After my meeting with Marshall Ganz, I had a long list of other amazing people to meet. First I went to meet Josh Lynch, an old friend from the US youth climate movement who helped start the Energy Action Coalition, for lunch. As usual, he said something very wise about the climate movement: “we won’t need more organizations, we need more glue”. We also spoke about the ebb & flow of youth organizations, the rise and fall of various issue activism on campuses, and decision making in complex organizations. This was also the first time in the day I heard about Rockwood Leadership… more on that later.
My next meeting was with Aaron Swartz, all-round excellent person who started as a tech person (coder), then tried a few other things before moving into political organizing. He helped start the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which could be described as MoveOn’s “left flank” and is now Executive Director of Demand Progress. He also co-founded watchdog.net, Open Library, Jottit, and Reddit.com, is on the board of Change Congress and is a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard. Finally, he is co-author of the RSS 1.0 specification and helped launch Creative Commons with Larry Lessig. What a guy! We talked about a bunch of things – starting with the development of technology that supports local community strengthening and local community action and then moving on to humour in activism. Did you know that the Yes Men have an email list they use to get help with actions and run a “yes lab” prank school to help people develop yes men style tactics? Also see NY’s less political but still fantastic Improv Everywhere. I love how they call their undercover actors “agents!”
We spoke about the Free Culture movement, the Net Neutrality movement (this went on to become a big theme at the PDF conference in New York) and the campaign to abolish the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell rule (President Obama has now signed legislation to set in motion its repeal). This led us to talk about the role Lady Gaga played in the campaign – getting audience members at her concerts to call their politicians on their cell phones while she did it from stage; releasing three YouTube videos urging her fans to contact their Senators to overturn the policy, and speaking at rallies. Aaron told me the role of personal narrative in the campaign was really important (especially spokespeople like Dan Choi).
We spoke about the rise of the extreme right in the US and Aaron recommended I read Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus to help understand this more. Finally we spoke about the recent Citizens United decision (where the Supreme Court rules it was a corporation’s right to donate to political campaigns) and the rise of hyper-localised news aggregation like everyblock which allow citizens to contribute directly to local news. I strongly believe that empathy is the foundation of progressive politics. When it comes to climate change, anything we can do to increase empathy towards each other locally, nationally and beyond means we have a better chance to tackle climate change – because people will empathise with the people currently being affected outside their own families and be moved to act. These kinds of local news sites (any local activity, really) also build a sense of community that encourages people to see themselves as citizens rather than just consumers.
I then had a quick catch-up with Taren where we talked briefly about data and direct mail (which I think could be of huge use to AYCC and the climate movement), before meeting with Ben Wikler from Avaaz. Ben and I talked about loads of things, but this post is already getting too long so I’ll just mention the thing that stood out, which was our discussion of Rockwood Leadership. Their “Leading from the Inside Out” course is a 12-month program run by Robert Gass, which sounds a bit like the Benevolent Society’s Social Leadership program except it’s only for progressives and it has more analysis of structural power and campaigning. I think we need one in Australia – to create deep ties within progressive leadership (especially climate movement) and build a common leadership framework and language.
That night I went to a fundraiser with Craig Altemose, who set up the Better Future Project which runs the New England Climate Summer program which is a 9 week summer internship program for students to ride bikes in small teams through New Hampshire, documenting local community sustainability projects, running workshops, and connecting with community leaders. Craig’s partner Rouwenna is an educator for the Climate Education Alliance and they kindly let me stay in their office after the fundraiser (which was a great event– Bill McKibben was speaking and we had a chat about movement infrastructure too). Talking to Craig helped me process some of the thoughts I’d been having around creating “deep ties” in movements (which was essentially Malcolm Gladwell’s argument around what is needed in movements, if you take away his over-reaching and illogical criticism of online organizing – as someone at PDF said, Gladwell’s “tripping point”). The New England Climate Summer is the perfect example of an event that creates deep ties among the students who participate in it; and they go on and organize things together in the future. This summer is only the third ride and already participants have gone on to do great things after the ride is over. Craig says that after the program, “they really get involved in and feel ownership of the student youth climate movement”. In fact, the biggest student climate campaign in Boston recently, the Leadership campaign, was driven by alumni of the ride and the deep ties forged allowed them to take direct action, with hundreds of students camping out on the Boston Commons as part of the campaign.
My final meeting, the next morning, was with Nicco Mele, lecturer in public policy at Harvard, co-founder of Echo Ditto. He has a very bleak view of where the climate movement in the US is at, and the US progressive movement more generally. He doesn’t think change can happen at the federal level because of the amount of money in politics, and instead thinks most of the hopeful things are happening around public transport activism, city and urban planning activism (like walk score), and the slow food movement. He recommends reading Lawrence Goodwyn’s books for a history of the US progressive movement.
And with all those meetings and thoughts swirling in my head, I left Boston on a train to New York.