WR and Howe: Community Advocacy

Can a tweet make your city better? Yes. Absolutely. Definitely.

At the first Kitchener City Council meeting that I ever attended, a senior staff member told those of us assembled in the gallery that city building was not accomplished in the time it took to type a tweet or even a blog post but rather takes decades. I have since dedicated considerable time and effort, and continue to do so, to prove that individual wrong.

A single tweet can make a difference. It feels good when you let GRT know that the crew that dug out snow banks along Queen Street left chunks of ice on the sidewalk that made it difficult for people to walk and knowing it will be fixed. Or to sit down with the Chief of Police about your proposal for the Region of Waterloo to dedicate more funding to addressing the root causes of crime rather than to see continual large increases to the police services budget.

A single tweet can also lead to a vigorous discussion that ultimately improves your understanding of an issue even when the process to get there is uncomfortable at times. That happened when I expressed frustration with cyclists buzzing by me on the sidewalk. I still don’t believe adult cyclists should be riding on the sidewalk, but I now understand that as long as they don’t feel safe on the road that they will continue to do so. So I am a strong advocate for physically separating bike lanes, so that even those who wouldn’t even think to get on a bike feel safe to do so and do so alongside their eight-year-old child.

More often than not change takes more than a single tweet. It requires a series of tweets, backed up by blog posts and grassroots action to create real change.

Being a community advocate can be frustrating; after experiencing successes and enjoying support you start to expect you can make a difference just by sharing your ideas. From my experience, feeling a lack of traction on furthering your ideas sometimes cause you to use a harsh tone that is interpreted negatively. People can start to tune you out or at least not jump every time — no matter how sound your ideas are.

Ultimately, change takes more than the efforts of an individual. It requires being strategic about picking your fights and knowing when you can not only get the support of like-minded individuals, but also how to move the thinking of those in a position to make a real difference.

You also need to accept that you cannot always come out on top. You can hit a brick wall where people think differently, do not understand what you are trying to achieve, or are comfortable with the status quo. I hit such a wall when I pushed back against the norm that it was okay to keep expanding the number of people who could attend Rangers games even if it meant turning more residential streets and parks into parking lots. There were many who would not give any ground beyond some modest concessions.

What is most important is to keep going and keep pushing for change. Change can take longer than desired but I am convinced it happens faster when people are willing to point the spotlight on where change is needed that others would prefer remain in the shadows, or are willing to ruffle feathers even if it makes you unpopular in some corners. If enough people have the strength of conviction, if they speak out and walk the talk, change does not need to take decades.

And ultimately, I believe that a polite, persistent, respectful, and optimistic approach can create the support and conditions where you no longer need to be satisfied with incremental improvements but rather enjoy tremendous success that creates a happy, healthy community for all.


James Howe is a community advocate who blogs on urban issues and how they contribute to building healthy, happy communities at and on Twitter as @JamesHoweWR