Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wish you were here

So lately I have been seeking inspiration from the mesmerizing fish tank at Jacky's Galaxie, my favorite Asian take-out place. (You can get a lunch combo with crab rangoon, chicken wings, fried rice, and nime chow for $5.) And it occurred to me while staring into it today that I should reflect on what I learned by stalking PPL through all those community meetings.

Otherwise, how will I ever talk other people into attending these kind of meetings? Most people thought the poster sessions were meaningless window dressing or face-saving last ditches. They told me that a) this happened, like, all the time, and it wasn't like this time was different or anything would ever really change or the libraries would actually be closed, and b) the meetings weren't about listening to the public--they were about telling the public what to think.

And I'm not saying they're wrong. But by attending those meetings, I learned that there are ways to subvert, redirect, disrupt, and transform them. And there are definitely ways to learn from them. So this is why I can honestly say, wish you were here. Because these are the techniques I observed and plan to use in the future:

  • Change the seating arrangement. I learned this from the senior citizens who insisted they weren't about to risk their knees, ankles, and hips traipsing up to those easels. They demanded chairs and as soon as they got them, they demanded that the PPL reps come to them, and soon the whole meeting went from cocktail party to sit-down dinner, and it was a lot easier for people to listen to each other.
  • Don't tell anyone who you are. It makes you harder to dismiss by categorization (i.e. oh, she's one of those people). If people see you actively approaching others and talking to them, they're going to start to wonder who you are, what group you represent, etc., and you'd be surprised who will come to you.
  • Ask questions of the wrong people. And by "wrong," I mean anyone who didn't organize the meeting and expect to mc it. This could be a random bystander or another member of the organization who hasn't been groomed for the cameras.

  • Dig up old documents. Like mission statements. Anything that will help you hold the organization accountable to its own principles or expose idiosyncrasies in the way the organization interprets them.

  • Speak your own language. Obviously, I'm thinking of the people who spoke Spanish, but that's only one example. The point is not to let the people who organized the meeting choose the vocabulary you use. Call it like it is. Make them translate.
  • Bring children. They ask the best, so-simple-they're-impossible-to-answer questions and make adults who refuse to answer them look like storybook villains.

  • Introduce yourself. You can usually pick out the politicians and trustees by their shoulder pads, but they often don't introduce themselves. It's great fun to shake hands and ask them what brings them to such-and-such-place tonight. (This may seem to contradict #2, but what I really meant above is that you shouldn't ally yourself with a particular group--don't make yourself too easy to categorize--I didn't mean that you shouldn't tell people your name.)

  • Ask what you can do. At the risk of sounding like JFK, I'd like to point out that it's really disconcerting to people in power when you show them that you didn't just come to criticize. You came to be involved. It's a way of saying, this isn't over when you leave tonight.

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