Five anxious residents of Victor, a mountain community near Colorado Springs,
are hoping to learn what more they can do to stop an open-pit mine from swallowing
up their town.
Their classmates have their own agendas. T. J., a wry ex-logging engineer living
in Fort Collins, wants to make amends for having once been "part of the problem."
A 30-ish woman from Broomfield, her small daughter wriggling in her lap, offers
uncertainly that she "just thought it was time to do something."
And Jay, a younger but more seasoned eco-warrior from here in Boulder, takes a
holistic view. "Activism," he declares, "is the antidote to despair."
Environmental activists (and aspiring activists) are a diverse lot. But whatever
their reasons for coming, the Sierra Club Training Academy aims
to send them home with the tools for both personal and planetary healing. If the
academy borrows much of its text from Saul Alinsky, the famed Chicago guru of
neighborhood organizing, its guiding vision derives from Cesar Chavez, legendary
founder of the United Farm Workers. It was Chavez, asked to reveal the magic
behind his organizing success, who said: "The only way I know how to organize is
to talk with one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another."
That commitment to grassroots, community-based organizing lies at the heart of
the Training Academy, an itinerant green schoolhouse that has traveled to more
than a dozen cities and tutored over 400 Club volunteers and friends of the
environment. This particular session is taking place on the first weekend of
spring; fresh snow carpets the Flatirons, skies are clear and sunny, and daytime
temperatures are downright balmy. The place is a hiker's delight, yet 44 lovers
of the outdoors are willingly holed up in a drab University of Colorado meeting
room, looking at slides and scribbling notes in the dark.
Following a casual Friday-night muster at a local restaurant, the two-day working
session begins in earnest with presentations from a group of Sierra Club staffers
led by Debbie Sease, the Club's legislative director, who reminds the assembly
that good intentions are not enough. "In the political process what counts
is power," she says, explaining that power consists of moneya commodity
controlled largely by despoilers of the environmentand people. "Involving
citizen activists in the political process is one of the Sierra Club's greatest
By dinnertime Saturday the volunteer participantswho range from college students
to a former county commissionerhave been briefed by Club specialists in a
variety of disciplines vital to citizen involvement, from raising funds to
getting the media to carry your message. And they've heard one overarching idea
again and again: getting what you want takes planning. Effective organizing means
setting goals, crafting a compelling story, identifying political targets,
agreeing on tacticsand creatively melding all these elements into a cohesive,
And then it's their turn. Working long into the night and resuming the next
morning, teams of five or six volunteers struggle to hammer out their own
campaigns. Training coordinator Emily McFarland gives them their marching orders:
for the rest of the conference they are Club activists in the state of Apathy,
opposed to construction of a new Sprawl Mart in the sleepy town of Lethargy. Next
day they'll present their campaigns in plenary session, complete with banners,
posters, and assorted aural and visual aids. And some won't wait that long: as we
stumble groggily into breakfast that morning we are confronted by Ramon, an
energetic Fort Collins activist, draped in sandwich boards and wielding a
petition to keep Sprawl Mart from ruining Lethargy's creeks, parks, drinking
water, and quality of life.
The presentations are impressive for their scope and inventiveness. Some are
hilarious, replete with comic impressions of Sam Walton and fictitious local
characters like the shady, well-connected Bugsy, who pops up at key moments to
muscle the city council. The staffers offer their critiques, and award a prize to
the team whose campaign best employs the principles of
community-based organizing in
the service of the environment.
Finally, the surrounding snow melting and shadows lengthening, the citizen
activists head back to their own communitiesCripple Creek, Longmont, Denver,
Loveland, Durango, Victorto talk to their real-world neighbors, first one, then
another, and then another.
In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups
spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural
Colorado Plateau: DIRTY DODGING
In a truly masterful act of avoidance, the Mohave power plant on the
Nevada-Arizona border has managed to buck the Clean Air Act for two decades.
Operating without adequate pollution controls, Mohave has dumped approximately
one million tons of sulfur dioxide and one-quarter of a million tons of
particulates into the atmosphere. In addition to endangering public health, the
pollution has impaired visibility over the Grand Canyon.
The cost of installing
smokestack scrubbers, claims Southern California Edison, the plant's primary
owner, would shut the plant down, cutting off jobs and income to the nearby Hopi
and Navajo people. Activists say that other plants in the region have managed to
follow the law, however. With the plant in the black last year by nearly $1
billion, and an
$8 billion deregulation windfall on the way, the plant owners are just blowing
smoke, contends the Grand Canyon Chapter. The chapter, with the Grand Canyon Land
Trust, is suing to force the utility to come clean.
Pacific Coast: A FAIR GAME
The urban-renewal projects of the 1960s and '70s barreled along with little
attention to neighborhood life and inner-city environments. A similar lack of
foresight seemed to be at work in Los Angeles County's approval of a 20,000-seat
sporting arena near Pico-Union, a low-income, largely immigrant area. "We didn't
ask for this," says Terry du Soleil, a member of the Angeles Chapter's Central
Group, referring to the traffic congestion and pollution the stadium would bring.
Nor, she says, were the public-hearing announcementswritten in English and
adequate notification in the largely Latino community. After the Central Group
read the environmental impact report, it demanded mitigation. The $750,000
settlement the group won will fund native-plant landscaping, bike lanes, a
child-care center, and a new traffic study. "Pico-Union residents have worked
hard to reduce local crime and clean up the streets," says du Soleil, who just
won the Angeles Chapter's award for conservation work. "We're going to keep on
improving the quality of life in Pico-Union."
Great North American Prairie: BAIT AND SWITCH
When the Missouri Farm Bureau insisted that a U. S. Fish and Wildlife public
hearing on listing the Topeka shiner as an endangered species be held in rural
Bethany, Missouri, the group believed it was stacking the deck with
corporate-agriculture sympathizers. "It's only good for bait," scoffed one bureau
official. But the Ozark Chapter has long been mobilizing local farmers against
the chicken and hog factories that befoul their communities. As a result, the
locals demanded good stewardship, including federal protection for the imperiled
minnow. One outraged farmer declared, "Anyone willing to profit from the
destruction of God's creations should be deeply ashamed." The impassioned support
for the listing gave the bureau a well-deserved shiner, and validated the
chapter's extensive rural organizing efforts.
Atlantic Coast: THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
"In the U.S. we have the right to speak out for what we believe in. That's not
the case in Nigeria," says Sierra Student Coalition member Eric Luedtke, 16. To
help turn up external political pressure on the country's military regime,
Luedtke initiated a drive in Maryland for state economic sanctions against
Nigeria. Besides presenting over 1,000 signatures from SSC members across the
state, he testified before the state assembly with Maryland Chapter lobbyist
Nancy Davis, Sierra Club Board member Michael K. Dorsey, and Owens Wiwa, brother
of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed with eight others in 1995.
Though a Club-drafted sanctions bill was narrowly defeated in committee, Luedtke
believes the effort will help end human-rights and environmental abuses in the
oil-rich African nation.
"It took years of pressure to break down apartheid in South Africa," says
Luedtke. The SSC's next move, he says, is to present 20,000 signatures in support
of federal sanctions to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
American Southeast: CLEANUP OR COVER-UP?
In the 1970s and '80s local public agencies encouraged African-Americans to buy
new homes in the Agricultural Street area, a 95-acre parcel in New Orleans' 9th
Ward. Now, many of the 300 families want out, having discovered that their homes
were built on what was for 50 years a municipal dump.
After testing in 1993 turned up high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, and 150
other types of poisons, the EPA speedily designated the area a Superfund site,
and indicated it would relocate residents. Later, the agency backed away from its
strong stand and recommended removing two feet of contaminated soil from
Agricultural Street yards, laying down plastic screens, and topping them with
fresh dirt. Peggy Grandpre, a member of the Delta Chapter and resident of
Agricultural Street, believes that the remediation plan is inadequate because
families would be exposed to more poisons during the partial cleanup and rains in
below-sea-level New Orleans will likely wash away the new topsoil. Moreover, the
Superfund listing drastically decreased property values. "We can't afford to
leave," says Grandpre. Write to President Clinton and urge him to champion
relocation for Agricultural Street residents.
Formerly an idyllic retreat for the likes of the Carnegies and Rockefellers,
Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia is now mostly a national seashore. But
money still has pull on the near-unspoiled coastal gem. Descendants of Coca-Cola
founder Asa Candler, who sold their 1,000-acre High Point property to the federal
government in 1983 under a "life estate" arrangement, are now trying to renege.
Their plan is to purchase another part of the island the government wants to buy
and to swap it for High Point. The feds could avoid the trade by using $17
million in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy the land. "We should use
that money to preserve Cumberland instead of trading away open space that already
belongs to the public," says Norman Owen of the Georgia Chapter. The chapter is
fiercely lobbying Congress to release LWCF money for the Cumberland