HAVE you ever found yourself fuming in traffic half a mile from home or distressed over yet another "Mall Coming!" sign stuck in a meadow? If so, read "How to Save Your Neighborhood, City, or Town: The Sierra Club Guide to Community Organizing" for the know-how to keep "progress" from spoiling your community.
Maritza Pick's handy political-battle manual is for anyone trying to keep a big corporate developer from ruining the neighborhood, axing local forest land, or dropping a mall onto community green space.
Quality of community life rode in the back seat during the go-go 1980s as cities and towns concentrated on luring businesses to increase revenue. But rising concern for preserving community open space and values - and putting the brakes on pollution, traffic, and the spread of asphalt - has become a 1990s issue.
From Columbus, Ohio, to Dedham, Mass., residents are organizing to resist the shoe-horning of huge shopping plazas into communities that neither want nor need them. Until recently, however, the developer's rallying cry of "more tax revenues" held sway with city councils. And it still may in your community.
That's where Pick's book comes in. Because while residents are waking up to the hidden costs of overdevelopment, she says, the problem most face is knowing what steps to take to defeat bad development plans or pollution problems, especially when politicians are unresponsive.
It can be intimidating. Big companies can afford to hire consultants and lawyers by the dozen to pave the way at city hall for their plan. Fortunately, Pick is a veteran activist who has organized to stop tree cutting, polluting, and bad developments. Best of all, her book doesn't assume the reader knows anything. Instead, she lays out the nuts and bolts to organize and neutralize corporate advantages.
Simple things like organizing a "telephone tree," for instance, can rally hundreds of supporters to show up and speak out at public hearings, overwhelming the ranks of the blue-suited lawyers the developer deploys. Knowing how to research the development plan at city hall, and analyze it for flaws, is key. Creative flyers and bumper stickers can inform your community on a shoestring.
The book is divided into two parts. The first, "How to organize your community to solve environmental problems," shows how to write and distribute a newsletter; get your issue into the newspapers; organize an activist group; and handle public hearings. The second, "How to win environmental campaigns and elect environmentalists to public office," includes basics of transforming activists into a campaign organization; fund-raising; and dealing with the media.
Pick refers to this as "people power." But don't let that 1960s term throw you. This book has nothing to do with organizing civil disobedience or protest marches. Instead, it instructs America's couch-potato patriots step-by-step on how to revive democracy and make local government work for residents again.
This important book is really about the democratic process and reeducating the suburban middle class in grass-roots activism. The scenarios Pick describes are no figment of her imagination.
"Every activist will encounter defeats along with victories," Pick writes. "The point is to keep your fighting spirit alive for the noble cause."