Researching Transit City

We’re halfway through the six steps toward getting started in social change that Amanda Sussman proposes in her book, The Art of the Possible. We’ve chosen an issue – in this case, Transit City, for the sake of working on something current and relevant – and we’ve also identified our own resources and the key players alike. Look at us go, right?

Now it’s time to do some preliminary research and get a sense of the history of the issue. “Internet searches in newspaper archives by topic,” Sussman says, “will usually give you an overview of how the issue is perceived in the public’s eye and what the main areas of controversy are.”

Be sure to get your news from a wide range of sources. Different papers obviously cater to different readerships, and you’re not going to get a fair and accurate sense of a typical Ford voter’s objections to the Transit City plan if you’re reading nothing but NOW, for example. Remember that your goal is to get a handle on what the public thinks about the issue, not just the portion of the public that agrees with you.

Hell, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you can even read the comments after the articles and see what the loudest, dumbest segment of the population thinks and/or yells about the issue. I wouldn’t recommend it, but the option’s on the table.

“Next,” Sussman says, “find out whether any current government programs address your issue.” This is a “gimme” for us, because in the case of the Transit City plan, the government is a major part of the issue. Either way, it’s crucial to know where people in government stand on the issue, “because you want to make sure that what you’re proposing will not duplicate existing efforts or recommend actions that have been tried and discounted before.”

I should break from the Transit City case for a moment to note that if you’re working on a federal issue, you can start by visiting the Government of Canada website to find a list of federal government departments. Provincial government websites offer similar directories, for those of you whose issue of choice is best engaged at that level.

“At this stage,” Sussman adds, “it is important to play close attention to the publicly stated rationale for the government’s current program.” This is especially true when a new government is trying to reject an existing program and replace it with a highly questionable alternative. “Government press releases are usually the best source of this information,” Sussman says, but a boorish talk radio interview will probably do in a pinch.

“If you familiarize yourself with the language used to describe your issue,” Sussman says – and we’re talking about more than “pinko leftist kooks,” here – “it will help you to develop and frame your own arguments later on.”

Say what you will about Ford, but he and his people know how to frame an issue. After all, the man’s in office because his campaign grabbed “respect for taxpayers” by the throat and didn’t let go. Understanding the ways in which the Ford camp frames an issue like public transit – and the ways in which his supporters understand it – can help you critique the supposed pros of his position, instead of just preaching to the choir about the cons. Remember how much fun we had doing the latter in the days leading up to Ford’s amazing landslide victory?

One simple course of action that Sussman doesn’t mention, and which is especially useful when it comes to an issue that’s unfolding as we speak, is to set up a Google Alert in honour of the topic. It’s often the first thing I do when I want to follow an emerging issue; I’m still getting daily updates on the gun registry, for example.

In fact, you know what? I’ve just set one up for “Transit City,” and I’ll be glad to post the result here as I get them.

Posted in Democracy