It’s Not too Late for a New Year’s Resolution to Repair Our Climate, Our Democracy, and Ourselves

Wednesday January 19, 2022

By Sam Daley-Harris, NPCA & RPCV4EA Coach

I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Orlando Sentinel and in The Invading Sea.  In it I expressed concern about findings from a recent Harvard Youth Poll that 52 percent of young Americans between 18- and 29-years old believe that our democracy is either “in trouble” or “failing” and a PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll that found “67% of all Americans, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, believe American democracy is ‘under threat.’”

More than half my life has been spent bolstering people’s ability to participate in our democracy, to have their voices heard and build the world they want, so these poll results were concerning, to say the least.  I decided to look for some good news and see what some of the activists in Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action (RPCV4EA) had to say.  Were they always engaged or did they develop their advocacy skills over time?

I first spoke with Dylan Hinson, who lives in Ashland Oregon and served in Namibia from 2016-18.  Dylan described his first ever meeting with a member of Congress, in this case a candidate who was sure to be elected.

“I had been trying for months to attend a town hall with then candidate Cliff Bentz,” Dylan explained.  “Due to COVID and his assured victory in our right leaning district, he didn’t have much pressure to do public appearances. After repeated emails…I finally got a response via Facebook. ‘Mr. Bentz will be having a meet and greet at Debby’s Diner at 11 am,’ the message read.

“I received the message at 9:30 am and Debby’s Diner was 30 minutes away,” Dylan continued.  “I quickly mobilized, making phone calls to the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) team, most of whom couldn’t make it on such short notice. I and one other member arrived at the diner after stopping by the print shop to copy a few pages about our organization and a bill that we cared about. We didn’t know how long we would have to speak with him, if it was 5 minutes or 15. We expected a horde of people ready to meet their future representative.

Dylan and CCL colleague Bethany meeting Representative Cliff Bentz

“The Representative walked in and after letting him settle down I went over to greet him. Not knowing how much time I had, I quickly shared info about our group and our bill, hitting all of the highlights. He listened and talked, really engaging with climate policy, even though historically he had not supported these policies. 5 minutes became 10 became 30. Eventually I asked him if we had taken too much of his time and if there were other people he was going to speak with. He said ‘No.’  It turns out he was just here for me, and he had plenty of time. After an hour conversation, we left the meeting, marking the start of an ongoing relationship.  I was full of adrenaline, ready to engage and do more. Excited and hopeful about the future. I had seen the impact I could have and knew I could take it further.”

Dylan’s excitement and hope for the future stands in stark contrast to the large number of Americans who don’t even bother to vote, much less meet with their elected officials.  That silence and disengagement is harmful to us and to the issues we care about.

 

“It’s estimated that between 98 and 99 percent of humanity is disengaged. From the earth’s point of view, there’s no difference between a climate denier and somebody who understands the problem but actually doesn’t do anything,” said climate activist and Drawdown editor Paul Hawken.

 

“It’s estimated that between 98 and 99 percent of humanity is disengaged,” said climate activist and Drawdown editor Paul Hawken in the lead-up to COP 26 in Glasgow.  “Your friends might be engaged,” Hawken continued, “but between 98 and 99 percent of humanity is disengaged.  From the earth’s point of view, there’s no difference between a climate denier and somebody who understands the problem but actually doesn’t do anything.”

Now there’s a wake-up call.  So how do we combat the powerlessness and cynicism that tempts us to throw in the towel?  How did Dylan and his colleagues get engaged and deepen that engagement?

Johns Hopkins University Professor Hahrie Han provides a good place to start with her distinction between transactional advocacy (sign the petition, transaction complete) and transformational advocacy where volunteers, that’s us, are trained and encouraged to succeed at deep, sustained, relational advocacy: meeting with members of Congress, pitching editorials, writing op-eds and letters to the editor, speaking and bringing new people in and, as a result, seeing ourselves as community leaders.

That is what Dylan experienced when he said, “I had seen the impact I could have and knew I could take it further.”  And that is what RPCV4EA seeks to provide to the RPCV community with a monthly, letters to the editor action team and other offerings.

Kaitlyn Etienne, who lives in the Chicago area and served in The Philippines (2017-2019), is a key member of the RPCV4EA Communications Team.  I asked what fueled her engagement on climate change.

“I was inspired by the activists that I met during my time in the Peace Corps and the way that people came together around environmental concerns,” Kaitlyn told me. “I wanted to find a community like that back home.”

Kaitlyn participated in a virtual meeting with Representative Sean Casten

When asked if there was a book, movie, or conversation that prompted her desire to work on climate change, she told me that The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert had a profound impact.

Like Dylan, she had never been to a lobby meeting.

“I didn’t know how one was organized or conducted,” she said. “I felt comfortable participating through CCL because I was alongside members who had been there many times before.  Even so, I was a bit nervous, because I didn’t know how our message would be received.  But after that first meeting I felt like I’d opened a door because I had tried something that was out of my comfort zone, and it had gone well.”

There it is again, that experience of transformational advocacy, “I felt like I’d opened a door because I had tried something that was out of my comfort zone.”

That is part of my prescription for success.  But you can’t engage in transformational advocacy by yourself. You need an organization to help you. Most nonprofits, however, are stuck in a 501c3, tax-deductible ditch which keeps them from encouraging their members in deeper forms of advocacy.

 

Three essential things you should look for when seeking an organization that is truly committed to empowering you: 1) Expanding the number of chapters and members; 2) Skill building; and 3) Transformational advocacy

It’s our job to find an organization that’s committed to helping us climb out of that ditch.  Groups like the anti-poverty lobby RESULTSCitizens’ Climate LobbyFriends Committee on National LegislationCatholic Relief ServicesAmerican Promise and the Foundation for Climate Restoration do three essential things you should look for when seeking an organization that is truly committed to empowering you.

1. They build chapters and bring all of their advocates together for a monthly national conference call. Their organization-wide commitment to expanding the number of chapters and chapter members and to keeping them active and effective is a critical antidote to the 98-99 percent of humanity who are disengaged.

Kaitlyn met her local chapter at a campus event and Dylan “spoke with many groups, but CCL immediately stood out. Shortly after signing up for information, I got a call from the chapter leader who was eager to hear more about me. Unlike many of the other organizations I volunteered with, CCL had a strong community and limitless tasks to keep me engaged.”

2. They provide new skills to their members producing an ever-expanding team of effective advocates.

That was the training Dylan and Kaitlyn were receiving on meeting with a member of Congress and so much more.

3. And they encourage transformational advocacy, something deeper and more fulfilling than just signing petitions.

Kaitlyn put her finger on it when she described taking an action that was out of her comfort zone and getting to something deeper and more fulfilling.

It was reassuring to hear these experiences from younger RPCVs, but they were shared more than three decades earlier by Paul Thompson, a Minneapolis area resident who served in Malaysian Borneo (Sabah) from 1971-1973.  Paul remembered “Carrying an oversized color TV up 3 flights of stairs in 1984 with members of his RESULTS chapter to show Congressman Bruce Vento a video on a simple step to save children’s lives with oral rehydration therapy (ORT).

“At first we were all nervous and wondering if this would work,” Paul remembered, “but Rep. Vento was totally supportive and helped to pass legislation and funding that made a tremendous difference.”

Here’s an example of the difference that was made.  When Paul and his colleagues were carrying that TV and video up those stairs, 5 million children were dying each year from diarrheal dehydration brought on by dirty water and not washing hands.  By 2018 that number had plummeted ten-fold to 500,000 child deaths a year and ORT played an important role.  As Paul told me, “Waiting for someone else to do it is NOT a workable solution.

Paul meeting with Representative Emmer

Al Gore said much the same thing in a climate change conversation with John Kerry at Yale in 2017.  “I want to recruit you…” Gore told the audience “We can do this. People doubt we have the political will. Just remember that political will is itself a renewable resource. Go out and renew it.”

We can do this and we urge you to join us by checking out the RPCV4EA website or by writing to Paul Thompson at [email protected] and asking about our action teams.   It’s not too late to make it your New Year’s resolution to dive into an issue you care about, like climate change, and build political will for that issue for yourself, for your children and grandchildren, and for our democracy.

 

Sam Daley-Harris ([email protected]) is the founder of the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS and of Civic Courage and the author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break between People and Government.” He is also a coach with the National Peace Corps Association and RPCV4EA.

Skip to content