The Summit turned out to be a weekend with vision aplenty. In fact, the Summit itself was the culmination of a vision.
Two and a half year ago, said Sierra Club President Lisa Renstrom, Harvard sociologist Marshall Ganz spoke at a Club Board of Directors meeting about how most successful social movements of the past century hosted national conventions that brought local leaders together to celebrate and get inspired. They provide an opportunity to integrate local action with national purpose, he said, drawing local leaders into a broader vision of the movement and grounding national leaders in the realities faced by local leaders.
That prompted the question: Why don’t we do this?
So we did. Sierra Summit 2005 brought several thousand Club leaders and members together in San Francisco for three days of speakers, workshops, an exposition floor, and a direction-setting process to give grassroots leaders a collective voice in charting the Club’s future. There was more going on than any one person could experience -- plenary speeches by Gore, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Arianna Huffington; master speakers like chef Alice Waters and green architect Bill McDonough; comedy from Bill Maher, panels on creative organizing and camping with kids, a climbing wall, a cooking stage, the Green Dollhouse project; test drives of hybrid and fuel cell cars; 100 Sierra Showcase displays; a film festival; author book signing; outings. More than 5,000 people participated. Even John Muir appeared — live!
Though perhaps not as electrifying as Kennedy’s passionate and blistering attack on the Bush admnistration (see “Taking Money from Criminals”), for Renstrom, the most satisfying piece of the weekend was the direction-setting.
After six months of chapter and group meetings leading up to the Summit, 700 delegates deliberated for four hours on Thursday and four more on Saturday. Recording their votes on wireless keypads that looked like oversized garage door openers, they chose “Building a New Energy Future” as their grassroots recomendation for theClub’s top priority over the next five years.
Summit delegate Ken Langton, chair of the Grand Canyon Chapter (Arizona) said that the direction setting was "one of the Club’s finest hours — the deliberation was the most impressive display of democratic, large scale, collective decision-making I have been involved in all my adult years in this country."
As Summit co-chair Greg Casini said, “By connecting with each other physically, and having this Club-wide conversation, we all came to see that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.” Renstrom said the Summit “strengthened our convictions and created a renewed pride in being a Sierra Club member.”
Ganz, who led part of the direction-setting session on Saturday, was thrilled by how well it went, but even moreso by the fact that the Summit actually happened. “It is so rare that thought turns into action,” he said, and then, in Spanish – he was a United Farm Worker organizer for two decades — “Entre dicho y hecho, hay mucho trecho.” (Between saying it and doing it, it's a big stretch.)
Including deliberative content made this a very different beast than just having speakers and an exposition, he said. “When you’re a delegate, you own the thing. It’s being a citizen as opposed to being a consumer.”
He stressed the difference between polling and deliberating. In polling, you take everyone’s opinion. “In deliberation, there’s learning – you may find common ground, you maybe move in your thinking.”
While many of the results from the direction-setting mirrored what chapters and groups had picked in pre-Summit direction-setting meetings, like the focus on clean energy as the top conservation approach, Hurricane Katrina shook things up and resulted in some of the movement Ganz referred to.
A number of delegates argued that Katrina made clear that while environmental degradation threatens everyone, certain people are most vulnerable, and that our conservation priorities ought to reflect this fact. This led to a discussion that the “Building Vibrant, Healthy Communities” conservation initiative would encompass many of the community and environmental justice concerns around Katrina.
As Bill Bianchi, a delegate from the Angeles Chapter said, “Debate and dialog broke out, and wow, democracy happened.”
The other top priorities identified by delegates were “Building Vibrant, Healthy Communities,” “Defending Federal Lands/Public Waters,” and “Protecting People and the Planet from Pollution.”
Delegates also voted on how the Club should invest resources to reach our goals: first, by seeking new allies and building coalitions; second, by creating media visibility; and third, by bringing people together.
Finally, delegates chose the top three ways to impact environmental decision-makers — first, to influence voter’s electoral decisions; second, to focus on state policy makers; and third, to influence local decision-makers about specific places.
The next step is that the Club’s governance committee will distill the delegates contributions and make recommendations to the board of directors.
Echoing Gore’s opening refrain about the people perishing without vision, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope asked the delegates on the last day to take the message and vision from the Summit home.
“While vision empowers change and is essential for change, by itself it is not change,” he said. “Change is deeds. Change can only be empowered by a large gathering. Change can only happen in small groups. The work of creating something new comes when you return to your communities.”
Hundreds of people contributed to making the Summit an inspiring success, but special kudos and thanks go to the above-and-beyond-the-call efforts of co-chairs Greg Casini and Lisa Renstrom, Sierra Showcase coordinator Roberta Brashear, and staff coordinators Julia Reitan and Johanna O’Kelley. Bravo!
photo by John Byrne Barry
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