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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
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Neighbor to Neighbor
Building environmental community with a handshake and a beer.
by Jenny Coyle

(page 2 of 2)

Organizers in Atlanta
Not your parents' Sierra Club: Organizing staff and new recruits frolic outside Atlanta's hip cafe Teaspace. Photo by Flip Chalfant; used with permission.
SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY

At the Five Spot, Landon Brown, the 31-year-old owner of the vegetarian restaurant Teaspace—the warm-weather outdoor venue for Sierra Club and Beer—crouches at the soundboard playing tunes for the crowd. Sean Tenney and I sit on each arm of an overstuffed chair in the entryway. A short-haired, boyish 25-year-old, Tenney leads the volunteers on the beer-night committee. His fingernails are painted black ("That's the rock star in me"), he sports a silver-dollar-size tattoo of a pi symbol on the back of his neck ("I'm a math nerd in my spare time, which I don't have much of"), and he's the youngest member of the Sierra Club's Atlanta Group executive committee.

Tenney's own direct and indirect contacts have brought in dozens of people on this stormy night. He's an administrative assistant for the American Friends Service Committee, a social-justice organization, and makes sure all of his coworkers know about beer night. He also calls or e-mails friends and talks it up to everyone he runs into. Then there's his girlfriend, a student at a prestigious art college in the city; she always sends an e-mail invitation to her classmates, who also bring friends along.

"A lot of people want to get involved but just don't know how," Tenney says. "They hear about beer night and—hey, it's not rocket science, it's free beer! That provides an incentive. It's the universal lubricant. Some come for the free beer, but some come for the activism, too, and they end up getting involved."

We're joined by Micah Wood, a tall young man with angular features and long sideburns. He looks around the room and sits down to sign a petition at the Georgia Water Coalition table. Wood, 33, volunteers his summers at Yellowstone National Park and in the off-season works at odd jobs in Atlanta, where most of his family and friends live. Locally, he already gets his hands dirty for Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

"A bunch of us volunteers are in our 30s and we were talking about how hard it is to meet people who have the same views we do," he says. "I'm a minimalist and I'm hoping to meet people who share my values—and have fun. When I heard about beer night, I thought I'd take a more personal look. All I do is eat, sleep, and volunteer, so I'm here to give the Sierra Club a chance."

A month later I learn that Sierra Club and Beer recruits have tabled outside a Patagonia store and collected 150 names of people who want to get involved with the environmental community. "Micah Wood was one of the tablers," says staff organizer Natalie Foster. "His eyes lit up when I asked him if he would be a team leader and organize other events. He plans to take off work for an upcoming press event on the mercury issue. He told me, ‘I do a lot of volunteering, but sometimes I feel like I need to do something bigger. And talking to people, gathering signatures, is what I've been missing.'"

WESTERN UNION

Organizers in Nevada
The Coronado family prepares to go door-to-door for the environment in Nevada.
Beer may be the "universal lubricant," but in Nevada, the news that authorities who live elsewhere have decided to bury nuclear waste in your backyard is all that's needed to get a conversation flowing.

The Bush administration plans to store the nation's high-level radioactive waste in an underground repository at Yucca Mountain northwest of Las Vegas. Top state officials vehemently oppose the plan and have filed multiple lawsuits against the federal government. An October 2003 poll showed that 75 percent of Nevada's residents would vote against the Yucca Mountain project if given the opportunity.

BEC organizers Carrie Sandstedt and J. J. Straight hold a community forum that draws 75 people to the interpretive center at a Reno park. The forum features Paul Craig, a University of California professor emeritus (and longtime Sierra Club volunteer) who until recently served on the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. The Department of Energy is pushing the project forward, he says, in spite of recent review-board findings that the metal storage canisters for the nuclear waste are likely to corrode and crack, exposing residents to leaks of radioactive material from nuclear waste and spent nuclear fuel.

Sandstedt and Straight work the room, looking for potential leaders. They find two University of Nevada students who volunteer to set up a booth on campus. "There are always booths for credit cards and different things they're selling," says Bree Kaspar, an environmental-studies major, "but there's nothing there about who you really are, or what affects your life." Sandstedt can't sign the students up fast enough.

Later, we're sitting in Sandstedt's kitchen winding down after the event. Postcard mailings, phone-banking, and media interviews with Craig resulted in the impressive turnout, she says. While they wait for the 11 o'clock news coverage of the forum, Sandstedt and Straight talk about the challenges they face in organizing. For one, Nevada's population is ballooning: It's the fastest-growing state in the union, with 2 million residents, an increase of 66 percent between 1990 and 2000. Most newcomers are unaware of, and uninvolved in, local issues.

Plus Las Vegas is a transient town, says Straight. It's difficult to get folks to put down roots in the environmental community when so many of them are just passing through, working temporarily as keno runners or bartenders. "And Vegas is a 24-hour town," Sandstedt chimes in, "so if you try to reach people during normal hours, you won't find them home. Or if they are, they're sleeping. At least the weather's nice if you have to canvas door-to-door in the winter, unlike, say, Minnesota."

I head next to Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas, for a Thursday night community-discussion meeting on Yucca Mountain. Sierra Club organizers have worked with volunteers to send residents a postcard about the event and remind them with a phone call. They've also mailed the postcard to all 280 Sierra Club members in Henderson. At the meeting, folks will be asked to go door-to-door in their neighborhood that Saturday to talk about Yucca Mountain and invite residents to an educational event later that month.

"Seriously, we'll be excited if five people show up for the meeting," says organizer Tara Smith. Lo and behold, a dozen residents eventually crowd into the small room. They tend to be people who have roots—or are putting roots down—in the neighborhood. Among the first to arrive are a woman and her 35-year-old daughter. The mother has lived in the all-night town all her life. "The first time I was in a bar outside of Vegas," she says, "I didn't know what the bartender meant when he said, ‘Last call.'"

Others include a family of four, a woman who used to work in public relations on the Yucca Mountain project, and a pair of transplanted New Yorkers who retired to Sun City Anthem, a planned community they describe as "99 percent Republican." After the presentation, Smith encourages the group to go out and educate their friends and neighbors about the facts.

But on Saturday morning, the lone woman who signed up at the community meeting for door-to-door duty is a no-show. Volunteer Marcia Forkos, chair of the Sierra Club's Southern Nevada Group, and two staffers grab their clipboards and hit the streets anyway. While they're not neighbors talking to neighbors, they're still on the lookout for supporters.

They do not make nicer people than Marcia Forkos, a 57-year-old with styled reddish-brown hair and bifocals. I learn this when we are greeted at one door by a snarling Doberman. "Hello, sweetie!" she calls out to the pooch. At a house decorated with a decal that says, "God Bless America," a bleached-blond woman in a T-shirt and jeans answers the door. Forkos introduces herself, prepares to hand the woman a postcard about the upcoming event, and asks whether she is familiar with the issue. "I don't want to answer any of your questions," the woman says curtly, and shuts the door. Forkos looks at me, raises her eyebrows, smiles, and says, "Next!"

As we make our way down the street, we come upon a house with a doormat that reads, "Go Away." At another, a security warning sign says, "Armed Response." Finally, we meet a friendly face, a woman who has received the postcard and phone calls and had intended to come to the community forum the other night, but just got too busy. "I'm with you all the way, though," she says. "I can't imagine there's anyone in the neighborhood who's in favor of Yucca Mountain."

We come away that day with a couple of e-mail addresses, and about a dozen people took our literature. One woman said she plans to attend the next forum. Smith, a seasoned 28-year-old who has canvassed for labor in Michigan and for the NAACP in the Mississippi Delta, is not discouraged. "We'll find them," she says. "Five thousand people move here each month, and they're looking for community. We may be knocking on the door of someone who just moved here, and they're looking for good people, good fun, a little exercise."

And a way to help change their community...and perhaps enjoy some free beer.

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Jenny Coyle is local-affairs editor for the Sierra Club's Web team.

Atlanta photo by Flip Chalfant; used with permission.

Nevada photo by Jeffrey Green Photography

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