The Real Climate March is Next Door, Not In NYC

On Sunday, September 21, in NYC, I hope to attend my last big demonstration to save the climate.

Like many long-time social-change activists, I believe that real change depends not on big demonstrations, but on building lasting, personal relationships with individual human beings.

Indeed, more and more of us have come to believe that permanently-staffed, hierarchical organizations, like those calling for this demonstration, actually prevent social change. The pressure to raise funds and follow the direction of wealthy families and their foundations inevitably forces the leaders of such organizations to compromise the movement’s mission. Lower-level staff makes similar compromises to keep their jobs.

Indeed, some of us believe that the permanently-staffed, hierarchical “progressive movement,” whether intentionally or not,  serves as a front for the Democratic Party and diverts our activism into the bottomless pit of elections-for-sale-to-the-highest-bidder. Unfortunately, this demonstration looks like more of the same, timed to excite activists for the upcoming elections.

At a more micro level, demonstrations  dis-empower their participants. That same in-group of funders and their chosen friends who initiate or encourage these demonstrations will decide, at least in general terms, on the official demands and acceptable speakers. In this case, the March initiators decided NOT to make any specific demands, thus allowing corporate groups to participate and politicians to interpret the turnout as they choose. Much like their prototypes in the Nazi era, such demonstrations will ask participants to listen (rather than talk and listen to each other) or in this case, just march. There are few participatory surprises in one of these hierarchically-initiated demonstrations.

By contrast, we do know how to build  grassroots social movements.  The general outlines of a one-on-one, relational, horizontal approach to organizing have already been developed and successfully applied. Many direct-action campaigns currently use variations, including in the climate justice movement. Some peer-based social movements have independently used some of these tools to grow into the millions, as in 12 Step recovery movement, and hundreds of thousands in peer co-counseling (“RC’)  and Quaker meetings. Based on my three decades in those three just-named movements, in direct-action campaigns and on my academic work,  I’ve distilled some specific suggestions on how to build a climate movement of “equals,” not “elites” (www.NIPSPeerSupport.org.)  We’ve had some success already.

So, based on that model, as the title to this essay states: The Real Climate March is Next Door. If we do not use every contact we make in conjunction with this March to build new one-on-one relationships—and deepen existing ones–we will have wasted our time. Even worse, we will have added to the myth that a few great (mostly) men in the movement, the Congress or the U.N. will save us.

So here is how we can use the opportunity of this March to build the one-on-one, relationship-based, horizontal movement necessary to win.

Beginning with recruiting others to attend the March, we all need to learn to initiate lasting social-change relationships. We have to reach out to people one on one, take turns telling our stories and explore interests we have in common. We can do this on the buses, trains and cars to and from the March. We can do it during the March. One-on-one outreach is a skill, to be learned like any other. Harvard’s Marshall Ganz has analyzed the successful, one-on-one outreach practices many of them from faith-based community organizations and the resulting training is available on the 350.org website (workshops.350.org/toolkit/story/ ).

We need to start by talking with our family members about climate around the kitchen table tonight. Knock on our neighbor’s door. Stand up at lunch time at work or at our religious congregation this weekend. Tell them we are concerned about the climate crisis and ask them what they think.

If someone sounds interested, we should ask them to sit down with us for a serious, forty-five minute, one-on-one meeting and follow that format on the 350 website. Tell our stories. Ask them theirs. Tell them what we are doing for the climate, including going to the March, whether lobbying with Citizen Climate Lobby or our civil disobedience with Rising Tide. See what they dream of doing.

One form of personal outreach required by this crisis is across racial boundaries—before, during and after the March. Organizations of People from the Global Majority, i.e. of color, have made it easier during this March. They successfully challenged the organizers of this March to be included. However, there is precious little such outreach by our movement on an ongoing basis in most of the communities I have visited (Los Angeles being the strongest exception in my travels along with positive reports from the Bay Area.) Typically, local and national climate organizations are almost entirely white; by contrast, environmental justice and other organizations building resilience in communities of color are almost entirely of color. Rarely do the white climate organizations follow the lead of the organizations of color. We need to reach out to local communities of color and hold similar one-on-ones.

Our movement will be far better off after the March if we have recruited one or two new, long-term co-workers—or made two friends of a different race.

We can also use the March as an opportunity to provide emotional support to one another. Without some form of support, psychiatrist Lisa Van Susteren warns us of “climate advocacy trauma.” The stress of confronting on a daily basis the possible end of our species will lead us to burn out and/or become ineffective in our activism.

Peer support is the cheapest and most effective source of such emotional support. Millions of people provide it for each other every day all over the planet. All we have to do is ask another activist to take timed, uninterrupted turns listening with us, with encouragement to express our feelings, even deep ones. We can do it in this pressure-packed period as we try to fill our buses, or on the road to and from the March in the bus, train or car or in the inevitable hassles of any large demonstration. When we get home, we can organize a “support group” of climate activists (broadly defined) to take equal turns listening to each other (up to about eight members.) I even organized  such a peer support group for the men in my police van after we were arrested outside the White House at the Tar Sands Action (a report is on the website.)

If we did nothing more in conjunction with this March than learn and practice these two simple skills—one-on-one outreach and listening turns, we will have taken giant steps to building the grassroots movement we need.

Jim Driscoll, a combat veteran of Vietnam, quit college teaching in 1982 to work full-time for peace and social justice. References for this essay are available from JimDriscoll@NIPSPeerSupport.org.

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