Campaign to prevent Shell gas station being built in pedestrian center of neighborhood.
Duration: Spring 2000 – Spring 2003
Description of the neighborhood and organization. The Radvan neighborhood is a Socialist constructed neighborhood in the southern side of Banska Bystrica which was built in the early 1960’s. There are approximately 10,000 inhabitants living there.
In the spring of 2000, several citizens learned about plans to build a new gas station in the pedestrian center of the neighborhood. They were very unhappy with these plans and wanted to prevent the gas station from being built in this location. They approached the Center for Community organizing for help in organizing a campaign.
When the campaign began, there was no organization. A group of individual citizens were willing to work together to fight against the proposed construction and began to form an informal citizen initiative. They eventually gave the group the name; “O I Za dostojnu Radvan” (Citizens Initiative for dignified Radvan). They were connected to a network of citizen initiatives being formed in Slovakia at that time in at least six different cities through the work of the Center for Community Organizing (CCO). These citizen initiative groups met twice a year for an overnight event to share experience and get further training.
The organization continued to be built over the three year period of the campaign. As the campaign went on with numerous actions, the number of people who participated continued to grow. In the beginning, there was no formal organization or membership. A self-selected leadership group formed, who guided the campaign. Approximately one year into the campaign, a formal organization was registered due to a legal requirement. The group realized that they needed to take legal action to challenge an attempt to manipulate a public hearing. In order to file the lawsuit, a legally registered organization was needed. The members of the legal entity were the initial leadership group. Later on, the Radvan initiative joined with other local initiatives in the six other countries to form a nationwide organization (Citizens in Action) that elected its own leadership.
Role of organizer and leader
The Center for Community Organizing had sufficient funding to hire and supervise a full time organizer for the Radvan neighborhood. The issue required nearly immediate attention so the organizer helped the leadership group to prepare several actions very early in the campaign. A petition was prepared and signatures were collected opposing the proposed construction. The leaders were encouraged to hold a public rally to voice their opposition on the day before a crucial vote was to be taken by City Council. During this rally, leaders performed a public skit making fun of having the gas station in this location. Media was invited along with the Mayor who attended. The organizer helped the leadership make all the preparations and think through the agenda for the event including the skit and a number of large posters as well as encourage larger participation. Leaders were the public figures and were the only ones who spoke at the rally as well as to the media.
As time went on, the organizer more systematically conducted interviews across the neighborhood to better understand the sentiment of the community on this problem, find potential new supporters and to listen for other potential problems to work on. Organizers provided help with the development of a strategy which needed to be re-made a number of times during this long and at times very frustrating campaign. One of the most critical roles was to help think of ways to keep some energy going and help to think about shorter and winnable pieces as things dragged out. Leaders continued in the public role of running all meetings and events. The core leadership group developed regular, usually monthly meetings to develop plans with the help of the organizer.
Financing for the organization
The primary funding for the organization came from several US foundations who were active in the CEE region at that time and who supported the work of CCO. This was critical, as it provided one full time dedicated organizer to support the long term campaign. There were also limited funds to support some materials that were used including an occasional newsletter to inform residents of the status of the campaign. The citizens initiative itself annually raised small funds on an individual basis to support a Sports Day event each year which helped build community spirit, raised the presence and visibility of the initiative and provided an important mechanism to engage more people.
The group was formed with a short term goal of preventing a gas station from being built in the pedestrian center of the neighborhood. The campaign however, lasted more than two and a half years and through a variety of activities and connections, the goals expanded to include a broader vision for the work of the citizens’ initiative including the annual Sports Day event and additional problems than needed to be solved in the community.
The approach that was utilized was nearly entirely that of community organizing. The initial three activists who approached the Center for Community Organizing had learned about this approach from seeing several other community groups in Banska Bystrica win campaigns in their communities and the activists realized that something like this would be needed to successfully oppose the proposed construction. The one significant departure from the approach of community organizing is that it did not begin with a listening approach. There was an identified threat to the neighborhood that served to unite citizens. One-on-one interviews were used in the work but only after the initial leadership group had formed and several actions had taken place.
What actions did you make?
There were a series of actions that took place over the course of the two and a half years. The initiative knew who the local investors were and who had bought the land from the city. But no one would let the citizens initiative know who was the gas company who was would operate the gas station until a year and a half into the campaign. During that period of the campaign, the actions were all focused on trying to prevent local and regional authorities to not approve the project. Main actions included, but were not limited to:
- Initial petition that was delivered to City Council
- Public rally on the site where the gas station was to be built which was held the day before crucial vote by City Council related to approving the project. The Mayor attended the rally and met privately with leaders at the end of the rally to clarify the process the following day. He invited leaders to attend the session and told them the vote would be taken around 3p.m.. A small delegation of leaders went, but found that City Council was in recess and that the vote had already been taken in favor of the project. The Mayor did not said a word during the discussion about the invitation to have citizens attend or any word about the rally the day before.
- Preparing and displaying large banner across two balconies, very visible in the pedestrican center where the gas station was to be built. The banner reported how the elected representatives from that neighborhood had voted on the issue regaring approval of the project. In fact, all but one of the representatives had voted in favor of the project and were shocked to have their votes reported publicly.
- Public meeting with the Mayor to attempt to get him to agree to not approve the proposed project. The group realized they were not likely to be successful at this meeting but they wanted to let the Mayor know that they were serious and to continue to put public pressure on him to take citizens concerns into consideration.
- Public meeting with regional authorities who oversaw the approval of development projects to ask them as well to not approve this project. This meeting was carried out with the same expectations as that of the Mayor.
- There were a series of actions related to attending required public hearings realted to the development project. Authorities knew that this would be a problem as many citizens wanted to attend the hearing and opposed the project. They attempted several different approaches to manipulate the process and to prevent citizens from being able to attent. The final strategy they chose was to divide the land into two separate parcels and to hold a public hearing on the half that was not controversial. With this new site approved, they justified keeping citizens from attending the public hearing as the newly approvedparcel was now the “nearest neighbor“ who was invited. This action is what precipitated the filing of a law suit with the Constitutional Court. It was this action that required the formal process of registering an organization. This action became a critical aspect of the campaign as both the local investors and Shell Oil had to account for the fact that there was a pending legal action in front of the Constitutional Court and thus significantly slowed down the project.
- There was regular use of media throughout the campaign. Media were invited to all public meetings and generally wrote stories following. The group also called their own press conferences at strategic moments in the campaign to keep this issue on the public attention.
- Finally, after nearly one and a half years into the campaign, citizens learned that it was Shell Oil who planned to locate a gas station at this site. The leaders invited the Director of Shell Slovakia, Slavomir Jankovic, to join them for a discussion about the project. He agreed and on a Sunday afternoon, held a two hour meeting with the leadership. He promised to take their concerns seriously. However from that time, he proceeded to ignore all letters, calls and e-mails related to the project.
- Several months following the meeting with the Director of Shell, the citizens initiative joined with five other citizen initiatives from around the country who were also supported by CCO. This was a regular twice a year meeting on a country-wide basis of all the initiatives. Leaders from the other groups spontaneously agreed to support the group from Radvan and prepared an initial action of holding a protest in front of Shell headquarters in Bratislava (the capital city), two weeks after the joint meeting. A first event was conducted with approximately 30 people participating. At this point, the group focused its message on Mr. Jankovic.
- A month later, protests were organized in front of Shell stations in five different cities in Slovakia including Banska Bystrica. Again, the public messages were directed to Mr. Jankovic.
- An interesting development occurred the next month when the Mayor attempted to intervene. He set up a meeting with all parties to see if an alternative site could be found for the gas station. The local investors, Shell and representatives of the Radvan initiative were invited. This was significant because it was the first time in nearly two years of the campaign where citizens were actually invited to participate as an equal partner. The night of the meeting, when more members of the group met to de-brief the events of the afternoon, one of the leaders who had represented the group said: “this is the first time since the campaign started two years ago, that I have ever felt any respect“. Unfortuantely, Shell and the investors decided a month later to not accept any of the alternative sites offered by the city.
- The group recieved some advice from a consultant from the US to conduct a more agressive action of blockading a Shell station. With Shell’s decision to continue with the plans to build on this site, the leaders agreed to conduct a two hour blockade on a Friday afternoon which was one of their busiest times. Twenty leaders with cars joined together and drove through the existing Shell station and pumped one squeeze of gas and take another fifteen minutes to check the oil, wash windows, use the toilet and look around the store for things not to buy and finally pay the few cions for the gas. They would then drive around and get in line again. Interestingly, Mr. Janokovic, who had continued to ignore all communication with the group for more than eight months, called one of the main leaders within fifiteen minutes of the start of the action to discuss what was going on. The group realized that it had finally found a way to get his attention. The group also used this event to launch a boycott of Shell. They asked people to sign forms that they would refuse to buy Shell gas and other products until they agreed to not build the station in Radvan.
- The group began to agressively collect boycott signitures. They were joined by other initiatives in Slovakia. The campaign also grabbed the attention of members of the CEE Citizens Network as CCO was a member. Members of the Citizens Network also agreed to join the boycott. They also agreed to write letters to their national Shell offices and joined in sending letters to the European Shell headquarters in London.
- Approximately a month after the launch of the boycott, another rally was held in front of Shell headquarters in Bratislava to “celebrate“ the Name Day of Slavomir Jankovic. Another thirty people from across Slovakia went with party hats and noise makers along with a “gift“ for him of the first 1000 boycott forms that had been signed.
Results. What did you achieve?
- Within two months of the Name Day party, Shell announced their decision to drop their plans to construct the station in Radvan. The gas station was not built.
- Nearly nine months after Shell announced their decision to stop the construction plans, the Constituational Court finally heard the citizens‘ complaint. The court agreed that the public hearing process had been manipulated. It helped to set a new legal precedent for public hearings in Slovakia.
- Within a few months of the victory, another smaller issue related to a proposed change in this public area was introduced. The City approached the citizens initiative to invite them to sit down and negotiate what would be done with this new project. The system had changed.
Potentials/What could you have done differently?
There is relatively little that would be changed. This was a long and difficult campaign that required considerable strength to continue the struggle. There were several moments when people wanted to give up or compromise and end things. These were amplified even more for several leaders who were threatened that if they continued with the campaign, they would loose future contracts. The one major issue that could have been done differently was to pay more attention to building the organization. Much was done to involve many citizens into the work but this was not always used sufficiently to build the organization.
What was special?
The campaign was special in several ways.
- It started with a crisis as opposed to a listening process.
- It lasted more than two and a half years.
- The campaign was attempting to influence a business as well as government.
- There was constant action needed. The de-briefing that followed the campaign was that the “power“ of group came more from the constant annoyance rather than masses of people.
- The campaign required the support of groups across Slovakia and then in the CEE region to have enough power.
Center for Community Organizing
97401 Banska Bystrica