelings. Those in charge already know what "the public" might say, because, let's face it, people usually complain about the same things. The traffic is always "horrendous." It's always "just a matter of time before someone gets killed." Everyone is worried about their "property values." Everyone is always "short-staffed" or "making do with the bare bones." The people in charge already knows you're mad or sad; that's why you're there. What they probably don't know are the specific numbers, statistics, examples, etc., in your neighborhood, your situation, your life. Don't just be outraged and yell at people; make a compelling case.

4. Don't just talk; listen. No matter how convinced you are about the injustice of your situation, there is still a chance that you could be wrong, because we're all human. Or you could be partly wrong; maybe you're just missing a piece of the puzzle. If you don't listen to anyone else's response, or really try to hear your "opponent," you are less likely to be taken seriously.

5. Know what you can and can't do in the process. (This is kind of connected with item 2.) This is especially true when dealing with any kind of development/planning/zoning issues. I sympathize with anyone confronting a development issue because it is ridiculously, unfairly complicated and you should get automatic points just for understanding what "zoning" means. But keeping in mind the system's user-unfriendliness, you should at least try to know who owns the property, what the zoning is and whether it might be changed any time soon. Also, all the zoning gets "planned out" about every eight years (in Harford County), which means if you hear of a specific project going forward, it is probably already technically "too late" to stop it. I'm not saying it's fair, but it will definitely make your life easier to know this basic fact.

6. Now, for some self-serving advice: Don't get mad at the media; we're the ones publicizing your cause. If you're still mad at us, just remember this quote by the Irish author Brendan Behan: "There is no such thing as bad publicity." And save your outrage for where it really counts!

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