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PLOW THROUGH: Eliminate Bureaucratic Obstacles When You’re Taking a Stand.


It takes a great deal of persistence and fortitude to stand up to wrong things, especially when you’re sure to encounter major obstacles along the way. Obstacles like half-answers or non-answers. Here’s some tips on plowing through those barriers and getting something done:

Keep the Goal in Mind.

It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re pressing for information, or trying to dig deeper to figure out what’s happening around you. You can get lost on a rabbit trail and emerge months later confused about what started you on that path in the first place. Sometimes we make things more complicated than they are. And sometimes others make sure that it’s more complicated that what it should be. So try to keep your eye on the ball: is this an immediate health concern? Are there acute illnesses? If so, then what specific information do you need to investigate your concern? Old data or studies on chronic sicknesses could occupy your time for months – but that data won’t do the job when you’re dealing with an immediate environmental health concern. You can stay on track by keeping the goal front and center.

Get Equipped.

If you suspect something’s wrong in your neighborhood or area, do some preliminary research about the subject you’re challenging. Let’s say you’re concerned about the health of a river or creek near you. Start with a map. Get a sense of the topography and any near-by private companies or public installations. Every waterway, especially those connected with a larger water system, is studied and assessed on a routine basis. Check with the local riverkeepers organization. That group will usually post studies related to all waterways in the region. In addition, any major government facility will generally have to prepare environmental impact statements (EIS) for waterways near it. So will companies that plan to expand and who could potentially impact the environment. Find those EISs and read them carefully (more on how to do that in a future post). Run searches for news stories related to that waterway.

If your concern has to do with a landfill, there’s always information from many sources. Gather it and start reading. You’ll need to have some familiarity with the lingo, the definitions, the number identifiers for the site, and the innumerable acronyms used by agencies. These steps will help you get a big-picture sense before your start making calls.

Organize Information From the Start.

You are gathering information because you may need to present it to someone else, such as an agency or health department. Sometimes information trickles in over a period of months or years, and it becomes difficult to later find or summarize when you’re dealing with those who need to know. Do yourself a favor: organize early. If you don’t, you’ll spend a tremendous amount of time looking for an address, a name, or a picture that you just had in hand a few weeks ago. You might have one shot in dealing with someone who’ll listen. You need to be ready. You might not have the opportunity to call back or send additional information before they’ve handed you off to someone else and you have to start all over.

Your organizational system doesn’t need to be complicated. Everything should have its place. For example, use the trusty folder system labeled with subject headings that you anticipate needing. That way, as you find information or run across research, you can file it right away. You may want a folder for news articles. Another for technical information or testing. Yet another for information provided by a government agencies. If you’re trying to determine how many people are sick in your neighborhood, tack a map of the neighborhood on your wall and use pushpins to mark the homes from which you’ve spoken to someone. Use dates on your notes and your map. Over time, an organized picture will emerge and it will be useful for when you need to push for action. For example, you can say that eight people on this street experienced this sickness in the years between 2012-the present. Those numbers are concrete, and will have more of an impact than simply stating that people are sick.

Don’t simply rely upon Internet sites. Electronic information has a way of moving, or even disappearing altogether. Be sure to capture the information, whether in print or on your computer.

Know Who’s Who In the Political Arena.

You need to know who represents the area of concern and how to contact them. Understand that there’s a city or town representative (city or town council or board), county representatives, state representatives, and members of Congress. On the congressional level, there’ll be two senators from the state and multiple congressmen or congresswomen who are elected from different jurisdictions around the state. Make a chart that includes all contact information, with pictures, if necessary.

Start with the lowest level representative and meet with him or her. Tell that person your concerns. Ask for investigation help. If that person lacks knowledge or the will to do anything, ask if you can count on that person’s support for the next-level person who can help investigate your concern. That low-level representative may have more accessibility to the next person in line. An introduction can be made. Whether or not the person hears your concern, establish a chain of accountability and mark it on your chart (with dates and copies of letters and emails). What did they person agree to do? When?

If the low-level person doesn’t respond, then you need to move to the next level yourself. Move on up to the president, if necessary and the situation warrants that level of concern.

Know Who’s Who Outside the Political Arena.

Identify who is in charge of the subject matter you’re concerned about and organize that information. For example, you may be concerned about food safety or farm practices. Several agencies have some oversight responsibilities for food. Prepare a list that includes the following:

● Private actors or corporations:

If company is involved, find out who the owners are, as well as all contact information for the business. Learn everything you can about this company. What permits does it need to operate? What citations has it received? Who works there – talk to those people and find out what’s happening on the inside.

● Agency officials: Find out who has responsibility on the local level for your concern. For example, if the concern is health-related, then start with the county health department and work your way up from there.

● State Agencies: For example, environmental concerns might involve the state department of environmental conservation, which is known by different names in different states. (Some states call it the “department of natural resources.”) But environmental concerns could also implicate different departments with the state. For example, the state health department might have an environmental exposure section. Your concern might be insurance-related – do the same level of digging. There might be an insurance commissioner and another state agency, such as the attorney general’s office, that might handle complaints along these lines.

It’s important to understand that state agencies are also broken down by district or region. Make a list that includes all levels, up to the highest level of state government—the governor.

● Federal Agencies: The same logic applies to federal agencies. They may have overlapping responsibilities. You need to find out.

Put A Face To the Obstacle.

You may want to call out specific people with whom you’ve spoken, either in social media or in letters to others from whom you need help. Sometimes a specific reference will help the person follow through, especially when that person believes that a mistake could cost him or her a job. Or an election.

Establish Action Dates and Then Hold People to Them.

When you call or write your representatives, it’s important that you ask for a date by which the person expects to get back to you. If they offer no date, tell them a date on which you’ll follow up and then mark down your own deadline. Be sure to actually follow up. Again and again, if necessary. Do not allow weeks and months to go by without an answer. Always be firm, but respectful.

Follow up in writing.

There’s a greater sense of accountability when you’ve sent letters and/or email messages confirming your concerns. That way, you have a record of the dates on which you sought help, and can refer to them when necessary. It shows you’re serious about your concern and getting answers. Also, you’ll likely get a written response in return. It allows you to study the specific comments from those that you’re contacting, and perhaps get input about those answers from people more knowledgeable than you.

Follow Up Until You’re Satisfied With the Answers.

At the end of the day, do a gut-check. Do the answers you’re getting from agencies or politicians ring true? Do they answer your central questions? Are you comfortable with what you’re hearing? If not, keep digging.

Pray For Direction.

Ask God to direct your steps. Ask for wisdom. Ask for discernment with the information that you’re gathering.

He answers.

After all, in His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:10).

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