You’re probably aware that the environment could be in better shape. (If this is news to you, might we suggest unsubscribing from Everything’s Peachy Monthly and peering through your soot-covered windows to the barren fields on the horizon. That brittle skeleton used to be a cow!) Luckily for the environment, though, you’re a strapping young idealist who’s ready to take to the streets, rock the vote, and effect some serious policy change.
But now what? As you’re probably realizing, bringing about environmental-policy change is easier said than done. This is the point where we come in. So sit back, take a deep breath, hack out those pesky exhaust fumes, and meditate on your community’s needs. Here are some ideas for getting started.
Shared goals, shared ownership
First things first: It’s not about you. Or rather, it is, but it’s also about everyone else in your community — especially those most affected by the environmental inequities at play. Bringing people together is the first step toward building lasting social, economic, and political power. That’s why community organizing is called what it is. If it was all about waxing poetic about your gripes with specific policy proposals from the comfort of your bedroom, it’d be called Facebook. Empowering your community means addressing its shared needs. Don’t be afraid to take a step back for the sake of the more democratically pressing issues. In decision-making, transparency is key.
Meet the people where they are
A central tenet of effective organizing is showing up where your community members are. Is online communication particularly pervasive in your community? Get thee to a hashtag. Want feedback from karaoke enthusiasts? You know where to find them.
It’s also worth asking yourself if people are ready to be organized. Is dissatisfaction being expressed? Where, and through which channels? You might have a whole swath of angry, budding environmental activists who don’t have an outlet for their anger. They might not even consider themselves to be environmentalists. Meet them where they are and offer alternatives and networks and solidarity. Simply knowing that like-minded folks exist in the community is a form of empowerment.
Organizing for solutions means being interested in the right problems
This means striving to understand (and target!) root causes. Effective organizing is that which seeks to alter whole power structures, not just address symptoms. Cap-and-trade sounds great until the coal plant in your neighborhood buys enough emission permits to continue burning like nothing happened. Tackling the root problems at play isn’t easy — but that’s why you’re organizing your community in the first place! Systemic change requires passionate and coherent coalitions. Which brings us to our next point:
Remember: You’re not an advocate. You’re an organizer.
There’s a difference between community organizing and policy advocacy, between grassroots and grasstops. If building power really is one of your goals, that means you should be interested in leadership development and lasting change — not just Band-Aids for the current generation. And don’t be afraid to get a little intersectional in your work. Community organizing for environmental policy change also means seeing your movement as part of a larger thrust for social change — and your efforts as part and parcel to strengthening that thrust.
Promote leaders who are most directly affected by the environmental issues at play
Plain and simple: The most knowledgeable and passionate organizing advocates are those who are tied to the places and policies at hand. Without their voices, the movement has no heart.
This principle is an important one — and it’s not just about who you’re organizing. It’s about the nitty gritty of who’s sitting on recruitment committees and steering committees, the make-up of communications teams, and the voices who are guiding organizational strategy. Admittedly, it sounds a little boring. (But a lot of exciting things do! Just ask us about transferable development rights!) The point is that cultivating leaders most directly affected by the issues at hand — those breathing the polluted air, fishing the dirtied rivers, lacking access to green spaces and fresh food — not only lends your organizing legitimacy, it helps ensure it’ll serve the community it’s supposed to.
Tell a good story
Community planning and policy change are rooted in narrative. Part of articulating your community’s needs to policymakers is crafting a compelling reason for them to listen to your community in the first place. This also means knowing the political landscape you’re trying to alter. Are the people in positions of power more likely to respond to direct action or data? Lawsuits or oral histories? Answering these questions can help you figure out the type of story that needs to be told.
Share your successes!
Effective organizing strategies should be shouted from the rooftops! (Our neighbors have filed several civil complaints.) Let your community know what change its efforts have brought about! This point is about transparency, but it’s also about building one another up.
There’s probably a corollary here that has to do with setting realistic goals. Your community can only revel in its newfound power if it comes into it in the first place. Draw the boxes, do the work to check ’em, and celebrate! Onward!
Another thing behind great organizers? Great data. Check out innovative environmental-justice research in action:
The New School, a comprehensive university in New York City, is at the forefront of addressing global environmental issues and environmental justice thanks to its Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management graduate degree program. Turn your passion for environmental change and sustainability into a career with impact.
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