The View from the Other Side of the Negotiating Table

A climate activist turned City Hall staffer reflects on missteps from his organizing days, decision-maker psychology, and lessons for effective advocacy.

A few months after graduating college and leaving my university’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, I watched protestors climb the dais in my hometown’s City Council Chambers. The chanting group wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts, demanding police reform. Little more than a week prior, a black 13 year-old carrying a BB gun had been shot and killed by police in my city. This was not the first contentious police-involved shooting of 2016, and it wouldn’t be the last.

In previous years I participated in a number of direct actions to highlight disparities in policing and use of force by law enforcement. More than one of my colleagues who knew my organizing background quipped, “Shouldn’t you be down there with them?” I would have been, if I didn’t work for the City Council President. But standing on top of city council members’ desks is not in the cards for me anymore. After the protest concluded and I laid out predictions to my boss for what the organizers would do next, I realized that I had fully transitioned from the role of agitator to agitated. I was now the inside game.

Accepting a job within city government was a departure from my more radical college politics. During my time in school I collected hundreds of signatures, helped coordinate direct actions, negotiated with board members, and invested hundreds of hours to build the next generation of leadership for a university-oriented fossil fuel divestment (FFD) campaign. Those years connected me with both student and community organizers. I worked on everything from the removal of confederate monuments to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Upon graduating, I moved back to my hometown and began work as the Legislative Aide for a City Council member who soon became Council President. My assignments run the gamut: organizing innumerable events/hearings, speech writing, counseling on funding requests, processing pothole-filling requests, and staffing most events. I serve as the Council President’s policy adviser. While I used to speculate what was said by decision-makers behind closed doors, I now have a seat at the table, sifting through the issues alongside elected officials. This position provides me a unique view of FFD tactics, their effectiveness, what we didn’t do, and what future campaigns can do to save time, energy, and move their decision-makers.

It’s critical to note that FFD campaigns are not won when a university divests. FFD is about getting your university and community to question the moral license of extractive economies, American capitalism, and to imagine more equitable alternatives. A mentor once asked me and fellow campaign leadership, “If you woke up tomorrow and the university announced it was divesting, would that be victory?” A chorus of “no’s” flooded the room. Influencing and pressuring decision-makers is only a single piece of these multifaceted campaigns (and not the most important part). Given my newfound role as a part of the establishment, I do not know that my own campaign would implement the list of recommendations below.

I developed this list because I’ve learned how decision-makers think and what kind of groups have been successful. For example, the folks who took over that City Council meeting to protest police brutality are tremendous advocates. Their leadership understands the lessons outlined below. As I write this two years after their protest, there is substantive movement towards local police reform. That movement is directly linked to their efforts. I’ve also seen the folks who spin their wheels trying to gain traction. Their campaigns lack the sophistication to move the needle on issues far less controversial than police-community relations. Some of the tactics below may come off as conciliatory, but you can negotiate around a table while still turning up the heat on your decision-makers. There can be nuance within campaign efforts, which is necessary for the left to get results. As many have said, resistance is not enough.

Lesson #1: Media Matters aka “Why Didn’t I Call a Reporter?”

Each morning I wake up, turn off my alarm, and open my email to read the clips. Clips are the assembly of news stories that a communications division has deemed relevant to decision-makers and the institution. Decision-makers care about local news. Many campaigns, particularly student-run campaigns, focus exhaustively on new media—social media, email, blogs, etc. While new media is incredibly important for getting one’s message into the public sphere, particularly to reach young folks, decision-makers consume both new media and old media—newspapers, magazines, TV news, radio, etc. While the institution may monitor student social media activity to keep a finger on the campus pulse, decision-makers care more about a bad story in the local paper than subtweets. As a legislative aide, I have shifted from focusing on social media to local media. I have found myself in a fury about the “drip, drip, drip” of a bad narrative that just won’t end. This is to say, traditional media adds pressure to the shoulders of decision-makers and starts a conversation amongst the larger community.

Our FFD team missed critical exposure by not engaging with traditional media. In particular, I think back to what our team referred to as the “Blue Tape Action.” To draw attention to rising sea levels, we dispersed across campus in the early hours of the morning to string blue tape between buildings, light poles, and any other vertical structures we could find.

The tape was six feet off the ground to symbolize how much sea levels would rise by 2100. This event was made for TV! We should have gotten every news station in town with a press advisory, cameras catch b-roll of tape in the morning sun, capture a quick interview with a campaign spokesperson, and we would have had ourselves a great news segment. But this wasn’t the only missed opportunity. Marches & sit-ins that could have been heard across the city were limited to our reach on social media because we didn’t talk to local outlets. While our leadership built a couple relationships with reporters at the largest local paper, we didn’t understand how important traditional media is in the eyes of decision-makers. Our team didn’t work to equip ourselves with any sort of toolkits or skills to reach traditional media. I urge all organizers who are not utilizing traditional media to pressure decision-makers to rethink that decision. There are tons of media trainings available online and through grass-top organizations. A story in the local paper or on the evening news is radically more powerful than a Twitter mention.

Lesson #2: Arguments Are Necessary But Definitely Not Sufficient

In 2015, our FFD team met with our university president and critical board members over lunch. Our team left thoroughly disappointed. We had planned every minute of the meeting, assigned various lines of argumentation, and anticipated every counterpoint. What happened? Our team talked for nearly the entire meeting. The board members listened in silence, skirted around our hard ask, told us divestment was a silly idea, and thanked us for coming in. While we miscalculated the strategy of how to engage in a meeting, it spoke to a larger deficit within our campaign. We thought we could argue our way to success. Even if an elected official or board member is losing the argument and they look silly in a meeting, they won’t relent. I don’t believe that a decision-maker will change their mind in a meeting simply because of good arguments. Most decision-makers have their minds made up before they ever walk into the room.

A group of college students met with me recently to advocate for a municipal ID. Municipal ID programs offer all residents of a city (regardless of citizenship) an accepted form of identification which typically includes benefits such as library and public transportation services. I agree with the concept of a municipal ID and think it could be useful in our city. But imposing elected officials are against it, and its advocates have little momentum or substantive support. Our team on Council has decided to stay out of this fight. I met with these well-meaning advocates and put forth the usual counter-arguments about security, identity theft, cost, and the need for suburban partnerships. I wasn’t ashamed to be playing this role. It was another item on my to-do list that day: “remain ambivalent with municipal ID advocates.” The students artfully responded to all of my concerns. I told them that more questions needed to be answered and that other key decision-makers weren’t there yet. We will not have a municipal ID anytime soon.

Now, this could change if they start focusing on the individuals holding up this proposal. Organizers need to hit decision-makers where it hurts. Broadly speaking, university decision-makers care about the institution’s reputation in the eyes of stakeholder groups, particularly those groups that write checks. An institution’s legitimacy is built on its reputation amongst board members, donors, alumni, prominent local leaders, prospective students, parents, staff, faculty, current students etc. For student organizers, here’s an idea I wish my group and I had thought of: plant fake promotional materials in the admissions office that mirrors the typical materials, but contains your campaign’s messaging inside. (And then send a press release to tell every outlet in town about it!) Making the arguments to the decision-makers is not enough; it’s about disrupting what your decision-makers care about with your messaging.  

Lesson #3: Build Relationships with Staff

Staff drive most institutional activities but are undervalued by organizers. Oftentimes organizers will feel slighted when they get a meeting with staff rather than a decision-maker. But staff have much more value than I gave them credit for when I was an organizer. Staff manage a decision-maker’s schedule, provide them with advice, act as a soundboard for the officeholder, and (to varying degrees) construct the officeholder's informational diet. Staff still represent the institution and can act as conduits for campaign-institutional interactions. Meeting with staff at the start of a campaign is a great way to introduce your mission to the institution without getting delayed by the officeholder’s calendar. Give staff one or two personable leaders to interact with so a relationship can flourish. I’d recommend asking for a coffee or lunch with the chief of staff or an influential provost (in the case of a university administration). Start the meeting by telling your personal story; don’t launch immediately into your pitch. The staff want to connect with current students and future leaders, not hear your scripted pitch. Staff who value your mission and have relationships with campaign leadership can provide a perspective from the inside as well as sage advice for the campaign. However, there is no guarantee that staff will do anything beyond feigning support and attempting to mislead your campaign. That’s why the personal relationship, infused with a health dose of skepticism, is critical to dealing with staff.   

Lesson #4: Partner with Your Institution on Intermediary Steps

This is likely the most controversial of my four lessons, but I strongly believe that campaigns should attempt to partner with institutions and provide decision-makers a politically viable route that allows them to save face. Another way of phrasing this is, “What can organizers and decision-makers announce at a press conference together?” Institutions have time on their side whereas individual students have a time horizon of four years, the time of their attendance. The easiest thing for decision-makers to do is wait and see if the organization atrophies under changing leadership and infighting. Presidents, whether they be of a legislative body or an institution, will go to great lengths to avoid looking weak by succumbing to an external, oppositional force. Preventing status loss and embarrassment motivates officials like little else. Organizers can take meaningful steps with an institution—such as forming a public commission with ample student, staff, and faculty representation to draft a feasibility study or holding public forums to gain community feedback. These steps legitimize the conversation and provide a larger public platform for your campaign. This doesn’t mean capitulating on the institution’s terms. Also, just because you take steps with your institution doesn’t mean that you cannot call them out for not following through on their commitments. Holding leaders to hard timelines and demanding clear results prevents your institution from using intermediary steps as a delay tactic. Being willing to partner allows the institution to join you on the moral high ground and become a part of the solution. If they partner on an intermediary step and don’t reach the outcome you want, then your campaign still has the opportunity to escalate.

These four points are by no means a comprehensive guide to student or grassroots organizing. They are intended to help current organizers understand where an insider thinks he and his friends went wrong. Many of my divestment friends likely think I'm a sellout for going into local politics and working within the system. However, I can push my hometown towards equity in ways I never could from outside. During my time in the President’s office, I helped the effort to restructure Council to improve geographic representation and accountability. Over the course of the past 50 years there had been a half-dozen outside attempts to reshape our local legislature; all of them failed. However, the most recent failure prompted a citizen’s commission on Council structure. This comission eventually led to substantive changes in Council’s structure and governance, demonstrating the power of inside and outside forces pushing for change. For those groups working outside, escalation is a critical part of the game. But, from my experience, organizers like Saul Alinsky who always place confrontation above relationships don’t get shit from city hall. It’s folks who understand the interwoven power of relationships and pressure, who can negotiate through backchannels after disrupting a meeting (with local media present) who ultimately get results.

The author is a staff member for an alderman in a major American city. For the purposes of job confidentiality, they have requested to remain anonymous.

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