Saturday, May 12, 2012

Urban Chicken Activist

A laying hen from our visit to Polyface Farm
I feel like Clark Kent: mild-mannered reporter by day, Superman in his spare time.

I, too, have a secret. I am Mary Lou Burke, mild-mannered Latin teacher by day, Chicken Activist Extraordinaire in my spare moments.

A lot has been happening since I first mentioned my yearnings for a few backyard layers in "Longing for Urban Chickens" back in December.

I am not the type to sit back and whine about laws, policies, and other situations I don't like. If I see any opportunity to change the status quo, look out! So I started a Facebook Page, now called At first, and for a long time, there were only two or three people in the whole universe who "liked" this page. But I tried to keep the content interesting and fresh by updating it with news and articles about chickens. I also linked my posts to Twitter to expand their reach with the use of hash tags. And the number of "likes" grew. Gradually my page started to get a broader and more active base of fans, folks who posted comments, suggestions, and links of their own, like this great video about "cage free" vs. "free range" vs. "pastured" eggs. It became an interactive forum for what is happening in South Hampton Roads regarding chickens and zoning.

In the meantime I continued to research about chicken-keeping and the urban agriculture movement.  I found out about and began to utilize online resources like Urban Chickens and Backyard Chickens. And I blogged about my frustrations with the current zoning laws here in Chesapeake, VA, in a post called "How Much Space Do Laying Hens Need?" In response to a suggestion on the Facebook Page, I started an online petition at on April 20. I set a goal of 500 signatures by July 20. My fellow Facebook chicken-activists and I have been promoting this petition online, and we have nearly 275 signatures as of May 12. We are over halfway to our goal!

Next came considerations about who will present our petition to Chesapeake City Council (and how and when). While I am perfectly happy to take a stand all by myself, I have spent enough time around local politicians to know a group of local citizens will make more of an impression than one lonely Latin teacher, even one armed with a petition. I had been suggesting face-to-face meetings through the Facebook page, and eventually got enough interest to set a time, date, and place for our first meetings.

What a nice group of people! A local homeschooling mom who has five children came with two of her daughters, my husband came, of course, and a young mother came with her 4-month-old infant daughter. We have different motivations for our common interests in keeping hens legally, but they are all sound, strong reasons, and we share a commitment for seeing this through. Andrea, the mother of five, has experience in grass-roots activism and great insights into the workings of the local city council. Minutes of our meeting are available online and we plan our next meeting for the afternoon of May 20. Danielle, the young mother, put together a compendium of Chesapeake's chicken-related zoning ordinances to help answer the frequent questions we get about Chesapeake's current laws.

We are now expanding our network of contacts out in the community as well as online. We are planning group T-shirts and putting hard copies of our petitions out at local businesses, flea markets, farmers' markets, and other community events to gather more signatures. I have posted a version of our petition at Google Docs to make it easier for volunteers to print petitions and gather signatures.

**Update on 5/14: The T-shirt has been designed and is adorable! Visit our Facebook page to see the design and to place an order.

**Update on 5/17: T-shirts are available for pick-up. We have launched an XtraNormal video that satirizes the local zoning laws and asks for signatures on our petition.

**Update on 6/4/12: We have over 330 signatures on the  petition as well as hard-copy petitions at local fee and seed stores. We have posted our video on Youtube to extend is audience. Youtube allows us to post links to our Facebook page and petition site.

 No, we don't have the X-ray vision, flying abilities, or extraordinary strength of Superman. But, like many others, we have learned to use the powers of the internet, cloud computing, and social networking to improve our community and the world. Clark Kent would be proud!

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