Someone once said that all change is the result of conversations between people. It’s in conversations that ideas are proposed, heard, considered, and agreed upon. Your skatepark project will be developed as a result of one conversation after another. Every dollar that is donated will be the result of a conversation. Your core group will remain effective and enthusiastic based on your conversations. In advocacy, conversation is king. If you don’t like to talk (and listen), you’ll struggle to be an effective advocate.
Skatepark efforts fail sometimes. There are lots of reasons why they don’t result in a skatepark, but the biggest reason is growing frustration over the slow progress. When every conversation goes nowhere, it all feels like empty talk.
A lack of progress can be devastating for a skatepark advocacy group. When the group underestimates the amount of time and effort a public skatepark will take to be approved, funded, and built, they risk disbanding midway through the process. It can seem that every meeting ends with a conclusive “no.” The group’s enthusiasm is the first casualty, and without enthusiasm, there’s little to keep the group pushing forward.
The way to prevent this is through frequent conversations. You will have small updates with your core group, meetings with the Skatepark Advisory Committee, meetings with other community groups, and large public meetings for the whole community. In this section we’ll look at how to manage each of these meetings effectively and get the most out of each of these conversations.
Throughout the course of your skatepark project, you will be required to host meetings. Some of these will be large public get-togethers, but most will be with smaller groups. Most of your meetings will be with people that you know, but that doesn’t mean that you should ever not take them seriously. When meetings are handled poorly, it will leave the impression that nothing is happening, and that will lead to frustration. Keeping your core group together, and enthusiastic, is one of your top priorities. When your fellow skatepark advocates begin to get frustrated, you will need to address that immediately. Frustration, and a lack of enthusiasm for continuing the effort, is the main reason most skatepark efforts fail.
There are lots of different types of meetings. What you are expected to do at each one depends on who is putting it together and how special it is. There are three kinds of meetings you’ll encounter:
1. Regularly scheduled meetings specifically for the skatepark project. These meetings happen at consistent intervals, at the same place, and at the same time of day. These meetings should be kept efficient and to the point. (You won’t use these meetings to reiterate the reasons why you need a skatepark. These are working meetings used for figuring out what your immediate next steps are.) These are your core group and Skatepark Advisory Committee meetings, for example.
2. Special meetings that are focused on the skatepark topic. In these meetings you will be expected to bring information and updates. These are meetings where you might need something special from the group or audience. These will require special preparation. You are going to gather the group to discuss a project that is too specific to cover during your regular core group or Skatepark Advisory Committee meetings, or are hosting a public meeting to solicit support from local youth, for example.
3. Other meetings that you or your group will be attending. In these meetings, you have no control over the meeting or the agenda. These are meetings that you might attend with the hopes of garnering skatepark support. You are going to provide a skatepark update to the local Kiwanis, for example.
You can leave meetings feeling encouraged and enthusiastic, or you can leave them feeling like it could have gone better. If you’re hosting the meeting, here are some very useful tips for making sure everyone leaves feeling good.
1. Provide Notice
Make sure everyone that should be there is given plenty of notice. There are two ways to manage this. Prior to every meeting, send out a reminder about the meeting and include the topic(s) you’ll be discussing. Also, immediately following each meeting, send out a recap of the meeting and include tasks that people may have committed to, as well as a reminder for the next meeting. Don’t leave anyone with the easy excuse that they didn’t know about the meeting.
2. Be On Time
This is a no-brainer. Don’t wander in 5 minutes late. If anything, be there 5 minutes early. If the meeting is scheduled to run 30 minutes, end at 30 minutes. (If there are items left to discuss after the scheduled end of the meeting, postpone those topics until the next meeting.)
3. Solicit Feedback
It’s important that everyone there feel that their presence is useful and relevant. Ask people what they think of certain ideas and directions, especially if their role at the meeting is unclear. Engaging people on an individual basis is a great way to allow everyone to participate in the project.
4. Share the Blame
Sometimes things go badly. Mistakes will be made by you or other members of your group. People will forget to do things, or they’ll slack off when they should have been busy. It’s okay. It sucks, but it happens. If you accept responsibility for those mistakes—even if they weren’t yours—you’ll find your group will become more effective and committed to getting the work done in the future. For example, if Bob was supposed to arrange a meeting with the City Councilperson and didn’t, it’s okay to share Bob’s mistake by taking some responsibility for not supplying Bob with the information he needed, or giving Bob a reminder email, for example. Calling Bob out or letting him take sole responsibility for his error will only separate him from the group. It won’t fix the mistake, and Bob will feel terrible. When you share responsibility, you bring the group together and demonstrate that you’re all in this together.
5. Create an Agenda
Your meeting agenda is a list of the topics that you expect to cover. Anyone that is expected to contribute to the conversation should be supplied the agenda in advance, if possible. (You don’t need to supply an agenda to everyone attending a public meeting or presentation because the audience is not expected to provide feedback on every topic. You’d be there all night!)
6. Leave With A Plan
This is very important. There should be a clear sense of what was agreed upon at the meeting and what everyone is expected to do. This is sometimes known as a “call to action.” If you are presenting the skatepark concept to a group unfamiliar with skateboarding, your call to action might be that they write a letter of support. A call to action is the “mission” of the conversation. In other words, it’s what you want out of the encounter.
7. Bring Materials
If you are presenting complicated material that you expect others to write down, help them out by creating handouts. For example, if you want to launch a letter-writing campaign to your city council, creating a list of those council member’s names and email addresses is better than reading them out while people scramble for their pens and paper.
8. Keep It Positive!
Your meetings must be upbeat, positive, and optimistic… even if nothing seems to be going right. Everyone in your group is working on the skatepark as a volunteer. Their involvement requires that the experience is worth the effort. Negative meetings where people are angry, frustrated, or depressed will discourage people from staying involved. (Even people that seem to always bring negativity to a conversation will drift away if everyone else is depressed.) Keep your eyes on where you want to go, not on where you’ve been.
Hosting Public Meetings
A number of things can happen at public meetings that will make them turn into unmitigated failures. A public meeting, unlike most of the meetings you will attend or host, is one where the entire public is invited to attend. You might have public meetings to provide a broad update to the skatepark project, or to measure public interest in a number of candidate sites.
Public meetings are public, so you will attract people from all parts of the community. You may get city council members, and you may get people that don’t support the skatepark idea whatsoever. You can’t predict what will walk through the door, and sometimes those people won’t be what you expect. If you are prepared, you will ensure that your meeting goes smoothly.
Having a sheet by the door for people to sign in is important for several reasons. After the meeting it will tell you how many people attended. It will also provide you with contact information for everyone there so that you can expand your email subscription list.
Listening and Sharing
All public meetings should provide time for members of the audience to share their thoughts or supply feedback. “Leaving a mark” is an important incentive for people to attend the meeting, and if you conclude your meeting only having told everyone what your group is up to, they’ll leave feeling uninvolved.
Your public meetings should have mechanisms for those members of the audience that want to provide more support the opportunity to make themselves available. Some people will approach you after the meeting, and you will usually only have time to talk to one or two of these people. Keep a “supporter” sheet handy so that people can sign up and get more involved. Your supporter sheet should naturally have spaces for their name and contact info, but also indicate the type of support they want to provide. They may have professional skills to donate, or have personal relationships with powerful members of your community, or something else. Don’t let these opportunities walk out the door!
Having lots of people gathered in one place is a perfect opportunity to gather testimonials. If you have the people and equipment, video testimonials are terrific. (You can edit them later and include them in your PSA.) Written testimonials are good too, but they take longer and lots of younger people will struggle to write more than a few sentences. Write down their name and contact info but also have them repeat their name and contact info into the camera so you have a copy. Allowing your audience the opportunity to provide testimonial lets them support the project in a meaningful and immediate way.
(You might consider finding a “model release form” online and print out some blank ones for moments like this. These forms are filled out by the interviewee and basically acknowledge, in writing, that they agree to go on camera and their statements used by your group publicly. It’s a measure of protection in case someone comes back later and says that they never said that or that they didn’t agree to be on camera.)
There are a few things that can be particularly disruptive to your meeting or presentation.
It’s uncommon, but occasionally anti-skatepark attendees will use your meeting to promote their ideas on why the skatepark shouldn’t go there (or exist at all). In most cases you should let them speak but say nothing to egg them on. When they’re done—hopefully quickly—you can remind them (and the rest of the audience) that the reason you’re all gathered is to talk about X (and not their issues). If they are on topic, and their observations or concerns are relevant to the meeting, use the opportunity to clarify what the skatepark actually will do, and how it will perform. Under no circumstances should you get into an argument with the individual or try to embarrass them. Keep the audience’s attention on the positive impact the skatepark will have. Most advocates don’t encounter hostile individuals in meetings and presentations created specifically for skatepark development topics. Most of the hostility will be found in Parks Department and City meetings.
It happens far too often. You have spent days working on a cool Powerpoint for a big public meeting. Your script is memorized, and you even have three awesome short videos to show. You load everything up on a thumb drive and arrive at the meeting with minutes to spare. You plug your thumb drive into the laptop and launch Powerpoint…only to find that none of the links work, the video doesn’t launch, and the cool typeface you used has been replaced by Helvetica. Ugh!
It happens, but hopefully it won’t happen to you.
Arrive early and test the audio-visual equipment before other people begin showing up
Bring your own laptop
Have a contingency plan: printouts, a non-visual “speech,” or display boards
Keep your presentations simple