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No Need for Astroturf Where Natural Allies are in the Grassroots

In Sunday’s New York Times, Clifford Levy educated Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov about the community-based opposition that he is facing as he takes over ownership of the New Jersey Nets and becomes champion of the organization’s push for a new stadium in Brooklyn. But, even if Prokhorov does face grassroots public opposition on top of the gauntlet of New York administrative public processes, there is a silver lining: the 150,000 Russian immigrants that call Brooklyn home.

As we saw through September in the Powering Past NIMBY series, in this so-called “Little Odessa,” Prokhorov’s community pros have a ready-made base for identification and engagement. But, what real interest do the borough’s Russian immigrants have in the question of a stadium?


As neighbors, they could have the same interest that the leading opponents’ group – Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn – has. The fact of their national origin is nothing more than a convenient way to tap into an existing network of organized community-based allies. But, it is also possible that they have additional interests based in patriotic pride or even the potential for moving an NBA franchise with a natural Russian fan base to their own Russian ex-pat enclave.

Whatever the interest, Brooklyn’s Russian immigrants would add some depth to the discussion about the stadium. The EnergyWorks CR “Third Voice Theory” is all about making your public process a conversation and not allowing the discussion to descend into debate, or worse, a full-on shooting match.

With neither a financial stake in the project itself, nor an entrenched position like that of an organized opposition group, third voices like Brooklyn’s Russian immigrants should be at the table for several reasons:

COMMUNITY IS MORE THAN ME AND YOU – A community conversation that pits developers against communities in all of the expected ways is a recipe for disaster. People have an unavoidable tendency to draw lines and take up sides: the Oxford debating rules apply. The entire feel of that kind of exchange is adversarial and counterproductive to planning and developing a project that is ACTUALLY best for the developer and the community.

YES OR NO IS AN ENDPOINT. “MAYBE SO” GETS TO THE MERITS – Ultimately, the administrative and legal processes that your project will undergo are designed to get an answer: approved or denied. But, that does not mean the entire conversation has to be held in the context of yes or no. Instead, you want to discuss the merits of your planned project and what it will mean to the community in every context. Who better to talk about the jobs impact than labor groups? Don’t you think it would be helpful to have the local climate action group at the table when talk turns to climate change?

GET BEYOND THE BLUEPRINT – Insiders, pros and observers – no matter which side of the fence they sit on – will recognize the rote recitation that consumes (and wastes) so much time in public permitting processes. Developers use the same studies and numbers; communities have their own favorites. Third voices round out the conversation. They come to the table with their own perspectives and their own interests. They should make it clear that they are THERE FOR THEMSELVES.

Bringing third voices to the table is not a gimmick. To be effective, these voices need to be strong and independent, and there should be no question about your influence over their opinion. That is why your due diligence in identification and your proactivity in engagement is so critical. You will want to make sure that the voices you seek to mobilize have their own strong mutual interest to speak to and that they are able to do it persuasively. Sure, you can accept less, but that is the ideal.

It is not color-by-numbers. Each project and every community will present its own challenges and opportunities, so you have to make sure that you are mobilizing voices in a way that is relevant and fits the context of your project.

Through October, new posts will feature some anecdotes demonstrating the effective deployment of third voices as we begin to outline the technique for fitting them into your consensus-first approach.