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From veteran organizer Marshall Ganz, how-tos for activists

Marshall Ganz

Every spring, Marshall Ganz teaches a class at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on how to organize a political movement. This year feels especially strange, he tells the assembled room of earnest young students who have packed the classroom to overflowing so that they cover the floor and the window ledges. It’s 2014 -- the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, which was the beginning both of Ganz’ education and of a theory of political organizing that would, ultimately, be used to help elect the first African American president of the United States.

In 1964, Ganz was 21, and on the verge of becoming a college dropout. He has a way of making not staying in school sound pretty exciting. “It was a movement of young people,” he tells the room. “Do you know how old Martin Luther King was when he led the bus boycott?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Twenty-five.”

“I got hooked,” he continues. “Going back to Harvard seemed like the most boring thing in the world. I wrote a pretentious letter: 'How can I go back and study history when I’ve been making it?'"

Ganz’s father was a rabbi, and Ganz remembers spending his fifth birthday in a displaced persons camp in Germany, giving presents to other children. “My mom,” he tells the students, “had an idea that I should give presents instead of getting them.” To him, the Holocaust was not about anti-Semitism, but racism. “It’s not a complex ideology,” Ganz says. “Racism kills. As a rabbi’s kid I loved the Passover seder. They were like the story of the Exodus, but with food. They point at children and say, ‘You were slaves in Egypt.’ Not you literally -- but you have to figure out who you are in this story. You need to figure out if you’re holding people back or helping people through."

Ganz is disheveled, folksy, and charming. Everything about the talk feels loose, improvisational, off-the-cuff. It’s not. It’s a well-crafted work of persuasion -- an attempt to make the craft of shifting the standards of a society into something accessible to anyone.

The talk we’re hearing now is nearly identical to one he gave three years ago, to Occupy Boston. Most of this course is online, as is nearly everything Ganz has written or talked about.

What Freedom Summer taught him, Ganz continues, is how to fight back against a group of people who have rigged the system. “Whites didn’t have power because blacks had granted it. They couldn’t vote! There was no mechanism of political accountability. If you want to understand inequality, look at the power. And then -- what do you do? Do you go to Washington, D.C., and say 'Can I have some of your power?’ They’ll just say, 'Testify before our committee! Give us some more evidence!'"

The civil rights movement had no such illusions, says Ganz. It was packed with seasoned activists, and was always grooming more. Rosa Parks was a secretary of NAACP, but she also trained at the Highlander Center. Martin Luther King learned from his father, who was a Baptist minister. “You have to be a good organizer to be a good minister,” laughs Ganz. “Otherwise you don’t have a congregation."

To Ganz, who has spent decades seeing causes rise and fall, the strongest social movements are made of a network, rather than a hierarchy. He illustrates this point with a cartoonishly large Hoberman sphere that he likes to snap open at the end of lectures.

Recently, he sat down with me to talk about how organizing works, where the environmental movement fits in, and how the Sierra Club's plans evolved into the 2008 Obama campaign.


Why green change is hard: Lessons from the front lines of marriage equality

Original Plaintiff couples (R-L) Hillary and Julie Goodridge, their daughter Annie, 9, lawyer Mary Bonauto and an unidentified couple react as streamers are set off during a First Year Anniversary Celebration of the legalization of Gay Marriage at Unitarian Universalist Association Headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, May 17, 2005.
Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
Original plaintiff couple (R-L) Hillary and Julie Goodridge with their daughter Annie, 9, at an anniversary celebration of the legalization of gay marriage at Unitarian Universalist Association Headquarters in Boston, Mass., May 17, 2005.

Timothy McCarthy teaches history; he's also been a part of it. McCarthy is a historian of radicalism in America -- especially those radicals who were later written out of more official histories. He was a founding member of Barack Obama’s National LGBT Leadership Council, and gave expert testimony to the Pentagon Comprehensive Working Group on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also teaches at the decidedly non-radical Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I recently heard him give a remarkably thoughtful and detailed talk on the art of public speaking.

During the talk, he name-checked the “Hope” speech by San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk: “When in doubt, give people hope. Not a false hope. But we can be better than we are.” Then, he added, as a caution: “A lot of people who give hope in the world get shot. Which perhaps contradicts my thesis. Being shot is a terrible thing. But people tend to remember you well.”

At Grist, I write about green activism. I also try to think about what environmentalism can learn from other great social movements of our time: civil rights, feminism, and gay rights. That's why I asked McCarthy to sit down and talk about what he’s learned, how movements evolve, and what environmentalists might be able to learn from other movements.


Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say “Earth”


For over three decades, David Fenton has played an unusual role in the environmental movement: marketing it. The company he founded, Fenton Communications, has worked with everyone from Nelson Mandela to It recently managed an anti-fracking campaign for Yoko Ono (fracking, it promised, would ruin New York’s groundwater, and therefore its bagels and pizza).

David Fenton
David Fenton.

To many environmentalists, what Fenton does -- with all the celebrity chefs and celebrities, period -- is ... a little bit simplistic. To his opponents, he’s the Great Satan. If you find an article about him online, it’s probably a hit piece.

“People working in the nonprofit world sometimes have trouble adopting a marketing mindset,” Fenton Communications wrote in a 2009 report.  “But in the end, the goal is for people to 'buy' our ideas -- ideas for a better world.”

Fenton recently talked with me over the phone about why he avoids the words "planet" and "Earth," why millennials are perfectly justified in abandoning the word "environmentalist," and more.

Q. So you started out as a photographer, and later as a PR person for Rolling Stone. What was your first environmental campaign?

A. The No Nukes concert in 1979 with Bruce Springsteen. Thirty-five years ago. Five nights of concerts in Madison Square Garden, plus an album and a motion picture. It definitely helped mobilize popular culture against nuclear power in that era.

That’s one thing the environmental movement still doesn’t do -- use popular culture. There are moments, but systematically, the environmental movement tends to be at the institutional level -- academics and lawyers and scientists and policy people. Popular culture as a means of communication is not in their DNA.

Really, communications, period, is not in their DNA. If you look at the budgets of environmental groups, only teeny tiny portions are spent on communications. And if you remove the portions spent on building membership and fundraising, it’s even less. It’s better than it was. When I started, environmental groups barely had press secretaries. They certainly have that now.


Big Oil’s new strategy: If you can’t build a new pipeline, just overload the old one


Yesterday, Canadian pipeline behemoth Enbridge won government approval for its plans for 9B, one of the most contentious pipes in pipe business. While it doesn't get much press, 9B is important because it's part of a hot, new trend in trans-national pipe dreams: Skirting environmental review, and public scrutiny, by pumping dirty crude through existing pipelines rather than building new ones.

Enbridge wants to use 9B to carry up to 300,000 barrels of tar-sands oil per day to Quebec for refining and export. And it is determined to not repeat the mistakes of TransCanada, the company behind the much-maligned (and very publicly held-up) Keystone XL pipeline. Thus the tactic of reusing old lines, a game that it has already played with several other pipes.


Tied to the rusty White House fence: Two Keystone protesters’ arrest odyssey


Maria Langholz hadn’t been to class all week. As a regional organizer for Sunday's big Keystone XL pipeline protest at the White House, she had transportation to Washington, D.C., to wrangle for 46 other people, with rumors of a snowstorm on its way to prettify and petrify the highways of the east coast. She had to pack a weekend bag suitable for sleeping in a church basement. She had to figure out how she was going to carry $10,000 in various denominations inconspicuously on her person, because she had been informed, in no uncertain terms, that the county lockup was cash only, and only took exact change. She had never been arrested before.

On Thursday morning, Langholz was still in Minnesota, where she is in the process of navigating that tricky balance between majoring in environmental science at Macalester College and trying to save the planet. “It’s so soon!” she laughed over the phone. “We’re leaving tomorrow! At least I have food covered. I made hummus. And scones. And cookies.”

All across the country, people like Langholz, mostly young, mostly college students, working with the group XL Dissent, were getting ready to get arrested on Sunday. Several of them, like Langholz, had signed a Pledge of Resistance months earlier to engage in peaceful civil disobedience to prevent Keystone from being approved. They would meet in Washington and march to the White House. Some of them would carry an enormous mock pipeline. Others would lay out an enormous, theatrical oil spill and pretend to die on it. Others would lock themselves to the fence surrounding the White House. They would hope, earnestly, for good weather and for the president to notice them.


Could the Keystone pipeline give you cancer?

Keystone protest
Rainforest Action Network

Last week, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced that she had some “dramatic new information” to share. The information: Heavy crude from tar sands isn’t just going to bring us back to the hot mess of the Cretaceous, it’s also going to make us sick. Or some of us, anyway.

The information is dramatic, though not new. Every time you’re around crude, heavy or light, it’s not great for you. Anyone who uses the EPA’s website to search for pollution near their zip code is going to find a lot of old gas stations and auto body shops. The health risks Boxer highlighted — asthma, respiratory ailments, increased risks of heart disease and cancer — are ones that community activists near oil refineries, power plants, and drilling operations have been warning about for years. But extraction of heavy crude releases more emissions than extraction of light. And when a pipeline carrying heavy crude ruptures, the resulting spill is much more difficult to clean up, meaning that -- so far, at least -- more of it stays in the ecosystem it spills in, up to and including the people in that ecosystem. So Boxer is not so much making a new argument as reformulating an old one and, in the process, giving anti-Keystone activists another line of attack: human health.


EPA’s new pesticide rules: Will they make a difference?


A few days ago, the EPA proposed new rules to protect farmworkers from  pesticides. It's about time. The standards were last updated in 1992, and there's been a lot of research on the effects of pesticides on human health in the 22 years since.

Among the proposed changes: Workers would need to be at least 16 years old in order to handle pesticides, except in some situations involving small family farms. Farms would be obligated to hold mandatory safety trainings every year, instead of every five years, to cover things like how to handle pesticides, how to clean gear and clothing and yourself after handling them, how to know when it’s safe to return to a field that has been treated, and what legal protections are available to farmworkers.

In an ideal world, no workers would ever be exposed to pesticides at all (and no eaters either), but the ideal world is not where we live. While everything we use to kill insects has some level of toxicity to humans, it’s also not fun to stand in a field and watch rootworms eat all your corn. The new rules would be an improvement.

The question, then, is would they be effective and enforceable? I asked Thomas Arcury at Wake Forest School of Medicine, who has spent almost two decades studying the health of farmworkers in North Carolina. His short answer: no.


In new Pacific trade talks leak, “climate” becomes the unmentionable


Time to get excited, everyone: There's a freshly leaked document from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in town, courtesy of the Peruvian website The mega-secretive, three-years-in-the-making international trade deal that would create a NAFTA-style agreement among the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam (and maybe, just maybe, China ...) has only had three other documents leaked over the past four years.

The previous leaks have been enough to send an eclectic range of Americans into apoplexy -- civil liberties folks, workers rights folks, farmers, Tea Partiers, and public health advocates. Mostly this is because of the treaty's investments chapter -- which, like NAFTA, would allow any company based in one member country that has an investment in another member country to sue that country in a secret tribunal if its rules covering things like civil liberties, workers' rights, environmental standards, or public health mess with the litigant's profitability.

But the agreement also has an environmental chapter, which was leaked this January. The chapter was supposed to establish a pragmatic set of standards among the trade partners as to what constituted acceptable environmental regulations and what kinds of things they should work together to make sure they don't run out of: fish; the air; the planet; rare and endangered animals; trees.

Instead, the leaked draft was a collection of vague, unenforceable statements, asking that its signatories do things like  “make best efforts to refrain” from overfishing. Missing from it were any penalties or sanctions -- all a country found to be violating these principles would have to do is promise to work toward changing its ways.


Nebraska judge throws a big wrench in Keystone XL pipeline works


President Obama rejected TransCanada's proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline on Jan. 18, 2012. The deadline Congress had set for a decision, he said, was "rushed and arbitrary" -- the result of Republican maneuvering in Congress to force the president's hand.

Was Obama thinking about Nebraska when he did it? He probably wasn't thinking about Nebraska. But Congress' attempt to rush the president's decision, and the president's "Screw you, Congress!" move, had big implications for Nebraska, and the section of KXL that TransCanada's current plans show going right through the state. The impact of that two-year-old face-off continues to wreak havoc with pipeline proponents' efforts to push their project forward -- most recently, with a Nebraska court ruling this week that threatens to reset the Keystone XL game clock.

The decision cheered those working to stop the pipeline. "I opened a very nice nice bottle of red wine," said NextGen Climate Action senior advisor Chris Lehane, at a press conference Thursday morning. "I took a sip, read a line, took another sip. I read every line, and I felt pretty good at the end of the process. They no longer have a path in a previously approved state that is critical to their plan. Reading it you can see how even in a state like Nebraska, politics are evolving and changing."


In Michigan, protest with a purr brings out the law’s claws

Michigan Coalition Against Tar SAnds

The women known as the Enbridge Three are in jail, which itself is unusual. Most people in their situation -- convicted of a non-violent crime, but not yet sentenced -- are out on bail, unless they're deemed a flight risk. But nothing about this case is usual.

The three women face two to three years in prison for locking themselves down to construction equipment owned by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company. They are neither callow college kids nor protest addicts; one is a grandmother, another a great-grandmother. “The older I get, the less I have to say and the more I am free to do," said Vicci Hamlin, the great-grandmother of the trio, after the verdict. "I am proud and yet humbled to do my small part.”

Enbridge is unusual, too: It's considered one of the world's 100 most sustainable companies (this year it was No. 75). It is the largest solar energy generator and the second-largest wind-power generator in Canada. "We recognize," the company's website reads, "that our relationship with hydrocarbons comes with great responsibility."

Enbridge is also the company that in 2010 caused the largest inland oil spill in American history, when it dumped over a million gallons of heavy crude into Michigan's freshwater supply and then failed to clean it up properly. The spill sparked a wave of protests, one of which led to the arrest and trial of the Enbridge Three. Their story illuminates the ways in which environmental activism, both in Michigan and across the country, has broadened -- and how local governments are fumbling their reaction.