Advocating for the Environment: Using Power for Good – Susan B. Inches

By Susan B. Inches

Using power for good is the basis of environmental advocacy. I heard this theme many times at Bioneers conferences: speakers such as Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat in a giant sequoia for two years and succeeded in saving it; to Paul Hawken, who recently completed Drawdown, a project that measures the impact of 100 climate change strategies. George Lakoff’s Bioneers presentation of the strict father and nurturing parent worldviews changed how I see the world. Performing poets and musicians at Bioneers inspired me. All of these presenters knew how to use their power for good!

I’ve been an environmental advocate for about 30 years, organizing coalitions and lobbying at the state and local level. I realized that through trial and error, I had learned what works and what doesn’t in advocacy. I’d become an expert on policy change. 

So when I found myself at home during the pandemic, I decided to share what I’ve learned with others by writing a book. My new book, Advocating for the Environment, How to Gather Your Power and Take Action, has recently been published by North Atlantic Books.

In the book I show ordinary citizens how they can speak up and become effective advocates. Strategies for addressing climate change, environmental justice, and other pressing environmental issues are in there. There’s no other book like it!

My book is available at your local bookstore or online. I’m so pleased that Bioneers is sharing the excerpt below with the Bioneers community.

-Susan B. Inches, Author

From Advocating For The Environment by Susan B. Inches, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of publisher.

Understanding how power works and using it for good is at the heart of effective advocacy. It makes the difference between feeling helpless about environmental degradation and taking action based on a vision of a better future. I’m talking about using power to defend wildlife, preserve forests, clean the air and water, stand for a more equitable society, overturn power abuses, and heal the planet. I’m talking about using power as a tool to work for the common good. I’m talking about using power in ways that respect the worth and integrity of people and all other life on the planet. 

When it comes to power, I’m a pacifist. Property damage, smear campaigns, and even negative ads attacking someone’s character are forms of violence. If your goal is to bring about a more peaceful, compassionate, and healthy world, then it’s counterproductive—even hypocritical—to use violent means. The kind of energy people put into the world matters. If you want a more peaceful world, you are not creating it when you use weapons, whether they are guns or words. 

Nonviolent direct action is aligned with this view. When people choose to break the law or put themselves in harm’s way without violence, there is power in that choice. By not using violence, protesters are taking the higher moral ground, which challenges the morals of opponents and has more power than devolving to violence. 

Nonviolent direct action shows opponents that activists are fully commit- ted to their cause. They are so committed they are willing to put themselves at risk. This, along with the unpredictability of nonviolent campaigns, scares the daylights out of opponents. A typical response is: “If there’s a group pro- testing in my office today, what will they do tomorrow?” Nonviolent direct action gets attention and cracks open the door to new conversations. 

At the same time, environmental advocates can understand why some protesters become violent. Many marginalized groups have used nonviolent direct action campaigns for decades and continue to be ignored and abused by those in power. Their frustration sometimes results in resorting to violence to bring attention to their issues. Advocates should never con- done violence, but we can strive to understand the pain of being ignored and silenced. 

Student and community advocates have great power. By their presence in the legislature, city council, or town committee, they are sending the message that this issue matters to them. Just by their presence, they’re saying: “When I could be enjoying myself with family and friends, I choose to be here to speak on this issue.” This is using power for good. 

Advocates and activists start from a place of power just by showing up. But just showing up isn’t enough to effect change. Advocates and activists need to use their power to organize, strategize, and work with decision makers to move their issues forward. Later chapters in this book explain how to build powerful campaigns that succeed in making change happen. 

Your Personal Power 

You may not feel powerful. In fact, the majority of people feel powerless when it comes to global problems—climate change, toxic pollution, poverty, war, inequality. 

Everyone feels moments of doubt and vulnerability. But, as we discovered in part I, your personal story of connection with the earth, your life experience, your knowledge, and your values are the roots of your personal power. You can let these roots nourish you as you step forward and speak your truth. 

Young leaders across the country are speaking with grace and authority on climate change. Anna Siegel is a fourteen-year-old climate leader in Maine whose conviction grew from her love of wild animals. Her speeches on climate change are powerful because they come directly from her heart. 

Autumn Peltier grew up in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in northern Canada. When she was eight and attended a water ceremony with her family on a First Nations reserve, she saw a sign warning that the drinking water was toxic and unsafe to drink. She decided then that she needed to speak out for the people and the water. “Water is sacred, water is life,” she says. “Mother Earth doesn’t need us; we need her.” Now in her teens, she has presented hundreds of speeches nationally and internationally and has been appointed chief water commissioner of the Anishinabek Nation. She was inspired by her great-aunt Josephine Mandamin, an advocate for the planet’s water. Peltier’s power comes from a place of deep conviction.9 

Your personal power comes from your faith and convictions. I don’t necessarily mean religious faith; I mean the faith that comes from what you deeply believe. I believe that no matter how poorly people behave, they have a good heart underneath. Although I have discouraging days and fearful thoughts, I also believe when people clearly see the choices before them, they will choose life. This is my faith in people. I draw on my faith to get through the tough times. You can too. 

Staying Grounded 

With continuous media attention to violence, accusations, and emotional turmoil, it’s hard to stay grounded, confident, and calm. In recent years, I’ve found I need to focus more deliberately on maintaining my sense of calm and clear headedness than I used to. You may be finding this, too. 

I once had an office three blocks from the State House. As a professional advocate and lobbyist, I walked to the Capitol almost daily when the legislature was in session. As I walked, I would set aside my insecurities, personal agendas, and worries. There was a row of sweet lilac bushes along the sidewalk on my route. I would let my worries go as I stopped to smell them. By the time I opened the heavy doors of the State House, my attention was fully focused on the subject of whatever meeting I was about to attend. I was fully present and mentally prepared. 

At first I was unaware that I performed this ritual. Only upon reflection did I see how important it was. As I walked through the echoing State House hallways, people would stop and give me the information I needed without my having to ask. Or I might stop and ask someone a question, and they would give me a full explanation. My open and listening attitude allowed me to easily discover and take in the important information I needed to do my job. 

You could also initiate a ritual that will help you be fully present in the meeting spaces where advocates do their work. You could try some deep breathing as you travel to your meeting. Breathe from deep in your belly, and feel your breath as it goes in and out. Focus on your breath for at least five minutes. You might park a little farther away or get off the bus or train at an earlier stop, and then notice everything around you as you walk to your meeting. Give yourself a moment to relax and focus your energy. Listen for the birds. Watch the people. Do some stretches to the sky before you enter the building. Do the same thing before and after (and sometimes during) virtual meetings: step outside for some fresh air, breathe deeply, touch your toes, and reach to the sky. It will help. 

Some years ago, I was engaged in a contentious issue. The public meetings I attended were hostile. Citizens were angry at and distrustful of state staff, who were trying to gather information. The leader of my team meditated before each meeting to help stay calm as she led the group. I struggled with the hostility. After a two- or three-hour meeting, the tension felt like a toxic substance in my blood. I would go for a walk or run both before and after the meetings to shake off stress. I kept a pair of running shoes in the trunk of my car so I could get some fresh air and calm down before the two-hour drive home. This helped. 

You, too, should monitor your body and do what you can to manage the stress that will come up in your advocacy work. Public meetings can be long and tiring. City councils, town select boards, and legislative committees want everyone to be heard. This leads to lengthy meetings, often held in stuffy, crowded rooms or in tedious virtual meetings—a recipe for stress. I highly recommend finding the combination of exercise, fresh air, meditation, stretching, or yoga that works for you. 

At stressful meetings, it also helps to refocus and remember the reasons why you’re there. This will connect you with your heart and why you took on this responsibility in the first place. Another helpful technique is to clarify your desired outcomes prior to every meeting. Here are some examples: 

  • Do you intend to connect with a particular decision maker? 
  • Are you representing a group or a certain point of view? Are your talking points clear? 
  • Are you showing up to support specific partners? Who? 
  • Do you hope to solidify a relationship with another advocate or advocacy group? 
  • Are you looking to find out what position another group is taking? 
  • Are you watching for threats to your cause? 
  • Are you sizing up decision makers’ responses? 

You should ask yourself these kinds of questions as you mentally prepare for a meeting. If possible, you should write down a list of your desired outcomes prior to every meeting. If you can stay clear about your specific purposes for that meeting or that day, you will remain in a position of power and do a better job of representing your issue and your people. 

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