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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.


“The Simpsons” now has an extensive public transit system

Bart Simpson doesn't just ride around on a skateboard because he was invented in the '80s. Until recently, if you weren't old enough to drive a Canyonero, there just weren't that many ways to traverse the famous fictional town of Springfield. It's not surprising that the town would be a little gun-shy after the monorail flop, but look at the sad state of this old public transit system:


As of this past Sunday's episode, though, Springfield's rail system is looking spiffed-up, with eight color-coded lines serving areas like Ethnictown, Albino Heights, and the Varmint District, and easy access to tourist attractions like the Duff Brewery and the Giant Magnifying Glass.

Read more: Cities, Living


Whoa there! State lawmakers try to make oil trains safer

"beware of trains" sign

The wheels of railway safety reform may be in motion in Minnesota, but they've ground to a halt in Washington state.

Each day, an average of six trains bearing particularly incendiary fracked crude travel through Minnesota's Twin Cities, rattling the nerves of residents and lawmakers. The main worries are about potential derailments and explosions, but oil spills are also a concern, as evidenced by the recent leak of 12,000 gallons from a moving train in the state’s southeast.

On Monday, Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein introduced legislation that aims to protect the state from oil-by-rail accidents. The Star Tribune reports:


Florida has just basically given up on trying to keep pythons from taking over the Everglades

Matthew Cashmore

Just what you don’t want to hear about your friendly neighborhood national park: It’s crawling with up to 100,000 terrifying pythons that officials have given up eradicating. This is true of the Everglades, where the snakes are so stealthy, even trackers with radio transmitters couldn’t spot pythons just a few feet away.

The Everglades tried to make Capture the Snake happen (for once, not sexual innuendo!), but it was a huge flop, writes the Washington Post:

Last year, Florida organized a month-long hunt, called the Python Challenge, and enlisted volunteers to help remove its top-priority invasive species from the Everglades. When it was over, the state fish and wildlife commission and other experts came to this conclusion: Evicting the snakes is impossible ... [M]ore than 1,500 thrill-seekers, amateurs and skilled hunters who flocked to the event from across the country caught only 68.

But hey, at least something good came of -- the biologists who got to examine the dead snakes were delighted. (They’re a special kind of twisted.) They sliced open the pythons assembly line­-style and determined the creatures were feasting mostly on cotton rats, not small children:

Read more: Living


The sharing economy is thriving in Berlin’s “borrowing shops”

Lizbt Action

Nikolai Wolfert wasn’t the only one who was bummed after the Berlin Green Party’s loss in 2011, but he channeled his disappointment in a pretty unique way: opening a lending library for everything. The 31-year-old launched his donation-supported shop, Leila, in June 2012 as a way of making local political change.

And to call it a success would be an understatement. More than 400 Berliners have joined Leila, donating and borrowing everything from electric drills to board games, unicycles, and wine glasses. Leila’s spawned a slew of good-natured copycats too, according to the Guardian:

Borrowing shops are under development in several Berlin districts, with similar projects being set up in Kiel and Vienna. Würzburg has its own Leihbar, or "borrowing bar," and a cafe in Berlin-Wedding has set up a Dingeschrank, or "cupboard for things." Other collaborative projects with an emphasis on sharing resources are popping up all over the German capital.

Car-sharing is flourishing in the country as well -- the Guardian reports 760,000 Germans are registered with companies like Car2Go, DriveNow, and Tamyca. And they're going green in other ways too:

Read more: Cities, Living


Keystone foes turn their fire to natural gas exports

Cove Point protest

Republicans in Congress, and some Democrats too, are pushing hard to get the U.S. exporting more natural gas, using the crisis in Ukraine as an excuse. The House is considering a bill that would require the Department of Energy to immediately approve more than 20 pending applications for natural gas export facilities.

Some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, including Bill McKibben of and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, are now launching a counter-campaign, fighting natural gas exports in general and one proposed export terminal in particular.

On Tuesday, a coalition of 16 environmental organizations sent a sternly worded letter to the White House. "President Obama, exporting LNG [liquefied natural gas] is simply a bad idea in almost every way," they write. They express irritation with Obama's enthusiasm for natural gas exploration and argue that gas exports would harm American consumers and the environment.


This “ski lift for cyclists” helps you get up hills


Not every cyclist has monster thighs or an electric bike (or access to switchbacks, for that matter). Trondheim, Norway, has a solution for those of us with Gumby legs: the Trampe CycloCable.

The city built “the world's first bicycle lift intended for urban areas” in 1993, and over the next 15 years it ferried some 200,000 cyclists up the 426-foot Brubakken hill. The way it works is that you stand on your bike with your left foot and rest your right on a foot plate that looks like a track-and-field starting block; the plate runs on a recessed cable that winches you up the hill.

Last year, Trondheim made safety upgrades, and now the CycloCable is functional again:


White House gets geeky on climate problem

Obama with an iPad
Pete Souza / White House
"According to this, Florida is fucked."

To see how the world is changing around you, sometimes it helps to lose yourself online.

The White House is plunging into a new geeky approach to climate adaptation. It has consolidated online climate tools into a new hub,, intended to help Americans understand how weather and sea levels will continue to change in their states and even their neighborhoods.


Bill Maher says you aren’t an environmentalist unless you care about overpopulation

OK, so the green movement needs to get away from the words “environment,” “Earth,” and “planet,” but TV host Bill Maher has a fantastic point (for once): If you care about sustainability -- hell, if you care about the future at all -- you should be seriously worried about overpopulation.

Maher spoke with Countdown author Alan Weisman in an insightful, much-needed conversation. “This is a topic most environmental groups won’t touch,” Weisman began. (We will!)

Weisman noted that Iran has the best family planning programs in history, with free birth control and premarital classes that teach just how frickin’ expensive it is to raise a kid. Plus, women are encouraged to stay in school, which delays parenthood. (As Maher says, “Education is the best contraception.”) Watch -- it’s eight minutes worth seeing:

Read more: Living


This bike glows in the dark when headlights hit it

Mission Bicycle Company

Aside from stringing your bike and entire body in flashing holiday lights, it’s hard to find an elegant solution to the cyclist night visibility problem. Enter Mission Bicycle Company’s new bike, the Lumen. The cycle, which comes in eight-speed or single-speed, is a normal charcoal gray during the day and shines radiantly when night drivers’ beams glance over it. Wired explains:

The entire bike -- frame, fork, and rims -- has been sprayed with a retro-reflective coating. Hundreds of thousands of tiny transparent spheres are embedded in a top-layer of powdercoat. This trick was mastered by a company called Halo Coatings, which joined Mission Bicycle Co. to develop the Lumen.

Or as Mission says, “Dark gray by day, bright white at night.” Genius, no?