America’s cities juggle duties in all directions, all at once. In Cambridge, our Department of Public Works Chief braves 4am snowstorm responses in-person, visits individual trees throughout spring, and manages multi-million dollar roadway projects all year long. Our Community Development Department balances zoning and special permit analysis on one hand while juggling a 1000-unit municipal affordable housing stock on the other.
With such complex obligations, it is perhaps no surprise that cities across America face responsiveness complaints: residents are not heard, only lobbyists have the resources to navigate municipal bureaucracy, cities actively sell a pre-baked urban agenda (rather than building it with community based on feedback), and so on. The real shame here is that so many city administrators take great pride in their customer service commitments without realizing that the city itself may not be addressing key concerns. Cities, in other words, need the help of patient, yet persistent, community leaders to internalize and implement feedback in a systematic and equitable fashion. Here is some advice for patient, persistent community leaders and aspiring elected officials, on organizing your municipal feedback.
- Work broader, reset expectations or “feedback by 1000 papercuts”
A recent city council battle came down to a big disagreement over two tiny paragraphs of legislative text. With only days before the formal vote, a gaggle of stakeholders called one-another to negotiate the content, iterate on changes to the text, and solicit waves of feedback from everyone involved. It took an awful lot of calls going in multiple directions, but feedback worked and an anticipated debacle was neatly avoided.The dialogue around city issues involves so many parties, perspectives, interests, and options that getting anything to stick requires an infuriating amount of communication. In order to be a truly exemplary leader or city administrator, you must shelve commonplace intuition about how much work a constructive feedback cycle ought to require.Early on in elected office, I met with 30 stakeholders through some 200 hours of feedback and iterative design meetings – one-on-one, as a larger group, and in formal committee meeting – just to get budgetary consensus on one new outreach and educational equity hire. The relationship between volume of work and outcome is not ideal, but the process ensured that diverse voices were heard and marginalized perspectives taken into account. Can it be frustratingly time consuming? Of course. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
- Appeal to an objective standard
Recently, Cambridge’s Bike Advocacy Group – some 5 core organizers supported by another couple thousand interested voters – hit a feedback roadblock. Cambridge had committed to the vision-zero standard in tandem with a comprehensive plan for protected bicycle infrastructure all over the city. But despite fatal, avoidable traffic collisions throughout 2015 and 2016, Cambridge was not turning clear feedback from bicycle advocates into necessary, potentially life-saving action. So how does a community advocate bridge this type of gap between commitment and action?When advocates begin to feel like they are pushing feedback, rather than simply delivering feedback, it is essential to return to objective criteria. This sounds simple, but feedback (like high stakes negotiations) can often entail quite a bit of emotional content and defensiveness.In the case of Cambridge’s Bike Advocacy Group, volunteers began pulling back the curtain, politely, to dig deeply into objective measures of progress. They created a new framing of feedback:
“Can we point to ways in which Cambridge has invited or will invite community leaders to help affect the standard on the ground, as the Vision Zero standard requires?” “Is there a clear and agreed upon scheduling and milestones resource that we can all refer to, as we work together going forward?”
The new schedule for construction, for example, wasn’t clarified right away, neither in public nor in initial behind-the-scenes feedback sessions. However, by returning to the need for objective criteria over and over again, administrators and advocates began to identify and agree on more specific guidelines, benchmarks, and timelines. With a skeleton of agreed upon criteria, fleshing out feedback became easier for volunteers on an ongoing basis, and implementing feedback became much more urgent and transparent on the part of administrators.
- It only takes X people to change the world
In preparation to direct a short documentary, I took to heart Brad Feld’s idea that a small group of committed organizers operating outside of government could change major outcomes for a community or even an entire city. I later asked has the opportunity to ask, “But how many people do you need, to impact a city meaningfully for the better?Boulder went from a Colorado resort town to the highest density of entrepreneurs per capita in the world – surely you had hundreds of people bending leadership energy towards entrepreneurship…” Brad’s answer stayed with me and I’ve seen it confirmed over and over again in my community organizing: five people can change the landscape of a city – five dependable people. This is, of course, much harder than it sounds. Identify your five people and continue to recruit additional partners, until everyone in the group is working dependably, collaboratively, and effectively with respect to the group’s advocacy.
In this post, I’ve used the words “advocacy,” “feedback,” and “negotiation” fairly interchangeably. There’s a take-away there: in my professional work at the city council level, my most win-win oriented negotiations and effective advocacy start and end with multiple cycles of feedback. Establishing a small team and clear metrics enables individuals and neighborhoods to turn up the volume on common sense issues like racial equity and economic mobility. By appealing to an objective standard politely and consistently, small teams can make deep inroads with administrators and power-brokers who may otherwise (knowingly or unknowingly) deflect feedback or slow action. By upping our commitment – understanding that we must process more feedback cycles with more stakeholders at faster intervals – we find that even small advocacy groups are creative enough to address divergent stakeholder interests and improve our cities.
It just so happens that these Three Things may also help you better understand voters’ needs and government’s shortcomings. When you’re ready to run for office, just holler, I’ll be here.
Nadeem Mazen is an educator, entrepreneur, and community organizer. He was elected to Cambridge City Council in 2013 after an energetic grassroots campaign, winning by just 6 votes – being returned to office in 2015, receiving the most votes across all 23 candidates for City Council. In his first two terms, he has worked to make city government more accessible to the public and is building coalitions that address Cambridge’s most pressing issues. He has also focused on social justice issues and greater equity for all members of the community. You can read his civic updates at Nadeemtron.com.
Nadeem first arrived in Cambridge to study Engineering at MIT. After graduation, he founded Nimblebot, a creative agency, and Jetpac, a nonprofit that trains people to run for office. He is a natural collaborator and problem-solver, dedicated to bringing fresh, progressive voices into community leadership. Along with a talented and diverse team of activists, volunteers, and community organizers, Nadeem is proving that a truly progressive Cambridge is possible.
Cambridge, MA City Councillor – Founder of Nimblebot, a digital creative agency – President of JETpac, training underrepresented minorities to run for elected office