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The Planet
Building Environmental Community:
One Person At a Time

By Brian Vanneman

Public speaking. The whir of a dentist’s drill. Bungee jumping.

For many Americans, knocking on strangers’ doors and engaging them in conversation ranks up there with some of life’s more anxiety-inducing events.

Not so for Elise Annunziata, one of the Club’s Building Environmental Community organizers in Philadelphia. Judging from the way she describes her job, it seems you could hardly keep her from roving the sidewalks in the City of Brotherly Love. "I love our work—it’s really great," she says. "The best thing is knowing that you’re making a difference. I watch people go from being ambivalent to informed, from informed to activated. And every day, you have an interaction like that."

In March, Annunziata joined the Building Environmental Community (BEC) program’s first wave of organizers as the director of the Club’s two Pennsylvania sites. The Sierra Club has also enlisted organizers to get people talking in 15 other sites around the country, from Tampa Bay to Portland, Oregon. And although community organizing, including going door to door, is old hat for the Sierra Club, the intensity and duration of the program is new. "We used to conduct public education campaigns with an organizer," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "Now we know that to energize the public, and deepen the environmental conversation, we need three, four, even five organizers on the ground."

Another difference is BEC’s decade-long timeframe. The goal is not to educate the public about a specific environmental issue or organize around certain upcoming events, but to create robust, ongoing local commitment to air, water, and wildlands. For a long-distance effort, BEC is coming out of the starting blocks fast. By the end of the year, the Club is expecting every site to have identified and made one-on-one contact with between 20,000 and 40,000 environmental supporters, mobilized 800 to 1000 volunteer activists, and trained between 50 and 100 volunteer team leaders who can manage their own events and neighborhood walks. Nationwide, that means talking directly with between 300,000 and 600,000 people, starting with a base of about 50 employees.

As Debbie Sease, the program’s director, says, "that’s scary ambitious." But due to the Bush administration’s assault on decades of clean air, water, and wildlands protections, the immediate consequences of inaction could not be greater.

Building Environmental Communities makes each of those thousands of impressions the old fashioned way: with a handshake, a knock on the door, a signed postcard. It’s organizing in the tradition of Ceasar Chavez, whose advice on building a social movement was, "first you talk to one person, then another, then another." The Sierra Club is betting that these kinds of interpersonal interactions—between neighbors or simply similarly concerned citizens—can amplify the existing desire for environmental progress, overcome the widely reported distaste for public engagement in the United States, and prove more effective than traditional advertising and marketing alone ever could be.


Door to Door

For better or worse, most of the volunteers who’ve joined the Club’s cause in Philly and other BEC sites have considerably less grassroots experience than Mr. Chavez. Barbara Fortner, an employee benefits consultant in the Philadelphia area, is a prime example. After getting a call one day from a Club staffer, she recalls thinking, "You want me to go door to door? I haven’t done that since I sold Girl Scout cookies—and I wasn’t that fond of it."

But, she says, "it’s really not a difficult thing once you’ve done it a couple times. People are happy they can do something. They feel less alone because someone who shares their feelings is coming to their door. So I enjoy it."

Optimistic amateurism was in full effect in the Club’s first neighborhood walk in Reno, Nevada, in early June. More than half of the 20 volunteers—nearly all of whom had traveled from the San Francisco Bay Area—had not been involved in a grassroots effort during the previous decade. But the group’s eagerness, even impatience, to get the word out about the local consequences of the Bush administration’s environmental policies—in this case, a flawed plan to store the nation’s nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain—gave them the energy necessary to persevere despite the desert sun beating down on wide swaths of suburban pavement.

As every walker finds, each door is different. And that’s part of the fun. You can read the signs—"welcome" mats, a telling bumpersticker, dogs barking through levelor blinds—but once the door bell rings, there’s no telling who will answer. Jonna Papaefthimiou, an organizer who participated in the Reno walk, was explaining the Club’s position to one undecided homeowner, when the man cleaning his carpets joined in. "I’m totally against Yucca Mountain," he declared, suddenly and unexpectedly changing the dynamic of the discussion.

"There have been times when I didn’t quite understand people’s initial reactions," says Darden Rice, the Club’s lead organizer in Tampa Bay. "One woman said, ‘Stop right there,’ and left the door. It was awkward, and I prepared for a scolding. But a few moments later, she came back with her young son. She wanted him to also hear what I had to say because she thought what we were doing was important."

People are more welcoming and approachable than might be expected in this era of supposedly sharp divisions. "We don’t frame things in adversarial terms," says Pennsylvania organizer Annunziata. "So there are very, very few people who look at us and say, ‘No, I don’t care about the environment.’ In fact, we’ve had numerous people who say, ‘I’m a Bush supporter, but I’ll sign the postcard to tell him that there is a better way.’"


Connecting the Dots

Optimism, and demonstrating that solutions to environmental problems can be implemented now, is at the core of Building Environmental Communities, and all of the Club’s work this year. Another key part of the BEC message is connecting the dots between Bush administration policies that are made at the federal level, and their local effects. Due to laws that are misnamed and deceptively promoted ("Healthy Forests" and "Clear Skies") and the complexity of some issues, that connection can get lost. But it’s there, from coast to coast.

In Nevada, BEC organizers talk about the threats of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. In Omaha, it’s how the Bush administration’s failure to enforce the Clean Air Act leads to air pollution and asthma. In Milwaukee and Columbus, volunteers connect the dots from "Clear Skies" to concentrations of mercury in waterways and seafood, to the dangers posed to babies and pregnant mothers by a high-mercury diet. Volunteers and staff have the facts close at hand thanks to the Club’s series of "Communities at Risk" reports, as well as issue factsheets and other resources.

In the Philadelphia area, toxic waste hits home, says Annunziata. There are 16 Superfund sites in suburban Montgomery County alone, including abandoned chemical plants and dump sites. Waste from the sites seeps into the nearby section of the Delaware River, a popular area for summertime boating regattas and kids’ swimming outings. Since taking office, the Bush administration has passed the entire bill for Superfund cleanups to taxpayers; in 1995, polluters paid more than three-quarters of the cost. And the current clean-up crew is decontaminating 37 percent fewer sites every year.

When you’re weary of walking, try the radio. Or beer. Or both.

Walking door to door is only one of the ways to make a connection. Another is hosting a live Earth Week radio broadcast with Z93 FM, "Atlanta’s best rock" station, at Smith’s Olde Bar, where Sierra Club staff, music fans, and DJs meet, taste what’s on tap, and talk about cleaning up Atlanta’s air. That’s one event that Brooke Brandenburg and the rest of Georgia’s BEC staff put together.

Debbie Sease, who manages BEC efforts nationwide from the Club’s Washington, D.C., office, has encouraged organizers to plan ambitious and creative events that promote bonding and camaraderie. In Madison, Brett Hulsey drove a Toyota hybrid car to the opening screening of "The Day After Tomorrow" (Hollywood’s summer climate change catastrophe movie), where he gave away a trunk full of energy-efficient lightbulbs. Las Vegas organizers drew hundreds of locals to presentations by Paul Craig, a nuclear scientist who resigned from the Bush administration’s Yucca Mountain advisory committee in protest. Dozens of marches and rallies have been held. Most of the sites have weekly activist action nights, where volunteers participate by calling neighbors, writing letters, talking about issues, or planning upcoming events.

Sometimes a single event can illustrate just how solid a base of environmental support a single BEC site has established. At lunchtime on June 22, Elise Annunziata and her BEC team found out that President Bush would be speaking at a Philadelphia church the next morning. "We went all hands on deck," she says, "working the phones and making signs. The next morning at 10 a.m.—on Tuesday, a workday—we had a crowd of more than 60, set up on the corner opposite the church. As the motorcade rounded the corner, we were the first group they saw, and were all cheering in unison, ‘Bush: don’t delay, make polluters pay.’ We received local TV and print coverage, and certainly made an impression. It was an event we’ll all remember."

With moments like that, produced by deep-rooted and fast-growing environmental communities, the coming decade should deliver some resounding sucesses.


To find out more about the Building Environmental Community program, go to sierraclub.org/community.


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