This month, we are launching the first in a series featuring our tips and advice gathered over a decade of New Orleans-based cultural organizing and advocacy. For the first edition, we are providing some general advice suitable for almost any advocacy campaign—subsequent columns will focus on one particular agency (e.g., the City Planning Commission) or one aspect of a successful campaign (e.g., research). We also know other individuals and organizations have other approaches to advocacy that work well for them. That’s great! Advocacy isn’t one size fits all—this is the approach that works for us, and we are sharing in the hopes that it will help other advocates as well. In no particular order, here are eight building blocks to a successful campaign.
Do Your Research
Become an expert on your issue—it helps tremendously when you can speak with authority on a topic. But don’t stop there. Learn as much as you can about the history of New Orleans and its politics. Research the backgrounds of politicians and watch archived meetings to see how the City Council and various boards and commissions have voted in the past. Use your library card to access the New Orleans Newspapers database on the library’s website. (If you don’t have a library card, get one! Libraries and librarians are under attack and need your support.) Chances are good that someone has made a similar proposal in the past—find out what happened to it, and why.
Know The Process
This can be tricky, because each subsection of government—the City Council, the City Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustments, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, etc.—has its own set of rules and procedures. On top of that, different items or legislation within these subsections (say an ordinance vs. a motion at City Council) can lead to different processes, some of which might cross over to another governmental entity, like the City Planning Commission. We’ll explore some of these in more detail in later installments, but in the meantime, this leads us to our next point…
Get To Know Staff
Staff members—whether they be at City Council, the Department of Safety and Permits, or the Office of Cultural Economy—are who really get things done at City Hall. They can answer questions, explain those opaque processes, make appointments, and sometimes can even resolve an issue for you before it becomes a bigger problem. Even more importantly, they can help get your issue in front of their supervisor, who might be a Council member, a department head, or even the mayor.
The Earlier The Better
Be as proactive as possible and assume whoever might be opposing your efforts is doing the same. Set up meetings with individuals or agencies you are trying to get on your side. Write an op-ed. Get your talking points together, activate your social media, and start building public support. If your item is at City Council, pay special attention to when it is scheduled for a committee hearing—that is likely your best chance to influence any legislation and to help craft the public narrative in your favor. By the time the final vote is taking place, most minds are already made up.
Be Fair, But Firm And Persistent
It might be tempting to unleash a series of expletives and insults towards an agency or elected official you think is doing a particularly poor job. But think twice before you burn that bridge while advocating locally, as you never know when you might be aligned in the future. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t actively and aggressively oppose policies or proposals you disagree with—and of course you should hold people in leadership positions accountable. Just keep in mind your goal is to win the issue, not the immediate argument.
Pick Your Battles
There is always going to be more to do, so be conscious of where your time is best spent. Lean into your strengths and examine your past work to see where you have had the most impact—and how you did it. Remember that you don’t have to speak or lead on every issue; one of the reasons coalitions are effective is that they can let each member engage in the area of the work where they excel while at other times stepping back and taking a supporting role to uplift and fortify the work of their compatriots. Stepping out front on an issue when you are not fully prepared can often be detrimental to a campaign or movement.
When meeting with elected officials, be forthright about what your intentions are and do what you say you are going to do. If you tell a City Council member, for example, that you will strongly oppose a proposed ordinance, you need to follow through or your power in the future may be diminished. At MaCCNO, for example, we are often in discussions about street musicians and are always upfront about the fact that we will oppose permits for street performers, and that is non-negotiable for us. Because we have a strong track record of backing up our statement with action, being straightforward about this helps move the conversation forward to other potential proposals—or lets us know if it is not worth continuing the discussion.
Play The Long Game
Virtually nothing in government moves quickly, a truism that is particularly apt in New Orleans. Even ‘‘simple” processes like a zoning change can take six months or more—and more expansive policy proposals can take years from start to finish (it took us almost three years to legalize outdoor live entertainment; we’ve been fighting for the Royal Street Pedestrian Mall since 2015). While applying slow and steady pressure may not feel productive, you never know when an opportunity for change may arise, be it a new mayoral administration, a court decision, or a shift in public opinion. Because of your persistence, when these inflexion points arise, you’ll be ready to capitalize—which may well lead to the success of your campaign.
Have questions about advocacy work? Email us at email@example.com.
Illustration by Sadie Wiese