Twitter, Transit City, and the first steps toward effective civic action

If you’re just tuning in, I’ve been going over the first chapter of The Art of the Possible by Amanda Sussman, which features six simple steps toward becoming active in social change. The second step, after choosing your issue, is to identify your resources.

“How much time and energy am I willing to give?” Sussman suggests you ask yourself. “What specific skills do I have to offer?” With the second question in particular, it’s important to be thorough, and to avoid selling yourself short.

“Although you may want to spend your time offering your existing skills to a good cause,” she adds, “your priority may be to learn new ones. Becoming active on a social or political issue is a great way to develop new strengths you never imagined you had.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’re not looking for a career change, but you do have some volunteer time you’d like to put to good use. Sticking with Transit City as our example issue, it’s tough to think of a relevant new line of work that you’d want, much less need, to adopt in order to make a difference. But there are plenty of ways to achieve real results in your spare time.

That said, it’s important to be honest about your commitment level. “We all find that when we care about an issue, we can get drawn into devoting many more hours than we originally intended. This can be hard to justify when you have bills to pay and other responsibilities.” Speaking for myself, I routinely bite off more than I can chew, and I can totally recommend a little restraint in this regard.

For these reasons and more, it’s important not to accept just any volunteer position; you don’t want to let a few weeks go by and discover that you’re committed to work you’re no longer willing and able to do.

Volunteering responsibly with focus on an issue or an organization you care about, on the other hand, can have all kinds of personal and professional benefits. “When I began volunteering,” Sussman says, “I had no idea where it would lead, but by strategically choosing an area of focus, my efforts opened up tremendous possibilities I had never thought of.”

Let’s take that line of thinking back to Transit City. Since you’re reading this blog, it’s safe to say that you’re probably on Facebook and/or Twitter. If you don’t live in the Greater Toronto Area, then it’s a safe bet that you know and/or follow a number of people that do.

And because, let’s be honest, a woefully small number of people are willing to expose themselves to opinions that go against their own views, you’re probably “one of us” – the people who have some reservations about our new mayor and his plans for public transit.

If all or even most of the above describes you, then you’re in luck: the networks you’re already on are full of useful information about public transit in Toronto, shared by people who are surprisingly passionate about what a lot of folks would call a dull, non-sexy issue. In fact, you probably don’t even need me to tell you that.

The Save Transit City site may be down for days at the time of this writing, but on Twitter alone, you can find plenty of information on small but effective ways you can make a difference. The list of city councillors on either side of the plan that blogTO recently posted on their Twitter account is one example, and from an advocacy point of view, the buttons that Spacing is now selling counts as another.

But beyond that, there’s a lot to be said for taking the opportunity to tap into a network of people who care about the same issues you do. Nobody likes a “social media personality,” but if you’re willing to make the issues your focus and listen as much as you talk, you’ll learn an awful lot about the matter at hand – and if you gain a bunch of followers, friends and feed subscribers along the way, what’s the problem?

From there, who knows? Twitter in particular is a great place for Toronto activists to get to know each other, and to do more together than they ever could alone. It’s a first step at best, but it’s a good one.

“If you are looking to add a more social, community-oriented dimension to your life,” Sussman says, “the best way to start is just by exposing yourself to new people, doing new things, and seeing what options become apparent to you.” Why not take a small first step today by jumping into the Transit City discussion on your blog, through social media sites, or in the comments below? There’s no telling where it might take you.

Posted in Democracy