An Organizing Goal for Grassroots Activists

by Jim Britell

Summary:   Absent organizing, legislative panaceas are little more than contemporary versions of the children's crusades -- a modest proposal.

The grassroots environmental movement needs to be strengthened, and we need more networking and communication; but we have yet to find any policy or process objective around which the movement might organize. This paper argues that the national grassroots organizing goal should be to systematically get out citizens to express pro-environmental sentiments to our legislators in "town hall" and other public meetings at every possible opportunity.

Projects that encourage this should be placed at the top of our priorities as we continue to pursue all our other regional strategies, goals, and tactics. Absent the basic work of town by town organizing to create a tangible national groundswell of pro-environmental sentiment, calls to national unity around legislative panaceas are little more than contemporary versions of the children's crusades.

Presently, when activists gather to discuss ways to "unite" the grassroots around some policy we are subjected to exhortations to rally behind "Zero Cut" or the Bryant bill, followed in turn by appeals to adopt alternative fibers, reduce consumption, or decrease population growth. Each of these appeals make perfect sense, but are like debating where to plant seeds in a field when the ground is not yet prepared.

Dozens of individual regional campaigns are creating legislators who may co-sponsor specific legislation like the Bryant bill, but when other environmental issues, like desert protection or grazing, come up for a vote, these same legislators are as likely to vote against us as with us. For example, on the Tauzin amendments to the California Desert Bill, the first formal House floor vote on" takings", 25 of the Bryant bill co-sponsors, including seven of the nine Texas co-sponsors, voted against the environmental movement to support the amendments.

While we may have successes on the floor of congress from time to time, we should not confuse the victories we achieve because of the incompetence of our enemies with successes achieved through systematic grassroots organizing. We may succeed in fighting back riders because the right has misread public opinion, but let's not be like investors who attribute profits in a bull market to their own shrewdness.

We should use this period of temporary improvement in our fortunes to organize. If the three branches of government are ever captured by the right simultaneously, the permanent changes in land ownership patterns and laws that will happen may not be reversible when we again get our "turn".

The time has come when every grassroots group should take responsibility for filling town hall meetings with citizens articulating pro-environmental positions. It is not important that our supporters address any one particular issue, but it is important that legislators at every meeting be continually exposed to pro-environmental views because such views expressed anywhere, help all environmental issues everywhere.

Making Public Meetings Work for the Good Guys
Today, all over the country, grassroots groups are writing letters and sending faxes to legislators, but often completely ignoring opportunities in their own home towns to talk to those same legislators in person. Except when local issues flare up, usually only a few dozen people show up at congressional town hall meetings. Even fewer show up for public meetings with state and local representatives. And the vocal people at those meetings are usually complaining about taxes. This is why we have a situation where the overwhelming majority of the public supports strong environmental laws, but legislators act otherwise. They hear very little from the pro-environmental majority, but they do get correspondence from the anti-environmental minority

Politicians are a lot like weather vanes and turning out the public at meetings can change the wind's direction. Representatives tend to reflect their constituency's expressed views on most issues. Whether on abortion, tobacco supports, or creationism, citizen opinion expressed consistently and forcefully at public meetings will eventually become the "public consensus" for that legislative district. One letter may have more impact than a hundred Email messages, but one concerned citizen in a legislator's face is worth dozens of letters. If a legislative district contained a thousand vocal advocates for the "flat earth" theory, you may be sure that some sort of support for this notion would eventually show up in the legislator's words or actions.

Since representatives are already aware that right wing astroturf groups are trained to manipulate electronic communications like email and faxes, once we fill a few town hall meetings much of the communication from the right will begin to be discounted.

The radical right has done a good job of organizing, particularly around religious issues, but for natural resource matters their "real strength" may be far less than is widely supposed. Wise use group's newsletters are often skimpy and pathetic, with small circulations. With a few well publicized and spectacular exceptions, their regular meetings are often poorly attended and disorganized.

By filling town hall meetings we can leapfrog the right's present advantage in electronic communication. Within a year they will probably adopt this approach too, but by then we can adopt something else to stay ahead of them. Alinsky said that successful organizers are always changing their strategy and never use the same approach twice.

In most places turning out people should not be that hard. The important thing to remember is that folks will not do things "political" until and unless they get a direct request to do so. In areas that are overwhelmingly conservative, even rabidly right wing, there is always a percentage of people, usually around 30-35%, that hold relatively progressive views. Even in the strongholds of the militia movements there are substantial numbers of people who will be with us. This can be seen by analyzing the local voting results on the occasional state wide initiative or election where an issue that clearly "cuts" is placed before the voter.

Further, in conservative rural areas federal employees often make up a substantial majority of the employed adults and are likely candidates for organizing especially since the rules regarding their participation in political activity have been recently relaxed. In more typical areas, which are electing conservatives by 52-55% margins, large numbers of people can be organized to show up at town hall meetings. Approached thoughtfully, even conservatives and Republicans often will support pro-environmental policies, especially since so much anti-environmental legislation depends on massive government subsidies, which are anathema to true fiscal conservatives.

Putting a Muzzle on the Morons in Public Meetings
We feed a self fulfilling prophecy when activists avoid talking to legislators who appear to be environmental idiots. Our silence is construed as confirmation of a lack of public opposition to their anti-environmental positions. Often right wing legislators make extreme anti-environmental remarks in public meetings more to establish rapport with an audience than from deeply held convictions. When they are challenged on the spot, they will often avoid such comments for the rest of the proceedings.

What also occurs in public meetings is that someone will blurt out an extreme anti-environmental comment in the expectation of public approval, and when he gets it, this will be taken up by others in the audience in a "call and response" process which can lead to a feeding frenzy by the rest of the group. In these situations if someone in the audience makes a sharp rebuttal or challenge immediately after the first comment, this is often enough to keep that first remark from allowing the entire meeting to go out of control.

For example, I know of one local county commissioner who just loves to constantly interject outrageous and stupid comments about endangered species into meetings because he expects they will be warmly received, but he will always stop making them if he is immediately challenged. In fact, he will invariably come around afterwards to "make up" with the person who challenged him as he has an extreme need to maintain rapport with all his constituents. The operative rule should be to never allow a completely unfounded assertion or outburst to go unchallenged, no matter from where it appears and irrespective of the rules for public input or the agenda of the meeting.

These approaches may not work everywhere, but they should be tried before we give up on them. In places where public attitudes have so deteriorated that meetings are dangerous to activists, such as in the Southwest, national environmental groups should expend some of their capital and clout to lean on the Justice Department to fulfill their duty to protect the civil rights of citizens (and federal employees) so that in the future these places become more hospitable to democracy.

Implementing This Goal

  • We need to turn out citizens everywhere elected representatives show up to hold public meetings.

  • We need to install appropriate technology in thousands of locations to provide background to local citizens so that they go to these meeting prepared with their representative's voting record. They must be kept informed in real time, by fax or email, with information about their representatives votes and actions.

  • As we create a grassroots effort to turn out more local people, we also need to put in place mechanisms to manage the increased volume of alerts that will certainly flow to local groups as we wire them together. It will be a waste of time to set up a national alert system when folks don't turn out for events they know about already, or respond to alerts they get now. Concomitant with any effort to expand alerts to the grassroots should be an effort to create telephone and letter trees in all local groups to insure that alerts will be handed off to people who will actually respond to them.

If we can agree to organize around the process goal of turning out activists at elected official's town hall meetings, funders will find their jobs easier. When two projects are in competition for funds, grant makers can give priority to the one which most advances this goal. Where two projects both turn out the public, the one that turns out citizens in the districts of members who - by virtue of their committee assignments, seniority, etc. - have the most influence over legislation should be preferred.

It may well be that this strategy will tend to funnel money away from the areas where there are forests to areas where there are important representatives, but this is as it should be. If anyone is responsible for saving the Tongass it will be the voters in Rep Sherry 's (R) district in upstate New York. If I was an Alaskan forest activist my highest priority would be organizing in Central upstate New York and getting people out to give him positive feedback.

A big part of our job is motivating people to get involved. Many of our supporters say they don't want to be involved with "politics". Well, we are all involved with politics. It's just that some people do politics to others and some have it done to them. In politics (as in life) 90% is just showing up; those who don't give their proxy to those who do.

Possibly some progressives consider confrontations, or potentially "negative" interactions with others, as obstacles on their path to cosmic unity, but these people can often be persuaded to attend meetings if they are assured that their only role will be to observe, or to murmur assent and perhaps clap in appropriate situations. The "assertively challenged" usually enjoy seeing others being assertive; they just do not want to have to do it themselves.

A goal of consistently acknowledging our friends, chastising our opponents and getting people out to meetings may not be glamorous, but it will be effective and will make the many technical decisions needed to form a network easier. If the right can erect a whole legislative edifice upon a collection of half-baked hard-luck stories and fabricated anecdotes, imagine what kind of a program we can build if we have science, the good of all species, our children's future and public opinion all on our side.

©2000 Jim Britell
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May not be reproduced without permission.

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