I attended the Lowell City Council meeting last night for only the second time in the fifteen months that we have lived here. I wanted to show my support for a petition requesting the council to study the possibility of Lowell adopting a Trust Act. (A trust act says that city police will not enforce federal immigration law; the feds have to do that. Learn more here.) After several residents spoke in favor of the act and two spoke against, we were summarily dismissed by three city councilors who indicated they would allow the study but had already made up their minds that Lowell should have no such act on the books. One councilor even wagged her finger at the crowd of 40+ who had gathered to support the trust act. (We did interrupt her when she said she had received “no calls from anyone who is afraid of the police.” Of course not! But neither did she believe our testimony on behalf of those fearful ones.) In the end, the city manager agreed to have the study completed by next week. How much can you possibly study in one week?!
I went home angry that my city council had brushed off and even chastised such a large group of concerned citizens who came out on a snowy Tuesday night. While I was not involved in planning this effort, I also went home wondering what could have been done differently to achieve a more favorable (or even more hopeful) outcome. On a local level particularly, where we live in the same neighborhoods and shop at the same grocery stores, I wonder how we can relate to our leaders more like partners and less like adversaries. I suspect many of us who are young and frustrated have few relationships with our city leaders. This is only magnified by the fact that Lowell is attracting more and more newcomers without deep ties to the city.
I know very little about how politics really works, but there are some strategies that might be useful when protesting and petitioning are not enough:
Build Relationships: Invite a city councilor to speak with and listen to your group. This could be a time to find out what is most important to that councilor and to let the councilor know what matters to you.
Identify Partners: Call another leader with whom you are connected and find out who might be sympathetic to your position on a given issue. Begin policy efforts there. That sympathetic leader’s voice may carry special weight at decision making time, or they might be able to bend the ear of someone with more power.
Go High: I’m not talking about the moral high ground, though I try to live there most of the time. In Lowell, city councilor is not a full time job. But State Representative is. State Reps have more time for their constituents and might know who is sympathetic to your position on a given issue. If it is an issue that your State Rep also cares about (or hears a lot about) he or she might be able to put a little pressure on the local leaders to take action. Today I decided to call my State Rep and ask him to reach out to our city manger about other Trust Act cities in Massachusetts. He was not available, but his office manager was excellent, and based on previous experience, I expect that either she or Rep. Golden will return my call.
None of this is meant to be critical of last night’s effort. It certainly does not condone the refusal of the council to engage our request. I am more resolved to make my voice heard at city council, not less. But I am also willing to try other tactics – ones that will require a different kind of hard work like relationship building, listening, and advocating in smaller ways with the hope of making big things happen.