Public Lab Research note

Thinking about local level advocacy

by stevie | March 20, 2017 21:49 20 Mar 21:49 | #14041 | #14041

Image credit: Carolyn Buell, New Durham, NH. Planning board meeting on proposed quarry with local opposition.

In making changes, or getting something accomplished in a system, @Mathew Lippincott once advised me that “you have to talk to the person who can say yes.” In the environmental and social justice movements, I’m often caught thinking about the large scale- big industries, and the massive systems we’re all working in, and often against. It’s easy to think that the fight has to be as big as the issue, but what if it doesn't? As I’ve thought about policies that help protect communities and the environment, I often think of the national ones. But now more than ever, with the shifts and changes in the federal government, it is becoming more important that we think differently about these struggles and strategies.

Among other things, this brings about a hot topic discussion: the idea of “scale-ability.” While that terms has a lot to unpack, one question people seem to fall in different camps on is: Are efforts in local communities scale-able, or replicable in other places? And if not (which many believe), how can we have large scale, systemic change?

I recently went to the Extreme Energy Extraction Summit in Dickinson, Texas. Outside of all the amazing people I met and those I was excited to see again, I wanted to share on a topic and group I learned about. I was able to dive into a conversation about the power of using local government and ordinances in fighting industry with the Energy Justice Network. Dante Swinton who has worked with the network in Baltimore on EJ and Zero Waste organizing, and Mike Ewall, Founder and Director of the Network, led this engaging discussion. They believes that local government pressure points can be extremely valuable in environmental advocacy, and that they are under utilized. They also emphasize that local county or municipal level changes in many places can pressure states to also change. A great example of this was seen in the fight against fracking in New York.

I found it interesting that their efforts focus on the local level while also, I feel, touch on some of the question of scale-ability. I wanted to capture some of the advice Mike and Dante had for people who are facing local industry threats that they want to change or challenge. Here are a series of questions they recommend that you can walk through to think about the best advocacy option forward:

1) What is the most local form of government you have?

  • Energy Justice Network believes that the smaller the government you work with, the easier it can be to deal with. If you don’t see yourself on a pathway to success on the most local level, then move up to the next tier of government.

2) What is the footprint of that level of government?

  • It’s possible that those who are affected by the industry you’re looking into live outside the political jurisdiction of the area the industry is in. You need to know who’s in the political jurisdiction of the decision maker’s space, what allies are in that space, and if your allies are in a different jurisdiction, think strategically how to use relationships.

3) Do you know what you want and what can be accomplished? Before you start talking to government, it’s important to specify this question. (Further notes on this topic below)

  • It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what you want, but it is important to know what that is before you get started talking to government. This also comes back to the idea of talking to someone who can say “yes." If you’re undecided, or your ask is too big, or outside the government’s ability to grant, they can’t, and won’t say yes.

4) What do the regulations say your state is able to do on the local level? (Further notes on this topic below)

  • Different states allow you to do different things on the local level. The Energy Justice Network has a great resource to help people figure this out when it comes to air, solid waste laws and other local initiatives. This is called preemption, but the idea is basically that some states say that local laws can’t be more strict than state or federal laws, while other states allow for local laws to be more strict. The complicated thing is that this is not uniform.

Breaking down the harder questions:

Before talking to government

Mike and Dante had some great advice for talking with local government. First off they mentioned that it’s important to find the champion for your cause in government. Once you’ve figured out your ask, request a meeting with them and have them help you figure out what you can do together. But before you request a meeting, it’s important to know what you want, and what you can get done. Mike and Dante had a few suggestions on this:

Find something that people can agree on:

The first step in identifying a platform to bring to your local government is to find something that people can agree on. While issues around industry can be sensitive, especially related to jobs, economy and the environment, there are things that people will generally agree on. Identify what that is for your group, and make it an issue that people can get behind. One example that Mike and Dante suggest that works well is the argument for human health concerns. Others ideas could include important pieces of local culture or history the community wants to protect, economic benefits of choosing one development path forward over another, the unwritten burdens (externalities) that would be born by the community should the industry come in, or nuisances such as noise and heavy traffic.

Mike and Dante walked through an example of the steps a group could take in pushing for stricter health and reporting requirements on an industry. I’ll use their example of arguing that particulate matter monitoring should be more strict than the national requirements to explain the rest of their advice on the topic.

Use facts people can understand

The second step has to do with education, but the key is to use facts people can identify with. In this example, you could educate that breathing particulate matter is bad for your health. Then ground your facts with examples such as “that amount of pollution is like adding XX number of cars on the road” or “in industries where this amount of particulate matter is released, OSHA requires that workers there wear masks.” Then bring in what you identified that people agree and see as important, such as: “we want to keep our children safe.”

Argue for something that can be done

If your goal is to keep something from happening in your community, Mike and Dante suggest work finding the “sweet spot” between “what is reasonable, and what is impossible.” Reasonable is proposing something that can be done, impossible is something that it would complicate (or cost) the industry from being able to do what they want to do.

Reasonable: “We know that that this industry would add a significant amount of particulate matter into the environment. We also know that there is technology available for us to know how much particulate matter is being released into the environment in real time. Since we are a community with sensitive children, it’s important that we all know what we’re breathing at all times and want to require that the industry use the best available technology for real time monitoring, and that the data is publicly available.”

Impossible: We’ve done our homework, and know that this technology exists, so while it's not impossible (say if there were no such thing), we also know that it's really expensive. This makes fulfilling this requirement a technical hurdle for the industry.

The sweet spot: We’ve shown the need for something, that thing exists, but it’s potentially prohibitively expensive for the industry to achieve.

What do the regulations say your state is able to do on the local level?

While many states have the ability for local level ordinances to be more stringent than national, as mentioned above, many states have more gray areas around these policies and others simply don’t allow for it. So what if you’re not in a state that allows for these local ordinances?

Mike and Dante suggest that you push for local ordinances that help you accomplish your goal without overstepping what the state is allowed to do on say air or water. Some suggestions they had included looking into drafting ordinances on things such as: the weight of trucks on a given road or a pollution tax. Mike also suggested becoming creative with what you have locally that people would agree on being important. Mike gave an example of a town that wanted to protect a pedestrian bridge in the fight against the incoming LNG terminal. The bridge was so low that access to the proposed terminal would not be possible. The results from the town fighting to protect the bridge kept the new terminal from coming in.

What do you think?

I’m interested in hearing what other people think on this topic. I’ve been really encouraged by those bringing forth new, innovative ideas, and those who are dusting off older strategies. While I don’t see local ordinance work a silver bullet to many of the things we’re all working on, I do think that’s it’s a valuable resource to keep in mind as we all continue our efforts.

I’m excited to learn more. Have you tried to make changes in your local municipal our county level? What have been some of the successes or challenges you’ve encountered? Anything you’ve found that works well, or that you’ve struggled with?

Thanks to Mike, Dante and the Energy Justice Network for their hard work and resources!


I would add that often local govt says 'we can't do anything,' but their resolutions, although without the force of law, are very powerful. Think of them as comment letters that are one million times as powerful.

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My work for the last year has been to help cities and town write climate action and implementation plans. Some of them (like small towns in Massachusetts) are ambitious despite their size, and others (like San Antonio have larger impact.

Some learnings I've noticed since helping wide-ranging govs tackle these issues is the importance of language and messaging. Some communities resonate strongly with clean energy projects, feeling empowered by the idea of cutting emissions and focusing on strategies to do so. Other communities are more resistant to the framing, naming it as sacrificial and unrealistic. For communities like the latter, we've learned that speaking about economic benefits and personal experiences with changes in their enviornment (i.e. a river is dried up, more storms than usual), this can help connect the dots of this large problem of climate change with the localized solutions. I absolutely agree there's a sweet spot between achievable and the possible, and I think many local governments feel empowered to push that. For example, a number of localities are taking bold steps to imbed racial justice principles in their climate action plans - shifting the threshold to uplift different forms of justice and equity.

Keep going Julia, we need more people like you working for the climate.

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