By Jim Thompson, in Online Athens (Athens Banner-Herald), Saturday, January 14, 2017
Original article is here: http://onlineathens.com/local-news/2017-01-14/author-panel-present-crash-course-activism-athens-audience
Part technical guidance, part practical advice, a Friday forum on citizen activism gave dozens of people jammed into Cine in downtown Athens a crash course in how to move their government, and their community, toward their preferred public policy solutions.
Hosted by Avid Bookshop and Athens for Everyone, the forum, attended by longtime local activists along with dozens of eager new faces, featured former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata, author of “Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World,” along with a panel of Athenians who are doing that work locally.
Friday’s local panel members were Tim Denson, president of Athens for Everyone, Mokah Jasmine Johnson, leader of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, executive director of Chess and Community, Broderick Flanigan, assistant director of Chess and Community, Clarke County Board of Education member Ovita Thornton and Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link.
Licata, who served on Seattle’s city council for 17 years, shepherding initiatives ranging from a $15 hourly minimum wage to a civic poetry program, concentrated on the technical aspects of effective advocacy. Licata told the audience to learn about state and local laws on public meetings and open records, know their local codes and ordinances, and know the procedures used to conduct local government meetings.
In dealing with local officials, Licata advocated unfailing politeness.
On a more serious note, Licata told the Cine crowd, “The goal is to win with the least amount of pain on your part, and the least amount of pain on the other person’s part.”
Echoing Licata on the need to understand the technical aspects of dealing with government, Link said, “Know how your local government works — or doesnt’t work.”
Johnson, describing herself as “a baby activist,” advocated a relatively loose approach to activism.
She became active locally after learning that many black people in Athens are leery of coming downtown, fearing discriminatory behavior in places like bars, where uneven enforcement of dress codes, dubious claims of hosting private parties and other strategies have allegedly been used in some establishments to keep minorities out.
The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and Athens for Everyone were instrumental in getting changes in local ordinances addressing discriminatory behavior at bars, and are now pushing for creation of a county-backed civil rights commission. However that plays out, Johnson said, she’ll be relying on spiritual guidance to move the process forward.
“This is not something I signed up for,” she said. “This is something that God has told me to do.”
Flanigan, also describing himself as “a baby in the activist scene,” told the practicing and prospective activists gathered at Cine on Friday that taking the first steps into that arena can be uncomfortable. The first time he spoke at an Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting, Flanigan said, was nerve-wracking.
But, he said, “I knew that to be a responsible citizen, I had to step outside of my comfort zone.”
Flanigan also advocated a personal approach to activism, in terms of getting to know local officials.
“Reach out to them. Invite them to lunch,” he suggested.
Thornton, too, said effective activism can require moving into uncomfortable situations with unfamiliar people. But, she said, “That’s how you’re going to build relationships.”
“I go out of my way to be uncomfortable,” Thornton said, “and then I get comfortable.”
LaRoche urged the members of audience to think of themselves as individual pieces of a puzzle, each with a role to play in forming the community and its future.
Framing the challenges facing Athens-Clarke County, LaRoche pointed to the disparities between surveys that show Athens in a positive light, such as numerous polls that name it one of the top places in the country to retire, compared to the statistics that show Athens-Clarke County is one of the poorest counties in the country.
“You can’t put the fact that Athens is one of the best places to retire, and one of the poorest counties in the country, in the same sentence,” LaRoche said.
Denson told the packed house at Cine on Friday that activism should be framed in the knowledge that it is people, not elected officials, who have the real power.
“The power lies on our side … . We need to politely remind them of that,” Denson said.
Denson also addressed the practical issues of activism, including the need to rely on other like-minded people to carry the load.
“Don’t do it alone,” he said, noting that the keys to effective activism are “leaning on each other” and “being realistic about what you can do” on an individual basis.
Link also told the crowd that activism requires considerable effort.
“It’s work — don’t kid yourself,” she said.