How do we mobilize in rural communities/small cities?

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Rural or small city organizing presents challenges and opportunities that are unique from urban or larger city environments. Many organizers may feel discouraged by limited turnout to their events compared to more populated areas. There are several considerations for organizing in rural areas/small towns, and also several things that can be leveraged to build successful campaigns. The following responds to a request asking for tips on organizing outside larger urban environments, compiling input from experienced organizers here in so-called Canada, direct insight following a learning circle with activists in rural areas/small cities and research findings from organizers in rural America.

Introductory thoughts

"Community organizing has been going on for as long as there have been people living together facing challenges. Many people work together in small and rural communities all the time to address contemporary challenges, this is the basis of community organizing." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United

"On the one hand, sometimes all it takes is a spark plug to get people who are sensitive to the causes you are defending to join you. On the other hand, it is necessary to deconstruct somewhat the idea that organizing a mobilization in urban areas is much easier and very different from rural areas. While it is true that the often younger, university-educated population of cities has a large number of committed people, this must be put into perspective. For example, a demonstration of 1,000 people in Montreal, which has 2 million inhabitants, is the equivalent (proportionately) of a march of 50 people in an entire region like the Gaspé, which has less than 100,000 inhabitants. It is therefore necessary to begin by readjusting the mobilization objectives according to the population density in presence." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert

Building connections and outreach

1. Meet people where they're at
  • "The golden rule for small town organizing is meet people where they are at, literally and figuratively. Finding supporters, volunteers, donors, and other potential partners should be done by going to places and events that most likely already have your desired audience in attendance. For example, if you are organizing around affordable housing and research shows that moms are a likely audience to become supporters, go to events at schools and daycares the public is invited to, or child-centred events in the community, or you can street near these places where it is appropriate and not creepy to talk to likely moms as they pass by." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United
  • "If your mostly volunteer prospects all have young children, work with an early childhood program that has activities for parents and kids, go to one of the activities and present to the parents, bring something age appropriate for the kids to do while you talk with the parents, bring the parents coffee to get their tired brains activated." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United
  • "Try different activities to find your people. Test hold house parties/meetings (always with free food!), try streeting outside the grocery or hardware store, try new things where your desired audience goes." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United
  • "The 5 practices on an organizers journey of telling stories, building relationships, developing strategy and structure, and taking action can all be thought of through the lens of meeting people where they are at to get better involvement in small and rural communities." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United

2. Talk to family, friends and people you know

  • Your personal address book is useful for organizing. "Don't be afraid to ask friends and relatives for help. Your contacts have contacts; you will be amazed at how far your request will go!" -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "In order to encourage involvement, one must be involved in the community and rely on people who already have a network in the area. We must also not hesitate to call on people who speak out publicly to denounce certain situations in order to give them our support." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
3. Build a media list
  • "The use of local media, no matter how 'small' they may be, constitutes a gateway into each community, either through the distribution of newspapers or through local radio. However, it is necessary to multiply the ways to reach the population. This diversity of strategies to be implemented is even more important in the regions, since older populations, less adept with digital technology, are present." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • Local media sources are more trustworthy to people in rural regions than national news. Facebook and local news stations are the top platforms to seek news for people in rural communities. Utilize this; reach out to your local news outlets to feature your actions and demands. Invest time in making local news connections. [1]

  • "Small local newspapers, whether printed or digital, should be considered either to distribute open letters or to challenge journalists." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • Research the main newspaper/radio/television contacts in your area, then learn what will interest the regional and the national outlets."Find out who writes on rural issues. When you read the news, always be on the lookout for authors who will be interested in your work." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "Use your press releases judiciously, and journalists will pay more attention to you. Do follow-ups with the people you send them to. Remember that a press release is used to announce an event, not to complain about or denounce an ongoing problem. It must have a quote from a source (often a member of your own organization) and it should follow an established format." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
4. Build networks and coalitions with other groups
  • "It is by taking one step at a time, by establishing a core of more committed people that the circle of people ready to get involved will gradually expand. Do not hesitate to create an informal network by giving it a name and taking the time to structure it little by little." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • "Partner with other types of committed groups (community gardens, parent groups, women's groups, workplaces, etc.) and collaborate could be a good strategy, as mobilizing people from scratch can take a lot of energy in areas with less density and diversity. Create links and partnerships with the people in charge of gathering places, like the library, cafés, the city (for the organization of events in parks), schools, local businesses, youth centres, community and/or cultural centres etc." For example, a coalition of citizens, politicians and community groups formed a coalition for Quebec to intervene in the management of the Lac Barrière dam. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • Identify: "who has influence in your community? Do they have ideas or suggestions for you? Will they help spread your message?"' -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • Create a network of support by working with local organizations - churches, school clubs, your local horticultural society, bicycling clubs, women’s institutes, field naturalist societies, rod and gun clubs. Participate in their actions and events. How do you complement each other? How are you different?" -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

  • "Many provincial organizations also have networks made up of local groups that can be put to good use. For example, the Union paysanne or the network of family farmers. In the same vein, two movements have developed to promote local mobilizations: the David Suziki Foundation's Réseau Demain le Québec and the Front commun pour la transition énergétique (which brings together dozens of organizations)." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • For more on forming coalitions, see this guide by Blueprints for Change.

5. Seek Indigenous Perspectives

Above: Protest, Western University, December 2022. Credit: S. Collingwood

  • Learn about the language and culture of the people of your area. Study your common history, and find out what treaties apply. "Discuss a land acknowledgement for your meetings and events. Learn to pronounce names." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "Promote Indigenous events" and "reach out to Native friendship centres, who may be able to suggest a speaker to help inform your own events. Learn about the appropriate protocol for inviting Indigenous speakers. Remember that the people you will meet are usually busy volunteers; be respectful of their time.
" -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
6. Contact local businesses
  • "Could they support an event or participate in an action? Would they donate to your organization? (You could reciprocate with an acknowledgement on your webpage or leaflet). Could you put a poster or a basket of informational cards or leaflets in their reception area?" -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • Share posters for upcoming events or notice of your group with local businesses. Some are more than willing to post your poster on a bulletin or on their shop window if they support your cause! -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
7. Connect with local politicians
  • Get to know your local politicians. Many may be "sympathetic to what you are doing. Develop a relationship with your MP and MPP, and particularly with councillors and other local representatives. Be friendly and receptive, but be persistent. Letters and calls are important; personal meetings are even better." Congratulate them when they do something good. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
8. Turn to National organizations for support
  • "While small towns likely don't have an organized network of community organizers, much less organizers sharing best practices on specific issues, regional, provincial, national and international communities of practice, training institutions and hubs already exist that you should get involved with for training, learning and sharing best practices and peer support. The Climate Justice Organizing Hub is a great example of an organization that fills this role across the country... As they say, let's not reinvent the wheel!" -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United
  • "Look for organizations that can help you understand the complexities of the issues you face." Keep in contact, and ask if they have any local connections. "Your organization is a part of a larger movement. For example...
9. Consider event and meeting access
  • "Make sure any communities meetings or events you host have a transportation plan. Transportation is least accessible in small and rural communities. Having your events near public transportation hubs during key bus hours is useful, building in a carpooling/ridesharing organizing component to RSVPs can work well, and assume if the weather isn't ideal, rural folks will be less willing to drive in on the highways.
  • Making sure rural organizers have adequate resources marked for getting around the region to meet with prospects or recruit supporters/volunteers/donors. This may mean a higher transportation budget for mileage, or more time for long public transportation routes, or both." Experiment with online events/meetings. -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United
10. Offer public shows of support
  • E.g. hand out stickers or make yard signs for people to show their support for a local issue or your campaigning group! Note that this will require a small amount of funding -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • Asking supporters to add a sign to their lawn helps to create excitement and a sense of viability. In communities where driving is necessary to get everywhere, signs can help to identify your supporters to engage them in future organizing opportunities. [2]
11. Encourage those involved!
  • Use 'wolf nudges'! "When wolves move as a pack, they are constantly bumping into each other. That’s intentional; it’s just a little signal of solidarity to the other wolves, a reminder that their group is made up of individuals. Your “wolf nudges” could be directed to others in your organization, people you consider allies, or those you’d like to develop a stronger relationship with. 
  • A wolf nudge can be as simple as copying a notification of an event to someone who may not know about it, or sharing your notes from that event. You might send a copy of a picture taken at a rally with someone who was there. You could send a short note of thanks to someone who helped out. A wolf nudge is usually something that doesn't need to be acknowledged, but it strengthens your whole community." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

12. Try door knocking

  • "Door to door canvassing is a great way to establish connections. Take your time, and be sure to listen: you will learn a great deal of useful information about the community. You can also organize canvassing trips around farmers’ markets, local fairs, plowing matches, many other local events. Make it fun, and stop for coffee afterwards." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
13. Host booths at local events
  • Tabling could include educating local residents, petitions for folks to sign, sign up sheets to join an email list etc. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
14. Create bulletin and leaflet networks

Above: "Mailbox" by REM Photo Off & On is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • "Create a bulletin board network. Are there cafes, businesses, libraries, grocery stores, churches, sporting facilities, long-term care residences, or other locations that would allow you to post on their bulletin board? Make a list of the boards you find, then divide the list up geographically among volunteers, so that no volunteer has too many bulletin boards to cover. Announcements can be sent out by email, printed off, and posted quickly.
  • Design your announcements so that they do not require too much printer ink. Consider that some members of your network will only have a black-and-white printer. These members should colour in a few elements of the poster to call attention to your message. Libraries will often take multiple copies of an announcement, sending them out to be posted at the smaller branches. They may also partner in an event." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "A leaflet network asks volunteers to print off a message from their email and distribute in a defined area. For example, volunteers could drop off a few leaflets on their rural route on the way to the grocery store. The message should be carefully designed in order not to waste paper or ink. For example, you might think of printing announcements two to a page. It’s important not to overwork volunteers." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • Don't forget to hand out leaflets and sign up sheets at your actions!
15. Socialize and get to know others!
  • Don't do mobilizing alone; include social events to keep your spirits high and form deeper bonds. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • Organize potlucks, family-friendly events... things that draw community members in to mingle!

Narrative and messaging

1. Listen to and learn from locals
  • "Subscribe to farm magazines, and learn a little about farm concerns." You might even be able to find articles written by people in your area who may be interested in your issue. For example...


Country Guide

Bulletin des Agriculteurs -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

*Note: workers are not exclusively farmers in rural areas, but they do make up a big part and their needs are not amplified in urban settings. Leverage this!
  • "Find out what rural residents are concerned about before coming in with your message." Your narrative should resonate with rural residents. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • Survey people on their needs and concerns. E.g. Alma en Transition used a google form to compile results on top issues. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • For example, top issues for rural Americans (according to research from include [3]  :

    • Wages increases 
    • Prioritizing small, local businesses
    • Incentivizing local construction, manufacturing and agriculture
    • Investment in rural jobs
    • Decreasing daily expenses such as the cost of health, child and elderly care
    • Expanding access to affordable housing
    • Increasing investment in transportation and connectivity (internet)
    • Promoting safe rural communities
    • Investing in rural education and arts
    • Promoting outdoor recreation and the protection of the environment
2. Craft a narrative and image that suits the needs of locals/your target audience
  • "Using a public narrative that is centred around your desired audience is also very useful for figuratively meeting your audience where they are at. This includes telling stories and using language and phrases they connect with." Using the example of organizing around affordable housing, if research shows that moms are a likely audience to become supporters, "sharing a personal story about your connection to needing affordable housing for you and your children or when you were a child, and centring the experience of a mother in the story will make it easier to connect with the audience through shared experience and emotion. Using language the audience of moms use in the small community and connecting the narrative to current community narratives will make you and your experience relatable to this audience." -Montana Burgess, Neighbours United'
  • "When you are confident you understand your audience, communicate a sense of purpose by setting out the main points of what you want to do. Save the details for later." -Sharon Collingwood (Perth Sustainability Hub)
  • "Think about a simple slogan that is easy to recognize and remember. 'Take a picture, or find a representative image you could use as a brand. Develop a logo" (see the following logo making tool). -Sharon Collingwood (Perth Sustainability Hub)
3. Leverage key community members/people who are trusted
  • E.g. Vire Au Vert made a video for distribution (which could be done in local facebook groups, for example) including the viewpoints on key issues from community members who have some local recognition. You might also include their quotes in written materials (E.g. flyers) -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • According to research by in rural America, the people most trusted include doctors and nurses, farmers and ranchers, local business people and teachers and educators. [4]  

4. Avoid stereotypes in your messaging 

The following insight comes from based in the so-called US: [5]

  • Rural voters support key progressive policies. For example, US polling data shows 36% of rural voters strongly agree the government has a responsibility to combat climate change, and 25% somewhat agree. That’s a majority! [6]
  • “While rural voters do lean right when it comes to political identity, the breakdown is not nearly as dramatic as often portrayed in the media. Rural US data suggests there’s only about an 8% difference between the presence of “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans” when comparing voters in cities to rural areas. [7]
  • Not all rural citizens are farmers; they make up a big portion of workers, but a larger portion of people work in sectors such as education, healthcare, industry etc. [8]

5. Use community care values-based framing [9]

The following insight comes from based in the so-called US:

  • Rural voters believe rural communities look out for each other (particularly friends and family). [10]
  • This value, community care, should be central to campaigning efforts and messaging. (E.g. instead of critiquing what’s wrong in rural areas, point to what is right!)
6. Embrace local businesses and oppose corporate corruption  
  • A high majority of rural voters in the US believe “the government mostly reflects the will of the rich and influential.” ; 87% from polling data in the US and 69% agree the current economic system is rigged for the wealthy and powerful.
  • Rural people are looking for authentic leaders who understand their needs, which they feel aren’t being met by politicians. Leverage this! [11]
    • According to surveys conducted by, '“Rural respondents demonstrated significant support for candidates who expressed anti-corporation and pro-small business sentiment.” (E.g. against monopolies of food system, tax incentives for corporations). [12]

Online presence

1. Hold hybrid/virtual meetings
  • "The organization of virtual meetings also helps to promote involvement, especially because public transportation is sometimes non-existent or difficult to access." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • Holding meetings online can be particularly accessible for rural organizing where people are spread out, and it can be difficult to come together in-person often. E.g. Mouvement Mare. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
2. Use online organizing tools

1. "Slack allows you to easily post files, calendars, pictures, links and videos. Posts are kept for 3 months" on the free version.

  • "The program works on desktops and other devices, and allows for fast and effective communication."
  • Create a channel for easy sharing of links, and for gathering photos of events. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

2. Zoom allows you to create recurring meetings, and you can post the link in a google doc/share widely. It's easy to bookmark and reuse. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

3. Keep a shared drive to distribute and access resources
  • Google workspace is a "familiar standby for collaborative work." It can be linked to slack. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • A shared drive could include, for example: Flyers to print out, examples of chants, slogans, a list of videos and documentaries, example letters to the editor, media advisories, example petitions, action photos etc. You might also consider using a google form for folks to fill out and compile everyone's available skills and interests, or to use as a contact list. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • Create a shareable event calendar. What will be going on in your area over the next year that you can participate in?" Plan for events in advance, and "be sure that your calendar can be easily accessed by all members of your group. A Google calendar works well for this." After events, "don’t forget to take notes for next year - contacts, emails, telephone numbers and reminders of what was needed for the event." '-Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
4. Use social media
  • Social media accounts help with community building, "particularly since broadband access is increasing in so many rural communities. Be sure to set up some rules about appropriate content, and find an easy way to share links and other material to your social media group (e.g. slack). Follow like-minded groups and individuals, share their posts, and comment. Create online community." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • The use of digital technology makes it possible to cover sometimes very large geographical areas. As for all mobilizations, the creation of affinity groups on social networks becomes a very useful virtual rallying space that must be maintained and fed regularly." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • Instagram, twitter, facebook, a website, a podcast. Use whatever feels most accessible for reaching people in the area. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • US data suggests many rural citizens (and also many urban citizens) use Facebook as their primary news source because “users tend to read and share news from friends and family; those on the inside that they already trust.” [13]
  • Everyone in your group should be ready to send in their photos and videos after an action as soon as possible. -Sharon Collingwood,Perth Sustainability Hub
5. Create an email list
  • Consider purchasing a domain name for email (around $25 yearly). "This will allow you more consistent branding of your messaging" (, etc.). A domain name is also useful in setting up newsletter software." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "Mass messaging sent out by email is often caught in spam filters, particularly if links, photos and files are included. This is why mass mailing programs like MailChimp are so popular. Many are free, with some sending limitations. Most programs are easy to learn, and allow people to self-subscribe (a good way to pick up new members). NOTE: These programs will not work well when senders use free email services like Gmail. -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • For email newsletters, try to involve readers in what you publish. "Report on local news stories and upcoming events that connect with your issue, and include pictures of local people and landmarks. Quote the opinions of locals, even if they don’t always agree with you. Make sure your newsletter is useful to your community." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

Tactics and strategy

1. Get creative!
Above: Chalktivist event, Stratford Ontario. Credit: S. Collingwood
  • "Art shows, speeches, parades, dinners, bicycle safaris, picnics, festivals, silent auctions, free concerts." Use your imagination, e.g. "a popup barbershop quartet or rap contest with comic protest songs. A chalktivism event held at the same time as a hopscotch tournament. A puppet making workshop showcasing the use of recycled material, followed by a parade." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • Ask for support in holding more impactful actions (E.g. are their local artists who could provide music at your event?) -Member of Reseau Demain le QC

2. Hold marches, rallies and blockades
3. Get involved in local politics
  • It is "essential to identify the different places of power, involvement and information dissemination. While municipal politics in the region may not be attractive to many, the public meetings of municipal councils that take place on a fixed date each month are important places to understand and influence local issues. This space is also a place for citizen engagement that should be utilized." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • "Each set of towns is overseen by another institution: the regional county municipality (RCM), bringing together the mayors and having teams of employees more important than many small villages, it is important to be interested in them." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
  • Groups such as Mères au front - Saguenay use town halls and citizens assemblies to discuss local issues. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • Alma en Transition uses a google form to compile responses to questions raised on key issues in municipal assemblies and at electoral debates. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC

  • Provide well researched, clearly written information on candidates and how to register to vote in a simple format. "A 'get out the vote' campaign should be planned well in advance." '-Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub
  • "Send letters to candidates asking them for their support on a clearly-defined position or issue. Include a card that identifies your organization. If they support you, have the candidate take a picture of themselves holding your poster. You can then publish candidate pictures in your own campaign. Later, you will be able to remind the winning candidate of their promise." -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

  • "In the case of these public institutions, whatever the cause, demands to multiply consultation spaces and transparency practices must be claimed upstream. It is indeed thanks to such practices that citizens will have access to the information necessary for the debate as well as to spaces to present their opinion. We must not forget to call on the local media before such events are held." (Translated from French) -Pierre Avignon, Comité citoyen Vers un val vert
4. Promote positive changes you see in the community
  • Organize both around what needs to be replaced, and what our systems will be replaced with! E.g. see Mouvement Mare's agenda. -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
  • E.g. share a post about a community member who re-wilded their garden, or about a community member who repurposed an old item for continued use! -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
5. Create subcommittees
  • You don't all have to be on the same page; create subcommittees that can compliment one another if you have enough people to organize around different focuses and/or approaches to taking action -Member of Reseau Demain le QC
6. Plan events that are easy to engage in for new volunteers
  • "Help volunteers overcome their shyness with actions that are easy to engage in such as "a 'phone canvass party’ where volunteers get together and make calls over tea & coffee. This should be a pleasant social experience. You could have a script made up in advance, and maybe do a few rehearsals together. There are many tools to help you in this, like this one." -Sharon Collingwood (Perth Sustainability Hub)
  • "A letter writing party can work in the same way. A hand-written letter to local officials will stand out, but email is also effective. If volunteers bring electronic devices you can get a great deal done in a short time. Have a few model letters prepared in advance, and help each other. You can also send out a mailing with links to letter-writing tools like this one.
" -Sharon Collingwood, Perth Sustainability Hub

Unsure of what to campaign around in your small city/rural area? Check out this list of ideas from Tool Complices Pour Notre Communaute. You might also draw ideas from Mouvement Mare's campaigns, which range in focus from local community-specific to National issues. 

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