Melissa Waage is completing a one-year training program through Green Corps, the field school for environmental organizing.
Sunday, 24 Feb 2002
My Sunday began in Asheville, N. C. I woke up a little late, but within an hour I had packed everything I own into three giant Tupperware bins, several backpacks, and a large saucepan, and loaded it all into my car. Eight hours later, I was in Washington, D.C., my new home — well, home for a couple of months, anyway. Washington will be my third stop since August, when I began a year-long training program in grassroots environmental organizing through Green Corps.
I and 35 other recent college graduates began our Green Corps experience with a month of introductory classroom training in Boston, where the program is based. In classroom training, we learned some of the basics, from planning a campaign, to recruiting and managing volunteers, to fundraising. Our instructors included experienced organizers and other prominent faces in the environmental movement: Bob Bingaman, national field director for the Sierra Club; Lois Gibbs, founder of the Love Canal Homeowners Association; and Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat is On, to name only a few.
In early September, we headed for destinations all over the country to work with groups like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and INFACT on critical environmental campaigns. Most of us will work in two to five locations throughout the year on a variety of different campaigns. For instance, I ended up spending last fall in Portland, Ore., organizing Oregonians opposed to drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In January I moved to Asheville, where I worked with citizens throughout North Carolina to get Staples, the office superstore, to stock more recycled paper. Monday begins my first week in Washington, where I’ll be working with a coalition of environmental groups in Virginia on Clear the Air, a nationwide campaign to clean up dirty power plants.
The Clear the Air campaign addresses a problem that has become more and more evident to me since I began working with Green Corps: Values that are held by the vast majority of Americans are often completely disregarded by a government that is beholden to entrenched special interests. In this case, one of those cherished values — our public health — is being sacrificed so that ancient power plants can continue to evade modern clean air standards.
A loophole in the Clean Air Act allows around 600 power plants throughout the country to continue to operate, although they don’t meet current limits on the emission of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. Emissions from these plants contribute to acid rain, asthma attacks, mercury poisoning, and 30,000 premature deaths per year, not to mention global warming.
The Clean Power Act, a Senate bill introduced by Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), would, if passed, close the loophole. My job for the next few weeks is to educate Virginians about the problem of dirty power plants, and help organize support for the Jeffords bill. At the same time, I’ll be developing the organizing skills I already have, and most likely learning some new ones.
As I psych myself up to start work tomorrow, I think about what a college friend of mine said when I told him what I’d be doing in Washington: “Why would anyone oppose a law like that? It sounds like a good idea.” Exactly. Let’s get it passed.
Monday, 25 Feb 2002
There were three priorities on my to-do list for Monday: 1) find my office; 2) meet the Clear the Air coalition partners; and 3) find somewhere to live. I didn’t fully complete any of these tasks, but I made a good start.
Green Corps had arranged for me to use donated office space at the offices of US PIRG, so that was my first stop. The PIRG office is being renovated, however, and I learned that I wouldn’t have an actual desk until Wednesday. No problem. PIRG gave me a long distance phone code and an Internet connection, and I was able to borrow a desk for the day.
Moving on to priority number two: Clear the Air’s field director told me that the coalition’s most active partners in Virginia are the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Izaak Walton League of America. I’m anxious to meet these people, because I’d like them to fill me in on what’s been going on with the campaign in Virginia, and what needs to happen. In particular, I’d like to know more about Sen. John Warner, a moderate Republican who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee, and therefore will help determine the fate of the Clean Power Act in the Senate. What I want to know: What does Sen. Warner need to hear and who does he need to hear it from to make him vote the right way?
I’m also hoping the folks from our partner organizations can help me figure out exactly how my work will fit into similar efforts across the state. I’ve been given a set of basic goals going into the campaign — for example, we’d like to see a certain amount of media coverage, hold a certain number of public events, and so forth. However, I don’t want to step on any toes or duplicate any efforts that are already underway.
For instance, one of my goals is for organizations in Virginia to write letters to Sen. Warner in support of the Clean Power Act, or to get involved in the campaign in other ways. Whether I’ll talk to environmental groups, public health groups, or religious groups depends on what our coalition partners are doing and what they can tell me about Virginia politics. If there are already people working to get religious groups to write letters, I either won’t focus on those groups, or I’ll talk to the people who got there first and see how we can work together. And if our coalition partners think that it would be more useful to get other types of organizations involved, I’ll focus on that instead.
In between calls to our contact at SELC and the Izaak Walton League, I did some research on organizations in Virginia. I tried to find a phone number, fax number, email address, and contact person for each organization, and recorded this information on a spreadsheet. In the afternoon, I finally reached SELC’s clean air campaign coordinator and set up a phone meeting with him for tomorrow morning.
Towards the end of the day I was able to turn to priority number three: housing. As I write this, still homeless, I realize it should have been priority number one. I browsed through the classified section of the Washington Post and surfed the net for about an hour and found a few rental possibilities, but none of them answered when I called. I’ll try again tomorrow, and I’ll also ask around the office — generally a foolproof way to find housing of some kind.
Tuesday, 26 Feb 2002
This morning, as planned, I called Peter Leary, the clean air campaign coordinator for the Southern Environmental Law Center, a Clear the Air coalition partner. I also called Jeremy Kranowitz of the Izaak Walton League of America, another campaign partner. After talking to Peter and Jeremy, I have a better idea of which groups to try to work with on this campaign. It seems, however, that inter-organizational politics will be a little tricky to navigate.
I wondered if any of the other Green Corps organizers on the Clear the Air team were facing similar issues, so I posted a message on the listserv we recently set up. There are seven other Green Corps organizers working on Clear the Air right now — in Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Hampshire.
The Clear the Air listserv is part of the support network that exists among Green Corps organizers and our supervisors. In one way, the Green Corp organizers are employees, hired to make a difference on critical campaigns. In another way, however, we’re students learning to be environmental leaders. To accommodate this latter identity, the program has created numerous avenues for discussion of and feedback on our work.
While we’re in the field, each Green Corps organizer stays in contact with an assistant organizing director who monitors our progress and provides help and advice on our work throughout the year. Our AODs are available for consultation almost anytime, and once a week each of us has an hour-long individual call with his or her AOD. Our AODs are experienced organizers, and they can help us learn to organize more effectively, but they also keep us thinking about our plans for the future. On weekly calls with my AOD, Antha, I have plenty of questions about the day-to-day details of my work. But as the year progresses, I also find that I have more and more questions about where I will fit into the environmental movement after Green Corps. Antha has been helping me figure out what type of job I should be looking for.
Our AODs aren’t the only part of the Green Corps support network. Green Corps organizers are a valuable resource to each other as well. Teams of organizers stay in touch with each other through weekly conference calls as well as through individual phone conversations and email. Our conversations aren’t all business, though. There’s an intense feeling of community among my Green Corps classmates, and we’re friends as much as we are colleagues.
A message on the Clear the Air listserv alerted me that tomorrow will be the Clear the Air team’s first weekly conference call, where I’ll get a chance to say hi to the rest of the team and find out how they’re doing, but also to bounce some ideas off them about what to do in Virginia. I wrote the conference call into my schedule for tomorrow, and then replanned the rest of my week around the new information I learned from the Virginia campaign partners. My top priority for the rest of the week is to get in touch with the “big fish” — the environmental, health, or religious groups that I am most interested in working with — so I scheduled in lots of time on the phone.
Tuesday ended happily, because I spoke with someone who has a room to rent, and arranged to see the place and meet the other tenants tomorrow. The location is excellent, the price is reasonable, and unless my potential housemates are three-headed ogres, I’ll probably take it.
Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002
First thing this morning, I was scheduled to do some recruitment work. One of the responsibilities of a Green Corps organizer is to replace himself or herself with a new organizer in the next Green Corps class. So today I called several professors at my alma mater and asked them to recommend candidates for the program. I’ve already asked plenty of campus leaders to provide recommendations and spoken to dozens of graduating seniors about Green Corps, but I don’t want to miss any potential candidates.
At midday, I joined the Green Corps Clear the Air team’s conference call. We exchanged advice and asked questions about planning our campaigns. Campaign planning and research will be important tasks this week, but we’re also all going to be doing some actual outreach to start trying to meet campaign goals.
With that in mind, after the call I spoke to the director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter; I had heard that he is extremely active on air quality issues. He agreed to send an action alert about the Clean Power Act to the Sierra Club’s Virginia activist list, and to consider sending an organizational letter to Sen. Warner urging him to support the bill. I also called the director of the American Lung Association’s Virginia chapter, and she agreed to send a letter to Sen. Warner on behalf of her organization.
After doing more research into groups that might be interested in working on the power plant issue, I began calling some of the students that had been recommended as candidates for Green Corps to talk to them about the program and the application process. Talking to candidates is always exciting. There are plenty of people out there who really want to help protect the environment, empower citizens, and make democracy work, but don’t necessarily know how to get started. When I reach a student like that, I smile, but I also wonder, “How many people like this are we missing? Where do they go? Do they become temps? Consultants? Baristas?”
As I like to explain to candidates, I would probably not be involved in Green Corps if one of the program’s organizers hadn’t contacted me directly. While I had always been interested in environmental issues, I was thinking about a career in journalism when an organizer in last year’s class called me and told me about the program. Coincidentally, the call came on election night, 2000. As I watched the absurd political drama that unfolded over the next few months, and saw George W. Bush ascend to the presidency, I realized that our environment and perhaps even our democracy were in serious trouble. (That is, more serious trouble than usual.) I decided that I wanted to do something immediate and effective to protect the values I believe in, so I applied to Green Corps.
The longer I’ve spent doing this kind of work, the more I’ve come to believe in the power of grassroots organizing to protect those values, and of the need for more trained organizers. That’s what I try to convey to potential Green Corps organizers, and it’s also what makes me love working on campaigns like Clear the Air. As usual, recruitment calls have me enthusiastic about work tomorrow.
Thursday, 28 Feb 2002
Today I started setting up venues for talking to Virginians about the Clean Power Act. I called and emailed the chairs of local Sierra Club groups and the social action committees of Unitarian churches to ask to speak to their groups. I asked groups that already have meetings planned to set aside a few minutes during which I can tell their members about the problem of power plant pollution, alert them to the upcoming legislation that will help solve it, and ask them to write letters to Sen. Warner about the Clean Power Act. Tomorrow and next week I’ll call some other groups that may be interested in this issue, like Parent-Teacher Associations and public health groups, and set up more presentations.
Group presentations are only one way of informing citizens about problems like power plant pollution. A more “wholesale” approach is to set up a table at a public venue such as a park, an outdoor concert, or a farmers’ market, and simply approach passersby. I particularly like this method because it reaches many people who wouldn’t ordinarily become involved, which is hugely important. I also like it because, frankly, it’s fun to get outside and talk to people about these issues. It’s even more fun and more effective when you can bring volunteers to help.
Fortunately, it’s never hard to find volunteers for group presentations and tabling. A remarkable number of people are willing to donate time and effort when they find out they can have an impact on an issue that’s important to them. One day you may meet such a person at a group presentation or out on the street, and the next day that person may be out on the street with you, recruiting more volunteers.
Recruiting, training, and managing volunteers are some of the most useful and important skills Green Corps organizers learn. Trained and invested volunteers multiply your efforts and make them more effective — and they can also continue the work you’ve started after you’ve left the community. One of the long-term goals of the campaigns that Green Corps organizers and other grassroots organizers work on is to leave behind empowered citizens that will continue to do this work.
After setting up a first round of presentations, I made some calls to various people at the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to find out who I should talk to about getting the Diocese involved in the Clear the Air campaign. I also prepared some materials for a foray into some as-yet-undetermined public place in Northern Virginia this weekend to get citizens to write letters to Sen. Warner. Before heading home, I scanned the online versions of newspapers throughout Virginia for news relating to power plants, and set up a system to quickly check these papers on a regular basis.
It’s been a good week; I’ve learned a lot and made some preparations that should get the campaign rolling. I look forward to the next few weeks, when I’ll be talking to citizens and volunteers and seeing our efforts start to pay off. With the work that’s been done on this issue for years, and the work that Green Corps organizers and countless others will continue to do throughout the U.S., I think we can win this one. Everyone wants clean air, a healthy environment, and less needless deaths and medical problems from air pollution. It’s just a matter of making our voices heard.