Advocacy 101: Using the City as a Student Lab!

Syeda Safdar '25

Ted Maslin MBA ’80 serves on Williamsburg City Council. He can be reached at

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

In an Oct. 11 Flat Hat article, Drew Stelljes Ph.D. ’07 stated that the College of William and Mary should be “a place where respectful dialogue takes place on challenging topics.”

In a recent meeting with student political groups, I suggested how students could develop advocacy skills while taking on real issues facing Williamsburg City Council boards and commissions. In-person attendance at these meetings is at an all-time low. This creates an opportunity for students to research an issue and prepare remarks to address the decision makers. Although this experience will definitely help government, social work and pre-law students, every student could find an opportunity during the budget season to advocate for funds to organizations or causes for which they have a passion! 

I moved back to Williamsburg from the west coast in 2016 and searched for opportunities to give back to the community. I was a paramedic/firefighter and President of the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department when I was a student of the College.

My local advocacy began by chance when I attended a City Council meeting where the previous city manager proposed to renovate and expand the Williamsburg Police Department’s police station in its current location. I decided to offer my (unsolicited) advice during the public forum since I had experience planning public safety facilities for the City of Seattle. I suggested that the City Council ask staff for other options and identified two reasons not to expand the current building: a) the site was not large enough to meet the needs of a contemporary police station, and b) all the vehicles currently under the station would be moved up to the surface lot and take more parking spaces away from the library.

For years, I was the sole voice against this expansion. The media helped amplify my voice. The good news is that the city will now build a new police station adjacent to the Municipal Building! When the police department publishes the size of the new station, it will be obvious to everyone that the current site is not large enough to meet the police department’s needs. Even better, by tearing down the existing police station, we create more site plan options for planning a new library of the future!

There is an interesting development project which will be presented to the Planning Commission on November 16. This would be an ideal case for students to research, interview representative stakeholders and present recommendations to the Planning Commission and then City Council. This rezoning request involves property owned by the city adjacent to the College Woods and Berkeley Middle School. The sale price of the land is being discounted so that the developer will sell 10% of the condominiums at a lower price to help address the need for more affordable workforce housing. Environmental and traffic issues need to be addressed. Complicating the situation is that access to the site is from Strawberry Plains Road, which is in James City County but managed by the Virginia Department of Transportation! And since there is an established neighborhood next to this parcel, their concerns need to be given a voice. Stakeholders even include several judges!

So how can students take advantage of opportunities to find their voice and advocate in the public arena? Please email me:



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