Change Doesn’t Happen Without Disruption: An Interview with Masada Disenhouse

Masada Disenhouse has empowered people to organize, advocate, and campaign to build grassroots political power. She is currently Executive Director of SanDiego350 where she supports volunteer leaders to empower thousands of San Diegans to take action to achieve a just and equitable transition to 100% renewable energy.

AA: Can you trace what it was in your early life experiences that set you up to be a grassroots organizer, and specifically one so focused on the climate crisis?

MD: I feel like a lot of it just comes out of my personality. I have a strong sense of right and wrong and moral outrage. And I think I got that from my dad, who is also an organizing type personality. And then I think I got a real love of nature from my family, which used to camp and hike. I do not get my politics from my family, most of which is very conservative – I’ve always been very progressive. I started being an activist in high school. After grad school I got involved in the Green Party and in protecting a public waterfront in Brooklyn. I was also employed at a nonprofit that used federal funding to help lower income families conserve energy, and so I got exposed at that point to energy and environmental justice issues. That year I distinctly remember reading the summary of the second IPCC report which had just come out and I just couldn’t believe that there was this huge problem that nobody was talking about and seemingly nobody was doing anything about and I was kind of freaked out by the whole thing.

Working on Ralph Nader’s Green Party Presidential campaign in 2000, I really saw the value of long term movement building versus short term political campaigns. You know there’s value in running political campaigns, but if you’re not doing long-term movement-building between campaigns, you don’t have a base to draw from. It showed me that if you want to get people civically engaged, you need to create the structures and the resources that let people plug in when they’re available and for the small amounts of time that they’re available. It’s not just about climate – I developed a passion for helping people understand that they do have political power and how to use it on any issue that they might be interested in.

AA: When some students in my University get their eyes on the climate and ecological crisis they want to do something about it. But they often say they don’t know what to do. What are your recommendations for people just starting to get involved in the climate movement? As an organizer, how do you match individual people with what they can do?

MD: Start by talking to everybody you know about why you care about this issue and what you’re personally doing about it. Movement building is related to how much people get the word out and how much you convince regular people – that this is an important issue, that it’s a problem that affects them, and that something needs to be done. Everybody needs to realize that they’re an influencer. Whether it’s on social media or talking to people in person, everybody has their own networks. My step two is always going to be joining a group. In this country, unless you are a rock star or have a ton of money, pretty much the only avenue that’s left to you for exercising serious political power is through organizing, and that means working with other people in some sort of structure. So I really recommend joining a group and learning how you can contribute. For it to be sustainable, for you to continue to contribute to that cause, you must do work that’s meaningful and rewarding for you. There are a lot of different ways that people can contribute. You don’t have to do everything.

About how to match people, the role of the organizer is to talk to people and find out where their passion is and what they like to do. I like to listen, then make some suggestions of things to try out, so they see if it’s a good fit. I also do like to push people to try things out of their comfort zone. I think that current political power in this country relies a lot on people accepting the status quo, and there are a lot of social norms around what’s acceptable and what’s not and how to engage as an activist and advocate. Change doesn’t happen without disrupting those norms.

AA: Your organizing work is mostly at the local, regional and state level. Yet we need a huge energy shift, ideally driven by national policy. How does your local work connect with the national and international levels? How do you motivate someone new to join the grassroots when the changes that are needed are so much bigger than what we can accomplish locally?

MD: First of all, I think that the local matters a lot because it’s where you have the most influence, right? It’s where you understand how politics works. Getting things done in cities and regional agencies like SANDAG (San Diego County’s transportation agency) is where we can build power and really affect things. Also, accomplishments in a city can serve as a model. For example, San Diego passed one of the most aggressive and accountable Climate Action Plans back in 2015. It was one of the few big city models that were available at that time, so it had a far reaching impact on other cities. I also think belonging to a network is important. My local organization is affiliated with the national and international organization, and we also build relationships with lots of other local organizations. Having those networks is really important, so that, occasionally you can bring everybody together and bring all that power to bear on something specific. For example, we’ve participated in big days of action, where people show power in the streets. You can get lots of people to sign petitions or make phone calls, you can get a significant number of people from each area to participate in key moments, like the Keystone XL protest at the White House or the Dakota access pipeline protests. I also think that sharing information and resources across networks is very important, so not everybody has to reinvent the wheel. Just look at the Black Lives Matter movement this last year. People turned out in their own city, and some were able to get changes to the policy in their own city, but you can see that the whole nation shifted on this issue. I also like to give the example of same-sex marriage. It went from being something that was unthinkable when I was in high school, a hot button issue that nobody would talk about, to something that successfully passed, and is now completely supported by a lot more than 50% of the people in this country. Within a generation, not a long time. And the reason it became so acceptable was mostly because people decided that they were going to go and talk to their families right? It’s hard to tell someone you don’t know about the right to same-sex marriage, but it’s a lot easier when you’re a sibling or a child. I think that can be really powerful. And I think it goes back to the relevance of working locally. If we all push in the same direction, we can achieve that national level shift.

AA: What role does money play in your grassroots work? Can you define grassroots? Do you need more funding, and what would you do with it? At what point might your approach be compromised by (large) sources of money?

MD: Grassroots organizing is all about having accountability to the community that you work in and being driven by the people in that community as opposed to top down. Our organization is very volunteer-led. We have about 20 different volunteer-led teams and decisions are mostly made by the people in the teams, as long as what they’re doing is consistent with our overall mission. And we bring team representatives together to make organizational decisions. In terms of money I would say that, yes, it’s very helpful for getting things done. It’s really important that most of our money comes from individuals, though some of it comes from individuals who give us a good chunk of money. In the non-profit universe there are grants, but there are very few foundations who will give money towards disruptive political work. So organizations that rely on grants often do end up being influenced by that, and that’s one of the reasons that we really value donations from individuals, because it gives us the freedom to be disruptive. The funds primarily allow us to provide the structure that enables a lot more people to get involved. Our staff make sure that there’s onboarding and follow up for new people, that we have tech, and we provide training and mentorship to volunteers as they’re developing their skills. So I think you can ideally balance your independence and commitment to grassroots organizing with being able to raise the money to support that work. I think a lot of people were inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which was able to raise a lot of money from small donations and that’s the model that we use.

AA: To go up against the fossil fuel industry, we need massive political power and the largest grassroots big-tent movement possible. What are some of the factions or divisions in the climate movement? How do you join forces with progressive allies whose focus isn’t climate change? How do you determine who to ally with? What can we do to ensure we’re all pushing in the same direction?

MD: Well, first of all, I would say, if I knew all the answers to this, I would probably win the Nobel Prize! There are legitimate differences of opinion about what is politically viable, and I think in every movement, one of the classic divisions is between people who want to do incremental work versus people who are more radical and push for the full changes that are needed, and there’s a lot of friction that’s caused by that. But I don’t think there’s an easy solution. As an example, within the climate movement, there is the Citizens Climate Lobby and they’ve put forward a bill for a carbon tax that gets paid back as a dividend. This is an incredibly incremental, and I would say, conservative-leaning approach. And then, on the other side, I have a friend who was one of the valve turners. They identified the five pipelines that transport oil between Canada and the US, and they went out one day and cut the bolts on the fences and turned off those valves. So there are a lot of approaches out there. I’m going to sound like a broken record but it really comes back to how do you shift the narrative? You need the wider public to be outraged by the crisis and think of it like a moral justice issue that they need to pay attention to. We haven’t gotten there on climate, not yet. You know, I think of our local work at the City Council. On the one hand, it will give us a climate action plan and at the same time, it will shift the way people think about the issue. You’re trying to accomplish both at the same time. And I think if people in the wider movement agree on shifting the narrative then they are allies, rather than people to be fought.

I also believe that we need to escalate, to disrupt things and bring pressure to get people to see that moral outrage, so I wouldn’t make any apologies about that. And something else, is trigger points that suddenly raise massive public awareness and concern. Like the murder of George Floyd. That was one of those moments that made people focus and come out in a way that they had never come out before. You can’t predict when those triggers will occur, but you can get ready for them. Think of Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement. Organizers knew they wanted to use a bus rider to get public attention, and other people refused to give up their seats before Rosa. But when Rosa did it, the movement organized around her and sought that massive public attention because they felt she was a sympathetic figure who would get people riled up and mobilized – and they were correct.

You also asked me about who to work with outside of climate groups. I would just say that, first of all, the most important thing to know is that environmentalists are too small a percentage right now to win anything on our own. So we have no choice but to go out and partner with people whose main issue is something else. And I think we have some natural allies, since climate is clearly a justice issue. Lower income people and communities of color are way more impacted by climate and also less able to deal with the pollution that’s caused by drilling for and burning oil and gas. So I think social justice groups are kind of a natural ally for us on this. And we’ve worked with labor, housing groups, faith groups, and others. I think it’s really about broadening that coalition. The other benefit is familiarizing other people with your issues. I would partner with anybody pretty much as long as I feel like we can get to common ground. Partnering means having a genuinely reciprocal and respectful relationship.

AA: I want to follow up on the Labor issue. Some have said that the Unions are not with the shift to renewable energy because of misinformation. Where exactly does that come from?

MD: First of all, I would not talk about it as misinformation, because that’s dismissive of people. And I think the number one thing to do, if you want to get people on your side, is you have to listen to what they’re saying and what their concerns are. I think that there are probably some union members who are pretty conservative and who knows what kind of news they watch? But I think that the reality is that there are a lot of legitimate concerns by people in Labor. For one thing, Labor has gotten the short end of the stick on politics a lot in the last several decades. There’s been a concerted attack on Labor since before I was born, and Union memberships have gone down tremendously. Another thing to recognize is that Labor is on the whole playing a very defensive game for a very long time now, and they are very vested in hanging on to what they have. And that’s legitimate, they’ve been attacked. Another issue is that there is little overlap between the people in the environmental movement and Unions. Environmentalists tend to be more professional and often misunderstand what the Unions are for and how they work. The main job of the Union, really, is to look after their members, to make sure that they’re getting treated fairly and paid reasonable wages and benefits. To underestimate the value of unions is a mistake. There are a lot of people in this country who don’t get paid enough to live on, who have to work multiple jobs, who don’t have child-care, who don’t have health care, who don’t have sick pay. Workers in this country, unionized or not, have been attacked for a long time. And if we’re serious about justice and equity, we have to support unions and collective bargaining.

The Unions are looking out for people now, so they may say no to things that are a long term opportunity. For example, you might say to them, okay over the next 10 years, things are going to really shift and a lot more jobs will be coming out of the renewable energy industry. But when they look at it, they see the choice between working now for SDG&E (local electric utility), which has been unionized for a long time, which they have a relationship with, and some political leverage over, or they can work for 50 or 100 different solar companies, 80% of which are not unionized, probably will never be unionized, where they will completely lose that power to get decent compensation for their members. So, you need to try to understand where people are coming from and try to find solutions that work for them.

AA: Do you sometimes feel daunted, overwhelmed by the size of the challenge, and have your doubts about whether the world will in fact be able to reduce emissions? How do you sustain yourself through the periods where you feel like that?

MD: I really get a lot out of being around other people who I find inspiring so being in the movement is important to me. I also get a lot out of things like good food and hiking that I try to use to keep myself sane. But I think that the alternative is pretty unimaginable, right? The alternative is not doing anything and leaving a much worse planet and environment for the people who come next. I think it’s really unacceptable to know that you can do something to make a difference, and then not do it. I really think everybody has to find what their own thing is and do what they can.