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Active Trans’ South Branch Leadership Workshop Covered Smart Strategies for Advocacy

This old railroad corridor in Little Village is is slated to become the Paseo trail. Southwest Side residents want to make sure that such transportation improvements don’t result in displacement. Photo: John Greenfield

On Thursday, September 27, local residents interested in improving walking, biking, and transit on the Near Southwest Side gathered for Active Trans' South Branch leadership workshop led by Steve Simmons and Jim Merrell at the Pilsen YMCA.

The seminar, which focused on Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Bridgeport, and Pilsen,  began with the overarching question of how the mayoral election is impacting conversations around transportation. With the recent announcement that Mayor Rahm Emanuel will not be seeking reelection, sustainable transportation advocates are seeing this as an opportunity to bring these issues to the forefront.

Participants were walked through the steps for a potential advocacy campaign via a "campaign action plan" handout. “There is a growing interest in walking, biking, and transit in the quality of life in communities,” Merrell said. “It’s important to see this as a starting point and something you’re building with other people.”

The first step in the campaign action plan is to define your goals. Bridgeport resident Nicole Kemerer said she's interested in learning about what she can do in her community and asked about some of the work Active Trans has done around the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Simmons described some of the walk audits conducted this year in Bridgeport. “We walked five different routes along the Eleanor Street boathouse, and there was a lot of interest in improving Loomis Street,” he said. Another point brought up was the fact that there are several parks in Bridgeport, but no integrated park system to encourage people to use them.

One participant from Pilsen expressed a desire for the 18th Street bike lanes to be repainted from Western Avenue to the lakefront as the paint has faded along much of the stretch. After a bicyclist was critically injured on 18th last month, there has been a renewed interest in improving safety on the street, so the time is ripe to address the bike lane issue.

Jim Merrell, right, at the workshop. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Bridgeport resident Nicole Kemerer and Active Trans' Jim Merrell at the workshop. Photo: Lynda Lopez
Jim Merrell, right, at the workshop. Photo: Lynda Lopez

Next Merrell discussed the importance of being clear on targets. “A lot of advocates come to the Mayor’s Bike Advisory Council to scream at CDOT, but it’s also important to engage your aldermen,” he said. Merrell added that it’s also important to figure out who holds decision-making power on the issue you are advocating for.

Once you have determined your target, one of the most essential parts of campaign planning is to determine your base, or the people who will be working alongside you towards a goal. This can include the local chamber of commerce, community-based organizations, and other entities. “It’s important to bring people together and talk about these issues,” Merrell said.

After groups have joined forces to work on an issue, you can start planning your tactics for achieving your goal. Some examples include organizing fun community events to promote your campaign, or spreading the word about it at existing ones.

“Getting kids involved in an advocacy priority is a great example,” Merrell said. “In Belmont-Cragin, a group of kids helped lead a community bike-ride.” He also stressed that walk audits are great organizing activities to get people out to look at the conditions of local streets.

Other strategies include reaching out to the news media, flyering, and petitioning. A good example of a recent petition was one calling for the preservation of the 31st Street bus.

The last step on the campaign-planning guide is to create action plan benchmarks to determine attainable goals along the way to your bigger goal, such as a target of collecting 100 signatures in one month.

The last few minutes of the workshop were used for an open conversation, and the issue of displacement came up as some local residents brought up the proposed El Paseo Trail in Pilsen and Little Village and their plans to push for a community benefits agreement along the easternmost part of the trail in Pilsen.

This led to a conversation about the need to push for better transportation facilities, while proactively working to ensure that the higher property values that result don't lead to the displacement of longtime residents

“If walking, biking, and transit infrastructure is causing inequitable communities, we aren’t doing our jobs,” Merrell said.

Info about future leadership workshops will be posted on the Active Trans website.

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