(Photo by Flickr user The West End, used via a Creative Commons license)
This Saturday, Philadelphia will follow in the footsteps of cities across the country in holding its first open streets event, called Philly Free Streets.
The event, led by the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, will close off 10 miles of local roadways from vehicular traffic, allowing residents to take to the streets while enjoying a range of activities. And while it could be easy to take the festival for granted, Philly Free Streets might not have happened if it weren’t for the skillful organizing of Open Streets PHL, a group of citizens who seem to have cracked the code for getting heard in City Hall.
How did Open Streets PHL get — and keep — the attention of city officials? We spoke with some of the group’s leadership to find out what made their movement a success. Here are some key takeaways for other Philadelphians trying to get results out of City Hall.
1. Have a clear mission and organizational structure, but remain flexible.
Open Streets PHL started out as a network of Philadelphians excited about opening up the city’s streets after experiencing roadways without cars during the pope’s visit last year. Early on, it became clear that the group needed concrete goals, a written mission statement and formalized roles in order to be taken seriously.
“No matter who we spoke with, they wanted to know our roles and responsibilities and what we were trying to accomplish,” said LeeAnne Mullins, Open Streets PHL’s chair.
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It took a while, but eventually the core members of the group agreed on a mission and goals that they each felt comfortable with. They’ve stuck with them since, but “we’ve had to be very flexible” about the details, said Nate Hommel, external communications officer for the group. “We compromised on a number of things. You have to always keep the end game in mind.“
If they hadn’t, he said, the group may been locked out of the conversation a while ago.
2. Make the most of talent on your team.
Once you’ve identified supporters who are committed to taking on a formal role in the group, survey for skills and connections that could be useful to the cause. Is there someone on your team who is good at graphic design? Anyone who has connections to journalists or lawmakers?
The key is to leverage the existing strengths of your team members when thinking about roles in the group, rather than fitting people into predetermined boxes. For Open Streets PHL, “it was almost like natural selection,” Mullins said.
3. Know what you can offer — and have numbers ready.
If you’re asking the city to do something, it helps to bring something to the table other than your request. For Open Streets PHL, that meant developing a “playbook” with best practices from other open streets events across the country. It also meant providing city officials with data — such as how many supporters live in each ZIP code — gathered through a Change.org petition.
“Knowing where people are coming from gives you a lot more say with the city,” said co-chair Alon Abramson. By telling council members exactly how many of their constituents support an open streets event, the organization was able to turn local legislators into advocates for their cause. “If an individual council member becomes a champion for [the event], then they can fight for it in much more close quarters than we ever could.”
4. Take your visuals seriously.
At some point, you may have heard that you should “dress for the job you want.” Open Streets PHL says the same rule applies to advocacy. The team put a lot of effort into developing a consistent and professional brand, from a logo to a website to collateral materials.
“All of those visual cues tell people to take you seriously,” Mullins said. “Even if it’s just a Facebook page and a Gmail account and a website, you have to look like the message you’re trying to deliver.”
5. Be present where it counts.
Join with other advocacy organizations, even if it’s just to attend a meeting. Whether you are working together towards a common goal or just keeping each other informed of your efforts, there is strength in numbers.
“Being able to sit around a table with likeminded individuals and identify yourself as being from ‘x’ group just continues to get your name floated out,” Mullins said. Over time, your presence and participation creates brand recognition that counts when you’re making a fundraising request or doing a petition drive later on.
6. Keep your message positive.
Open Streets PHL acknowledges that a lot of advocacy is trial and error. Despite the inherent ups and downs that are part of the process, the group said that maintaining a positive message was critical to their success.
“The city starts to tune people out if you’re making fun of them or complaining all the time or social media,” Hommel said. “Keep your personal strife out of the public discourse. That way, when you sit down with the city, they can trust you.”
While the struggle to get heard through the noise of city hall is real, reaching out to local leaders can lead to results — when done right.
Matthew Fisher, director of policy with the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, has worked directly with Open Streets PHL as they advocated for a Philly Free Streets event over the past year. When it comes to working with the city, he said, “the first step is just reaching out and starting a conversation.” The rest is persistence and strategy.-30-
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