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July 1997
The Satya Interview: How to be an Activist- Going to the Dogs


By the end of this summer, Brooklyn's first dog run will become operational in Carroll Gardens, and will be the only place in the entire borough where dogs can be legally let off their leashes. A small group of Carroll Gardens residents, brought together by Alyssa Bonilla, worked the political process and built community goodwill to bring about this historic event. She tells Satya how she and the Dog Owners Group of Carroll Gardens (DOG) - core membership of seven - pulled this off in nine months, and offers advice to like-minded local organizers.

Q: What led you to start the crusade for a dog run?
A: We used to live in a house near a large park which had lots and lots of space. Then we moved from that house to an apartment in Carroll Gardens. One of my dogs is made for long-distance running. He became very depressed and listless, because he was basically in a shoebox. I would walk him, but it wasn't the same. We had even gotten a companion dog, but that wasn't the same as exercise outdoors. I saw the dog runs happening in Manhattan and thought, "Well, why isn't that happening here?"

Q: This was a very grassroots initiative. How did you get started?
A: I stuck a crayon and magic marker drawing in the pet shop saying Dog Owners Association forming now. One woman called me. Then a woman stopped me on the street and said, "Oh I can make signs." The two of us put up signs. So we were up to three people. Some people called as a result of the signs. We had a meeting of 12 people, of which only one person besides myself is still active in the group, but has become a core person. In my third meeting, two people showed up, but I just tried to continue step by step, thinking, "I want to bridge gaps between people. I want to create goodwill."

Q: How did the momentum start building?
A: We paraded [with dogs] in the Atlantic Antic opening parade last fall and in the Blessing of the Animals day. It was a great feeling to hear the dogs being cheered, because it fed my sense that people have just forgotten how great dogs are. Word of mouth is pretty good. Dog owners talk to each other, you see each other. So, when I found someone besides myself who was very much an organizer, immediately it was a team, so that multiplied the effect. And then another person showed up - a woman and her husband. They were total animal rights, dog rights people and committed to the project completely. So that really helped. When the seventh person came, we formed a nucleus - a critical mass.

Q: What happened next?
A: Word of mouth led me to Margaret Cusack, who was trying to get a dog run in Boerum Hill. I was very nervous about starting a community project. She was my community organizing mentor. She took me under her wing, so I actually saw someone doing community organizing work in a very nonchalant, matter-of-fact, in-your-home, in-your-living-room kind of way. Very clear plans, very clear goals - this is what we need to talk about, this is what we need to do. I also had contact with Robin Kovary, a dog-trainer who had started the Washington Square run.

    The turning point was when we had Marty Waxman as a guest speaker at one of our meetings in January. He founded the dog run on 51st Street and New York Avenue. The man actually created a web site for dog runs. He knows what's going on in different dog runs all over the world; he was information central. Those are the three elements: the idea, the conception, the overall map. That's where I got my learning from. The dog run wouldn't exist if they hadn't paved the way and done a lot of work.

Q: When did it start to seem like it was really going to happen?
A: In September 1996, I went to a Community Board meeting all by myself. The District Manager met me and said, "Go talk to the Parks Committee Chair." His first words were, "Oh. I don't like dogs. But it's good to know you're doing the right thing." He was completely supportive of this idea because he saw this as a solution to dogs being where you don't want them, to decreasing dog traffic on the sidewalks, and therefore the mess. It was an answer to a lot of his prayers. That was the key selling point when we made initial contact with the Parks Committee chair of Community Board Six.

Q: So what was the approval process?
A: Projects are reviewed by committees and then are referred to the full Community Board. The committee makes a recommendation, yes or no, to the Board. We do not speak to the Board; the committees address the Board. So, our opportunity to speak was the Parks Committee meeting in March. We had a schematic drawing of each site, photos of every site, how many feet of fence each site needs, which one has good water access. We made it very clear that we were willing to put out a lot of effort to have this. We tried to answer every possible question beforehand. We got on the full Board agenda in April, and got approval in May. It happened so quickly.

Q: How much community organizing did you do?
A: We had a petition table at a local pet store on Court Street every Saturday for two months. We were becoming more of a visible group and not just individuals with dogs. We want the dogs and dog owners to be visible, not skulking around the back roads trying to keep from being yelled out.

Q: Had you done community organizing before?
A: I was a political science major in school and had a summer job working for a labor union. I did door-to-door canvassing for a while and worked on a Congressional campaign once. I haven't done anything like that for years, because it felt like too much energy for too little result. To go really local like this - and I mean two blocks away - to go so grassroots and so local has been so satisfying, because it's not pounding on someone's door for something that happens so far away.

    I don't think of myself as a community leader at all. I have a job in this group, so to speak, in that I have a leadership role, and I was an initiator in something that wanted to happen, to be born. I was like a midwife for this project, so I can't take credit for it.

Q: What does this process say about dogs in our society?
A: Dog owners as a group are on the periphery of the community. People have basically lost touch with what animals have to offer us and they see dogs as aggressive and dirty. They've lost sight of Lassie, of the family dog. They've lost touch with [the fact that] dogs can be integrated into the community in a friendly, responsible way. I don't see us as an animal rights group, because we're not really agitating to raise consciousness, but I have to admit that that's in my mind. I'm hoping that as a byproduct of the good will created around this project, people will open their minds to animals.

For information on the Carroll Gardens Dog Owners Association, contact 718-722-7859.

Some additional information.
Advice to other activists/community organizers

1) Write out your intentions really clearly first. The most power I have seen in this group came from having faith in people's positive intentions and good will.

2) Maintain your clarity and be 100 percent committed. A whole lot of energy will sweep behind you.

3) Make sure you include the community.

4) As you work, gather and renew. It can't just be a linear charge, because you get burned out.

5) Personal support is necessary, especially if you're in a leadership role. It has to be a renewing process, very balanced, very organic. It's like tending a garden. You can't do anything about the weather, but you can water, you can feed the soil, you can tend. Whatever image works. I guess love is the best. - A.B.


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