Activist Sam Pratt, featured in a PBS documentary, answers Grist’s questions
What work do you do?
I advise citizens’ groups and campaigns on how to win against the odds, and I’m working on a manual of strategy and tactics for underdogs.
When neighbors work closely together in a smart and structured way, there is no such thing as a “done deal” — no matter what any politician or developer tells you. From 1999 to 2005, pretty much every waking moment of my life was spent challenging a subsidiary of the largest cement company in the world. St. Lawrence Cement spent $58 million in Hudson, N.Y. — a town of just 7,500 people — on a campaign to build one of the largest coal-burning plants in the country.
This battle to define the future of one small American town is featured in a new documentary called Two Square Miles. The one-hour version begins airing on PBS stations across the U.S. on Nov. 28 (find out when it’s playing in your area). It’s also available on DVD in a far more nuanced 93-minute “director’s cut.”
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I’m an accidental activist: a former reporter for national publications, who became a community organizer and activist by necessity, not by design. I woke up one day in my late 20s and realized that my trendy Manhattan life was a trap. Having grown up in a small rural town, I decided to move back to one.
Making change in small communities is far more complex and challenging than anything I ever did for big-name magazines. Local life tests your abstract ideas (and ideals) against more tangible realities. In a small town, you immediately see the consequences of your actions — and have to live with them.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Lilongwe, Malawi. I now live in the town of Taghkanic, in New York’s Hudson Valley.
How does your work relate to the environment?
Causes seem to find me wherever I go; and since my region is facing a ton of development pressures, those causes tend to have an environmental angle.
First there was a proposal to build a hazardous-waste processing plant on the Hudson River, a stone’s throw from my house. Next came the epic cement-plant battle. While these battles were raging, I also helped with several tumultuous political campaigns, in which land-use planning issues were front and center.
What are you working on at the moment?
Photo: Barbara Ettinger & Sven Huseby/ ITVS
Last summer, I moved to a house in the woods for some rest. I got all of two days’ rest before a new controversy arose and again took over my life. An heir to a major banking fortune bought an old farm on the other side of town, and began construction of a mile-long asphalt track for motorcycle racing — without applying for required permits, and in flagrant violation of local zoning.
So I’ve cofounded a new organization, The Granger Group. I’ve also been busy touring with Two Square Miles.
How do you get to work?
When I lived in the small town of Hudson, my office was a three-block walk from my home. Now that I live in the countryside, I work at home, so my commute consists of climbing one set of stairs.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Watching the organization I helped build over nearly seven years from just 40 to over 4,000 members (and a six-figure bank balance) reduced by my successors to virtually nothing, less than one year after my departure.
The death of many grassroots groups is too much process — debating bylaws, developing strategic plans — and not enough action. The real challenge is to find radically competent and highly ethical people, who will commit to a few clear goals, and follow through on the obvious steps to achieve them.
What’s been the best?
An experience I’ve had over and over again: witnessing the endless supply of ingenuity, skills, and gumption that wells up in people when their community is at risk. When citizens build themselves even a rudimentary framework to shape the destiny of the place where they live, astonishingly good things happen.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The conscious decisions by corporations and governments to locate society’s most polluting projects in the poorest and most vulnerable communities — both within the U.S. and internationally — should infuriate us all.
Who is your environmental hero?
Though “environmentalist” is not the first word most people would use to describe him, Gandhi is my hero and the grassroots strategist and tactician I admire most. Gandhi achieved the seemingly impossible by deploying one stunningly innovative idea after another, putting himself on the line while shunning violence to achieve radical change.
If you don’t have time to read a biography, at least go out and rent Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s excellent movie.
What’s your environmental vice?
The only truly sustainable products are used products, so I am very embarrassed by my brand new couch.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?
Reading on that new couch with my four cats.
Read any good books lately?
Life is too short to waste on books that haven’t stood the test of time. Right now, I’m rereading Dostoyevsky’s major works: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.
What’s your favorite meal?
Any fresh, organic, locally grown vegetarian meal. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Animals are my friends. And I don’t eat my friends.”
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
As a vegetarian, atheist, community activist, and journalist, I’ve had all the labels that are used to deter public participation thrown at me. I’m “outspoken,” “vocal,” “radical,” and apparently I “will never be satisfied.” Guilty as charged.
What’s your favorite place?
If I could be teleported to one place instantaneously and pollution-free, I’d go back to the Nyika plateau in Malawi. It’s like Vermont, only with warthogs and leopards. But I don’t travel anymore; I consider it wasteful and even unnatural. So I guess my favorite “place” is in front of a large monitor, writing and designing a punchy mailer for a good cause.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Go to a routine meeting of your local town government, school board, city council, or other civic agency. Once you see how things are really run, you’ll either be so outraged or so intrigued that you’ll have to get more involved.