What is the Relief You Seek?

All successful environmental campaigns resemble one another. All unsuccessful ones fail in their own unique way.

From company personnel officers to politicians, those who attend to official “complaints” say that people who present grievances and complaints almost never state the exact relief they seek. But agencies, legislators, and the entire American political process are organized to deal with people who seek specific solutions to specific problems. So being very specific about your goal helps everybody understand what you want—including your own volunteers.

Identify the goal of your campaign and put it in writing and know and state the specific relief you seek.

+ Agency X must withdraw proposal Y.

+ A deadline for an agency decision should be extended 90 days to allow more time for comments.

+ Reverse decision to cut 50 trees to make more parking.

+ A’s request for a zoning change must be denied.

Decide at the beginning of the campaign exactly what outcome you seek. It is often not enough to just be against something. You may also need to present an alternative. For example: we do not want an industrial park there; we want a nature preserve. We do not want a timber sale on that mountain; we want it set aside as open space. If you have an alternative that requires legislative action, have someone qualified prepare that alternative as a specific proposal or a piece of legislation.

Most activists in a campaign can usually agree on identifying the problem, but when real progress occurs and the other side is ready to settle, some campaigns unfortunately discover that their activists have real differences about what specific relief is acceptable.

This is particularly important whenever an opposed project is an ‘attractive nuisance’ or has a socially positive component, such as filling a wetland to build a battered women’s shelter or cutting forests to provide jobs for minorities. The final stages of such campaigns can split a campaign wide apart as some activists support compromise measures while others hold out for complete abandonment.

Bad actors increasingly tend to include or involve socially attractive elements in their schemes so they can accuse opponents of sexism, ageism, colonialism, classism, racism, etc. Promoters of bad schemes have learned from watching debates within the progressive community that a certain percentage of environmental activists will withdraw at the first accusation of an ‘-ism.’ Just as a burglar might throw a juicy bone over the fence to distract the junkyard dogs, it is a rare developer these days who does not embed a recycling or daycare center, conceive a community garden, or earmark benefits for minorities in their schemes.

This is why in the end game of some campaigns, the intra-organizational conflicts among the good guys are more virulent than the inter-organizational conflicts between opposing sides.

Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.