A Big Win for Transit Riders in Weston, WI

Last year the village council of Weston, WI voted to completely eliminate their bus service. The bus riders, faith leaders, and local ATU built a coalition that got an advisory vote on the ballot that, if passed, forced the Weston village council to restore bus service. On the same Election Day as the cantankerous Scott Walker recall election, 68% of the voters in Weston, WI (a small town of 15,000 people in central Wisconsin) demanded that the village council restore bus service. Below is an interview with David Liners Executive Director ofWISDOM, a statewide faith-based community organizing entity that is a member of Transportation Equity Network/Gamaliel.

Last year the village council of Weston, WI voted to completely eliminate their bus service. The bus riders, faith leaders, and local ATU built a coalition that got an advisory vote on the ballot that, if passed, forced the Weston village council to restore bus service. On the same Election Day as the cantankerous Scott Walker recall election, 68% of the voters in Weston, WI (a small town of 15,000 people in central Wisconsin) demanded that the village council restore bus service. Below is an interview with David Liners Executive Director ofWISDOM, a statewide faith-based community organizing entity that is a member of Transportation Equity Network/Gamaliel.

Who made-up your winning coalition?

We created a coalition that included bus riders but wasn’t only bus riders, it was about half riders and half non-riders. 70% of population in Weston has never ridden the bus, so we had to craft a message and campaign coalition that was about community and reached beyond the self-interest of riders.

What messages worked?

“Everyone has a place in Weston” was the name of our campaign committee. We understood the fact that the bus cuts didn’t impact the majority of people in Weston, but people it did affect, were affected a lot. “These folks need a ride, what kind of community wouldn’t give them one?” was the main question our campaign pushed. Making our campaign message about our desire to be an inclusive community played well across the board and especially to the older crowd. They understood that even if they don’t ride the bus, having bus service for those who need it helped build the type of community they want to be a part of and live in.

Also, in this case the economic message didn’t work as well. Even though we were knew we were factually right, people at the doors weren’t buying our economic argument. So we strategically decided to focus in on values based messaging of everyone having a place in our town.

Who were your best messengers and how did you get your story out there?

Bus riders were our best messengers with the media. They gave this our campaign a very real life human face. Thankfully, working in a small community there were not a lot of other major civic issues being debated, so we were able to garner a lot of earned media in the newspaper and on TV.  The religious community was also a crucial campaign messenger. They helped take the rider story and ask the question of, what kind of community do you want to be a part of, one that is inclusive or one that makes it hard for blind folks or senior citizens to get around or get to church?

We were fortunate, in a sense, that our village council was very combative throughout the campaign. While this made it challenging to get on the ballot, it helped positively shape the media story. The media globed onto the apparent conflict between the council and our community coalition, and helped turned the narrative in our favor because we simply had a better story.

Beyond media, what organizing strategies did you use to win?

We knew we had to reach beyond bus riders to win this vote. Early on we did a lot of speaking and flyering at churches. This helped us get our message out, raise awareness, and build a coalition early. As the campaign rolled on, we focused on good old fashion door knocking to talk to voters. Thankfully, due to the media we were garnering, most voters already knew what we were talking about by the time we showed up at their front door.

WISDOM is a statewide affiliate of Transportation Equity Network and Gamaliel, how did you support the local campaign effort and how important was the statewide and national network?

Wisdom was able to provide the on-the-ground organizing to the coalition. We dedicated staff time to bring together a good team and empower the local coalition. Our organizing expertise helped launch and sustain a successful effort.

Additionally, being connected to our statewide and TEN’s national network was crucial to training and empowering our local leaders. A few of our local clergy leaders were able to attend a TEN conference in DC and left there with renewed energy and a sense that they weren’t in it alone. Throughout the campaign effort the local connection to WISDOM and TEN helped everyone feel as though they were part of larger network that understood their struggle and supported them.

Other small communities across the country are facing transit campaigns and service cuts. What was the biggest lessons learned for you from the Weston, WI campaign experience you would like to share?

You really need to be sure that bus riders and other community leaders (in our case primarily religious leaders but could be other key leaders) get to know each other very early on. You have to build the relationships and trust early, well before the campaign. Don’t create a coalition quickly and lunch right into the campaign. If you have strong relationships and trust built before the campaign rolls around, you’ll have more successes and more meaningful victories.


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