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The Planet

December 1997, Volume 4, number 10


Population Activists Do it at Zoos, Rock Concerts, Fairs


by Jenny Coyle

The Sierra Club believes that population stabilization is necessary to protect the environment, sustain the ability of the earth to support life and improve the quality of life for all human beings.

Everyone knows the game of musical chairs; someone is always left out in the cold.

A dramatic version of this game, created by the Population Committee of the Sierra Club's Northwest Ohio Group, uses endangered species to illustrate one of the many environmental consequences of population growth. Designed by members Dennis Plank, Betty Liska and Tom Rask for use in schools, fairs and other venues where kids are found, the game conveys a complex concept with a simple -- and powerful -- demonstration. Children pick "endangered species hats" from a box marked "habitat." After each round, a chair (or milk crate, in this case) is pulled away and covered with a miniature apartment complex, factory, housing tract or other buildings -- and lots and lots of little plastic people. When the music stops, the child left standing drops her endangered species hat in a box marked "extinct." The point could not be made more clearly.

On the West Coast, a similar message is sent to families who visit the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where 1 million people a year see the "Touch the Earth" exhibit (see Good News/Bad News: Humans Not an Endangered Species). Spearheaded by Seattle Zero Population Growth and designed by its vice president, R. Scott Vance, the exhibit gives visitors a clear picture of population and consumption going up, and habitat going down. "We're definitely not preaching to the choir here," says Chris Kennedy, who co-chairs the Club's national Population Committee with Karen Kalla, and who helped with the zoo exhibit. "The zoo is an excellent place to reach people we don't normally talk to."

Population activists primarily educate the public about the problems of a crowded planet and how we can leave a smaller footprint while we're here, and pressure lawmakers to vote for favorable legislation. The fruits of their labor are a long time coming -- trends in population and consumption take decades to change -- but these volunteers are motivated by the fact that population issues affect every other Sierra Club campaign.

Rock the Message

They'll take the message to just about any venue -- including rock concerts. When 33 Lilith Fair concerts were organized last summer by singer Sara McLachlan, David Ellenberger, then program assistant for the Club's population program, convinced organizers to include the Club in an area set aside for organizations. Tables at each event sported a poster that read, "The Sierra Club supports women's empowerment -- for population stabilization, for a healthy environment, for its own sake." Volunteers gathered signatures on petitions for Congress to support funding for family planning and the ratification of CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (see Girls' Education, Womens' Rights Linked to Family Planning Success).

The concert in Houston was held in a corporate living community called The Woodlands. Before the concert, Club Regional Representative Larry Freilich said Woodlands security personnel told Planned Parenthood workers they couldn't set up a booth because it was against their policy to host pro-choice groups.
"I knew the performers would be outraged by this," says Freilich, who rushed to the stage, where singer Jewel was in the middle of a sound check. He asked her to tell the other performers what was happening. The reaction was instantaneous: Singer Joan Osborne held an impromptu press conference and refused to go on stage if Planned Parenthood was forced to leave. Later, during the concert, Osborne told the audience the story and said, "Before you riot, you need to know that The Woodlands had a change of heart and Planned Parenthood was allowed to stay."

Pressuring Lawmakers

Activists rock the halls of Congress, too, by lobbying lawmakers to support funding for family planning, reproductive health and women's empowerment -- here and abroad. The Campaign Steering Committee sponsors an annual lobby week in February that draws 20 to 30 volunteers to Washington, D.C. George Klein, who served as chair of the Campaign Steering Committee in 199596, says volunteers usually arrive on a Friday and are trained on Saturday and Sunday. "Then, armed with materials and arguments, they're turned loose to visit their representatives and senators for two or three days."
The tack taken by volunteers depends on whether a lawmaker is a friend, opponent or fence-sitter, says Klein. "If it's a conservative Republican, we're likely to emphasize that the U.S. Agency for International Development was created under President Nixon, and funding was increased under President Bush. We'll cite a few Republican biggies who back population stabilization measures and population aid in general."
Fence-sitters, he says, will be presented with petitions bearing thousands of signatures from those who attended a Lilith Fair or other outreach event, urging funding for family planning and women's empowerment programs.
They know they've been effective if they get the votes, but the lobby week can be a success even if they fail at that, says Klein, "The activists meet one another and get a real morale boost when they see someone from across the country who wants what they want and has the tools to get it."

It's How You Say It

Tailoring the message to reach a particular audience -- whether at a rock concert or on Capitol Hill -- is vital to being an effective population volunteer. Population Committee member Santos Gomez has proven this by focusing on the coastal farming community of Watsonville, Calif., where he lived for eight years prior to college and where his father is a farmworker and his mother works in a food-processing factory. Watsonville, the nation's leading strawberry producer, is 70 percent Latino/Chicano. Its population has doubled to 34,000 in the past 30 years. Groups with a stark "halt population growth" message are not viewed favorably by Watsonville's leaders, says Gomez, because they've experienced cultural and religious discrimination in the past. "I don't talk about population stabilization," he says. "If you use that language, you're fighting a losing battle. The first objective is not fewer people on the planet, but better lives for people. I work to improve economic opportunities and give residents hope that they can improve their environment and communities."

Gomez discusses with education leaders ways to improve the schools. He talks to health-care leaders about improving access to family planning and reducing teen pregnancies. "I am a Sierra Club member serving on the Population Committee, but I work as an individual who lived in Watsonville, has family there, and shares the concerns of many people who live there," Gomez says.

Lessons in Simplicity

The home front also has been fertile ground for Carol Holst, a member of the consumption/ sustainability/equity subcommittee. She's working on a project to teach the benefits of a simple life in a larger venue. "At home," she says, "I'm helping my two children find happiness with fewer purchases. We discuss and plan ahead for virtually every purchase."

Holst is also representing the Sierra Club in partnership with Cornell University's Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy and other co-sponsors to present "No Purchase Necessary: Building the Voluntary Simplicity Movement" on Sept. 19, 1998, at the University of Southern California. The free one-day conference will feature 15 speakers from around the country on the topic of voluntary simplicity, defined in a resolution passed by the Club's Council of Leaders as "a deliberate, positive choice being made by people to buy and use fewer material goods and enjoy life more, resulting in the reduction of disproportionate consumption and excessive materialism."

Tomorrow's Leaders

Workshops and lectures are also the bailiwick of Club volunteer Anita King of the Pioneer Valley Group in western Massachusetts, who brings population issues to the table at the area's five colleges. A family therapist who used to lobby for peace organizations when she lived in Washington, D.C., King says her initial work on behalf of population a decade ago was "tramping up and down the halls of the Capitol." Now she takes the message to students by organizing activist workshops and lectures at the surrounding colleges. Most recently the group hosted a lecture at Smith College by Peter Kostmayer, a seven-term Pennsylvania representative who is now executive director of Zero Population Growth.

"We want to get tomorrow's leaders thinking," says King. "Maybe some will be moved to action or to make better, responsible choices for their own lives."

Mentors, Weddings, Wills

The Population and Campaign Steering Committees have also developed an in-house way -- the mentor program -- to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their educational outreach. "The program features mentors -- volunteers who typically have a long history of involvement in population issues," says Ron Weisen, chair of the International Population Stabilization Campaign Steering Committee.

"Mentors are a reference source for activists seeking information on population issues, most typically on a regional basis," says Weisen. "They also strive to keep local and regional population committees functioning smoothly and help in the formation of new committees." Mentors handle phone inquiries that otherwise would go to beleaguered staff members. "But they also serve as a valuable resource to provide background and to help craft new activities," says Weisen.

Whether they're newcomers or longtime population volunteers, the work is sometimes as personal as it gets. Judy Kunofsky, the Club's first population program staff member and now a Campaign Steering Committee member, recently convinced a former colleague's cousin-by-marriage to bequeath his entire estate to the Club's population program.

And George Klein, who was recently married, did his part to curb consumption by asking wedding guests to make donations to the Sierra Club in lieu of gifts.


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