Chapter Three – Issues, the Building Blocks of Change

Issues are the most important piece of the kind of community organizing I have done, yet it seems issues are also the most difficult for people to get a handle on.  What am I talking about?  Everyone knows what an issue is.  Well, here is an example of what I mean.  Several years ago I was doing organizing training in New Hampshire and after we had gone through the entire issue section of the training I asked what issue the group would want to work on.  Everyone immediately said “transportation.”  I asked them to flesh that out a bit and it quickly became apparent three or four people were talking about paratransit[1] but in two different cities.  Another person was talking about air travel.  Still another meant the intercity Peter Pan buses (New Hampshire’s “Greyhound” type transportation).  One woman was talking about airport shuttle service she wanted to see at the Manchester airport.  A couple of others were talking about mainline bus service in Nashua.  The group members were not talking about the same thing at all.  What had seemed a unified issue to the group was actually literally a variety of pieces all over the state.


ADAPT protesters in wheelchairs block Greyhound bus bound for Tijuana.  Driver sits inside.

ADAPT blocked hundreds of buses because they had no wheelchair lifts.  Photo: Tom Olin

A Call To Action


These broader “issues” like “transportation” are not issues in the community organizing sense.  We use these shortcut terms all the time, but when we are thinking about organizing we need to be more specific, clearer. In organizing big topics are sometimes called concerns; it doesn’t really matter what you call them.  The point is you want to steer away from them.  So what is the difference?

Concerns are general discussion topics; they are vague.  Issues are specific, focused and have an aim.  They call for action.  Concerns may be interesting to discuss, but issues say commit or reject, take a stand.  Concerns have little to no risk involved because they don’t require any action.  Webster’s defines issue as “the point at which an unsettled matter is ready for a decision.”[2]  Trapp used to say an issue is “a culminating point leading to a decision.”



Think of the difference in your reaction to someone wanting to talk about drugs and the problems they create in our society, versus someone wanting to talk about the meth lab house at 2302 Main ST.  With the meth lab house you might be very interested if you live at 2304 Main St and wanted that drug traffic out of your neighborhood, or you might not want to get involved because you worry about retaliation.  If you lived on the other side of town you might think that really doesn’t affect me.  But if you lived next to a crack house across town you might think if I help you with that crack house, maybe you could help me with the one by my house.  The specifics make it more real for you.  The same is true for “places that have no access” versus “the I HOP downtown not having any Braille menus” or not having a ramp.  The “no access” theme may be good for a long bitch session, but it won’t really go anywhere.  The folks who will care very much about Braille are likely to perk up when you mention the menus, but may have less interest in the ramp.  The folks who want a ramp may not even think about the menus.

We sometimes think self interest as selfishness.  People will more likely get interested in issues that affect them. 

You can start organizing around a concern, but you must move swiftly to realm of an issue.  You need to focus and clarify what you want to do something about.  You can take the broad picture and hone in on a specific piece you want to address.


A great example is ADAPT’s first issue.  The short hand way people talked about it was “lifts on buses.”  That made a good sign and a good chant but the actual issue was that we wanted all new public transit buses (also known as mainline buses) to be equipped with a lift.  We weren’t asking the bus companies to retrofit (go back and put lifts on old buses), only to buy new ones with lifts. It was short, to the point; it said what we wanted done and who needed to do it.  Not all public transit riders would support this, some would be neutral some might even be against it, but it drew a line in the sand.  In the beginning of ADAPT it was mostly folks in wheelchairs because the issue was as defined effected them the most.


Later, when the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, passed and all new buses were required to have lifts, ADAPT wanted a new issue.  Many of us met in Denver to decide what that would be.  There was a lot of talk about attendant services and how these services and supports gave many people with disabilities the ability to enjoy their new rights; without these services and supports folks were stuck in bed, at home or worst of all in an institution.  Many of ADAPT members had been institutionalized and taught the rest of us all how this was America’s disability ghetto. Our publicly funded long term care services were terribly biased toward institutions, with more than 80% of the dollars going to institutional services[3]. We wrangled and wrestled with how to focus this huge concern.  Most of our folks, and many other people with disabilities who needed this kind of assistance to live in the community are very low income and would only get services via Medicaid.  (They could never afford it on their own and there was no insurance even if someone could afford that.)  Medicaid was also the largest funder of these kinds of services and we believed Medicaid would pull the rest of long term care in its wake.  We didn’t want to make this task inhumanly big so at first we decided we wanted to redirect 25% of the Medicaid long term care funds from institutions to community based attendant services.  Over the years we have tweaked our main issue but this was our starting point, and we achieved that years ago.


Focusing your issues as specifically as possible as soon as possible allows you  to move people to action and commitment.


A Shared Problem

Just as issues are not the same as concerns, they are also not personal problems.  A good organizing issue should be a shared problem.  It needs to affect many people so they will want to be involved and do something about it.  One person’s problem generally will not get a lot of commitment from other people; after all, we all have problems.  Sometimes however, a personal problem is a great example of a bigger, shared issue; so sometimes you can identify an issue from a person’s individual story or situation.  Their experience is an example of a bigger experience.  You can organize around these kinds of shared problems.


ADAPT of Texas had a member who was waiting and waiting for services. It had been months and no word when she would be able to move out of the nursing home into her own place, with services in the community.  We would ask and ask when she would get out only to be told there was a lot of paperwork and be patient.  We knew her experience was not unique, many other folks were in the same waiting boat, their lives ticking away while someone shuffled papers somewhere or left the papers in a pile while they thought about something else.  Finally we decided enough was enough.  We went to a board meeting of the agency responsible for her services and we wrapped her and her wheelchair in red crepe paper so she just had a little slit between the strips to see from and another she could speak through.  She looked like a very un-cozy cocoon.  We rolled into the board meeting before it started and wrapped all the audience seating in red (crepe paper) tape.  Then while she spoke about the horrors of living in and waiting in a nursing home, we tossed the remainder of the “red tape” back and forth across the room so pieces were falling everywhere.  We gave the committee scissors and told them it was time to cut the red tape.  Bureaucrats though they were, even they got the message and within a week or two our member was out in an apartment with services and the agency was re-doing its procedures for providing services to people who wanted out!


Are You With Us or Against Us?

Because good organizing issues make people take sides, they help you identify who you are dealing with: the great, the good, the bad and the ugly!  How you define your issues helps to identify your primary enemy, the person who is blocking you, and therefore the person who can give you what you want. This could be the owner of a business, the head of your state’s Medicaid program, the City Manager or Public Works Director, as examples.  In addition they help you identify secondary enemies, people who are assisting your primary enemy: the manager of a store or office, the state human services Budget Director, the state or city attorney.  They also show you who is neutral on your issue, not caring or not wanting to get involved.  Last but by no means least, they show who is ON your side; what we call hard and soft core constituencies or allies.  Hard core are the folks who are really committed to addressing your issue, ready to push, stay involved, do what is necessary to make the changes you want.  Soft core are the people who support you but are not so interested they will do anything; they might sign a petition, make a phone call, things that do not demand a lot of commitment but do show support.


With the I-HOP access example, you might get the folks who are interested in ramps to be at least soft core supporters of the Braille menus, and you might make them even stronger supporters if you offered to work on getting ramps once they Brailled the menus.  This would be a kind of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” approach.  Other potential soft core ramp supporters might be family members, rehabilitation counselors, friends.  Potential soft core ramp supporters might be friends and family, folks with baby carriages, bicyclists.  Be creative, who would have dreamed bar patrons would be fans of closed captioning for TV?


Cutting the Issue

We must take it from a concern to an issue.  We want to get the ball rolling!  As good organizers and leaders our job is to move our folks together toward our goal, attract others if we can and make something happen!  To do this we “cut” our issue, we package it so the way we talk about the issue gets people to care, to get involved and join our campaign.

People don’t act from logic.  If they did who would smoke cigarettes?  Those warnings on the packages would have ended smoking years ago.  People act from emotion and self-interest. This is not a disparagement but a reality. There are exceptions to every rule, but if we spend all our time looking for these exceptional folks we will take much longer than necessary.  There is nothing wrong with self-interest. Remember the old saying “he helps those help themselves.”

To cut the issue you want to phrase it in ways that will incite action and involvement, will promote people caring about this issue.  Use flag words that provoke emotions.  Scary words like “toxins”, “Cancer causing poisons” get people’s juices going.  In the disability world some examples would be “nursing home”, “institution”, “professionals feeding off our lives”, “jail”, or “warehouse.”  These words are scary to most of us in the disability community, we know they could be our future or our family members’ futures and we know that is not a pretty thought.




Babs Johnson surrounded by crowd at managed care protest.  She holds sign "Institutions Are Not Solutions!"  Beside her another sign reads "Free the Cash Cows" Some people dressed as cows.

ADAPT protested Managed Care conference and the hotel lobby shook with the chant “We’re not cash cows!” Photo: Tim Wheat




Self-Worth Matters 

Tell it so it attacks my dignity, my self-worth.  “Would they ask non-disabled people to enter their restaurant through the kitchen by the garbage cans?”  Not very likely, and for those of us who have had to do this, not a nice thought or smell.  Yum, yum, yum!


Once our ADAPT group was testifying at City Council about the need for more curb cuts.  One of our members, Sparky, who has a speech impairment, testified about some harrowing experiences getting stuck in traffic because of a lack of curb cuts.  A local radio announcer, who went by the handle Shark Man, was heard later that day ranting and raving about how some folks (homeless people, people with disabilities, etc.) should not be allowed to testify and he then played a brief recording of Sparky testifying that day. It didn’t take much cutting of this issue to get our group invested in the Spark Man vs. Shark Man campaign to educate this “Shark” about the first amendment rights of everyone.  We took a vanload of people up to the radio station and went inside.  The ADAPT protest god[4] conveniently called the receptionist away so we found an empty front desk and reception area.  We went into the office looking for someone to assist us.  We followed an old rule of thumb: go as deep as possible as quickly as possible.  We wound up by the conference room where the station owners just happened to be meeting with the local managers.  We expressed our outrage at the station’s anti-free speech stance and quickly gained agreement to our demands: 1) that Shark Man apologize to Sparky on the air, and 2) that the station play an hour of disability rights music.


What’s in Your Wallet?

Tie the issue to my pocket book, or better yet my piggy bank. The more zeros, the harder it is for folks to relate to a number.  Don’t say “a $40,000,000 [million] rate hike”, my eyes are glazing over.  Instead say this rate hike will cost your family $200 a year. People know what $200 means in their lives.  Break big numbers down into human-sized, daily living kinds of numbers.  That way people can relate to them much more easily.


Get Personal

Relate the issue to people in a personal way. Show its effect on me (the person you are talking to) or my family in heavy way, like safety or wellbeing.  What is my self-interest; why should I care; what does it have to do with me and my life? You could say if Governor Thaddeus Doolittle’s budget is adopted “your services will be cut by 25%”, or “your mother will be forced in a nursing home.”  If you tell someone “your taxes are paying to lock people like me away” that can rock them back on their heels.  If you then add, “and it would be cheaper to give us services in the community,” many folks will be surprised, perk up and get interested. Personalize your argument as much as possible


You also need to cut the issue so it personalizes in another way, so it identifies the enemy – the person causing the problem, who is also the person who can give you what you want.  We in the disability community, and really people in general, have a bad habit of saying: the Department of Human Services is cutting funding for our services, or the federal government wants to take away our rights.  Well what the heck is the Department of Human Services or the Federal government?  Dozens and dozens of buildings are working against you?  That is not what caused the issue.  No, a person is ultimately responsible. Someone inside those buildings, often the big boss, but not always, made some decision that is going to hurt your folks.  It is under his or her order, his or her leadership that funds are cut, laws or rules are changed.  Use the person’s name, not just their title; so Jane Jones or Raul Martinez made this trouble and they need to clean it up.  If they say “Don’t make it personal” you know you are doing the right thing – and it’s working.  If you want results you must hold that decision maker responsible for his or her actions.


Faces versus Numbers A couple of statistics can make those of us who look less like authority figures (people with disabilities, Seniors, young folks, middle aged women who don’t wear suits) a little more air of expertise.  But I mean a COUPLE of statistics.  More than about two or three and you will start to lose people, more than five and it’s nap time.  A personal story can sway people as much or more.  Don’t pretend to be a demographics expert or a bean counter if you aren’t one.  You and your folks are just people who care very deeply about this and here’s why… and you tell your story.  You are showing another kind of expertise, the kind learned in the school of real life.


Putting people on the line, making them make choices, forces action and action leads to results.  This is how you find out who your friends are and who your enemies are.



[1]Door to door small bus service, almost always only for people with disabilities and sometimes seniors.


[2]Webster’s Online Dictionary  definition 6 c.  Accessed 7/24/13.


[3] US Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS).


[4] An inside joke, we call our good luck the work of the ADAPT protest god.

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