Tonight will witness the biggest social event of the D.C. environmental calendar: the Green Corps 15th anniversary bash. All the green glitterati will be there to honor Rep. Ed Markey and John Lewis with awards — and more importantly, to raise money to support training organizers for the environmental movement.

I’ve been helping out with the event for the last few months and I’m excited about it. It’s made me reflect on how much the environmental movement has changed since I graduated from the year-long Green Corps organizing fellowship in 2002 — and think anew about the relative importance of organizing to other methods of achieving social change.

For those who don’t know, Green Corps is the field school for environmental organizing. It generally takes 20-35 recent college graduates (out of more than 800 who apply!) and trains them in all the basic skills that go into running and winning an environmental (or really any social change or political) campaign. Then you get sent out somewhere in America to lead an environmental campaign yourself, working under the banner of a local, state, or national environmental group. My first campaign, for instance, was to work with Greenpeace to secure $5 billion in financing from the California government for clean energy financing. It’s a lot more responsibility than most people think they’ll have right out of college, and when you win, as you often do, it’s hard not to embrace organizing for the long run, as most Green Corps organizers do. As a result, they’ve gone on to do amazing work with everyone from the Sierra Club to Move On and the Gulf Restoration Network.

During my Green Corps year from 2001 to 2002, though, organizing was almost all we had. It was difficult for national environmental groups to get big-time media coverage of any environmental issue, much less the climate crisis, which seemed to be going nowhere as long as President Bush was in office. Now, since An Inconvenient Truth hit movie screens, it seems like everything is media: whether you read Women’s Wear Daily, watch NBC or Fox, or read your local paper, the planet is hot, hot, hot!

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That change has had a huge impact, altering the spectrum of what’s possible: we no longer have to beg for crumbs or think up cartoonish stunts to get attention (though no one should estimate the power of a cartoonish stunt to get attention). Suddenly, even Republican presidential candidates are forced to address the climate crisis and Democrats in Congress are actually considering fairly ambitious climate legislation. People across the country are making small changes to their own lives that might add up to something. More importantly, politicians at every level are more willing to give pro-environment legislation time on the agenda.

Here’s why I keep coming back to organizing — and think the environmental movement needs to continue to focus on building its long-term organizing capacity rather than becoming overly enthralled with a pure media approach:

  1. Media attention may evaporate. I just watched a preview for CNN’s Planet in Peril series (awesome!) that included an interview with REM’s Michael Stipe, who provided the theme song. He congratulated CNN on the project, but noted that this is the fourth time in his lifetime there’s been a major upsurge in environmental interest.
  2. Media alone can convince, but it can’t persuade: when the environmental movement loses, it’s not usually because policymakers think environmentalists are wrong. Rather, they know that the environment has historically been a low voting priority and that they can prioritize campaign donations and paeans to right wing extremists without paying a huge political price. Organizers are needed to build a movement that can provide meaningful pressure on politicians.
  3. Different politicians respond differently to different pressures: some want to avoid bad press coverage at any cost; others listen to key groups in their district. A diversity of strategies is needed to reach everybody.

That’s why I’m focused on investing resources in organizing (like through, ahem, tonight’s awesome party), but I’m constantly reevaluating, and curious about people’s experiences. In your community (and you can include yourself in any level of community), have you seen organizing, media, or something else make the biggest difference? How so?

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.