Halfway across the country, young activists are engaged in equally
important--if less back-breaking-labor, going door-to-door preaching the environmental
gospel. I find their Minneapolis office by following the nerve-jangling rhythm of the
Beastie Boys to a couple of nondescript basement rooms in the Technology Center at the
University of Minnesota. It is a hurricane of young people: They answer phones. They pore
over maps. They have intense conversations. They do high-fives. They hug. They joke. They
make a swirl of cargo pants and flip-flops, of hip-huggers and college T-shirts.
With all the activity, it takes a few moments before anyone notices me,
the lone person older than 25. Then someone turns and says with enthusiasm, "Hi! You
must be looking for Naomi!"
Naomi Roth, 23, a recent graduate of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs,
New York, runs this summer's Minneapolis campaign for the Fund for Public Interest
Research, a nonprofit, national canvassing operation founded by the Public Interest
Research Groups. Around the country, almost a thousand young people in 56 Fund offices are
canvassing for the Sierra Club, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and other organizations.
In Minneapolis, Naomi and her troops are drumming up support for a Sierra
Club membership drive and anti-logging campaign. Up on the wall of their office,
rainbow-colored construction-paper letters announce: "Summer goals: 87,500
conversations, 4,375 new members, $300,000."
With energy and sparkle that is part camp counselor, part revival
preacher, and part polished politician, Naomi says brightly, "Hey! I've got to meet
with a few people. You're going to come canvassing with me later. Why don't you let Kelly
show you around?"
Kelly McSherry, 21, a campaign coordinator who works on public relations,
explains the operation. On the floor, and at the few steel desks against the walls, field
managers work over maps with multicolored markers, shading the routes that their canvass
crews will cover today. Across the room, new hires are learning the pitch that each of
them will make about four dozen times each day. Gradually, they begin to "play
doors," role-playing different situations that may come up when they're ringing
Meanwhile, Naomi and her three campaign directors interview applicants,
plow through paperwork, obtain town permits, and plan a staff retreat. Most of the
managers come in at 8:30 a.m. and don't leave until 11 p.m. They party for a few hours
with the canvassers, then get up and do it all over again.
"The hours are long, but the people are great," says Kelly,
who'll be a senior at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, in the fall.
"Plus it's a great opportunity to work for something you believe in, instead of
waitressing." For most of the canvassers in the room, this is their first experience
with political organizing. Most are college students who found out about the campaign from
friends or from help-wanted ads in campus newspapers.
"Sometimes people call you an eco-Nazi," admits Nick Berning, 21, a field
manager and political-science student at Macalester College in St. Paul. "But you get
this great feeling," Arshad Hasan, a 19-year-old student at the University of
Pennsylvania, says of recruiting new members. "Today, I made a difference. Today, I
talked to people. Today, they got involved."
At 2 p.m., Naomi turns off the stereo. It's time for announcements, a
briefing on current political events that affect their efforts, and news from other Fund
operations nationwide. Many canvassers say it's the highlight of the day. "Welcome to
Thursday!" Naomi yells. The circle of about 40 canvassers and supervisors erupts like
football fans at the Super Bowl. Naomi has the new people introduce themselves and
exultantly reminds everyone that 50 new Sierra Club members were signed up the previous
day. Then comes the main event: the announcement of "hot nights."
One of the field managers runs into the center of the circle and starts
reading the names of last night's star canvassers, who collected the most donations or
signed up the most new members: "Nick! $220! John! $220 and four new members! Arshad!
Four members! Eleanor! $240 and four members!" Each runs around the circle for a
victory lap as everyone else claps, whistles, and cheers.
Then we're out the door, and into the "Justice Mobile," a leased
station wagon filled with Sierra Club flyers, postcards to the Forest Service, in-line
skates, fast-food wrappers, and our crew, "the Fridley Five." Nick, our field
manager, gives us a profile of our turf. Fridley is a middle-class suburb on the
Mississippi River, just north of Minneapolis. The residents are receptive to environmental
concerns; their congressional representative is good on the issues. The neighborhood is
near a man-made lake and a high school. Trees arch over the streets and, as in many
Midwestern towns, the lawns are enormous. No sidewalks connect the modest, ranch-style
Naomi charges off across the grass. Speed is essential, she explains. No
sitting, not ever--not in the office, not on the streets. It slows you down.
She's good with the rap. "Hi, I'm Naomi. I'm here today from the Sierra Club, the
nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental group . . ."
"Hi . . . Our national forests are beautiful places, but more than 50
percent of them have been lost due to logging and mining . . ."
Naomi would never have predicted that she'd end up managing a canvass
campaign, spending five-hour shifts on the street, knocking on doors, trying to make
people care enough about trees to take out their checkbooks. "My parents made it
clear that I could do whatever I wanted--as long as I went to law school first," she
Between her sophomore and junior year at Skidmore, though, Naomi spent a
summer canvassing. She graduated, dutifully took the LSAT, and then begged her parents to
let her organize a canvass at the University of California at Irvine. Then Green Corps, a
group that trains budding environmental activists and conducts canvasses for the Fund for
Public Interest Research, hired her as a director. Law school is no longer in the picture.
In ten years, she hopes to be running her own environmental organization, or perhaps
working with an established group like Green Corps.
Naomi gets a charge out of training young activists. "We're teaching
smart, talented people things that will take their lives on radically different
paths," she says. She also enjoys the intellectual challenge of figuring out what
line will have an impact, how to keep people from closing the door.
"My folks joke about their little tree-hugger," she laughs.
"But there are plenty of environmental lawyers already. Besides, I love this!"
It's difficult to see why, as I trudge and she bounds from door to door,
skirting lawn ornaments and climbing endless front steps. No one bites at first. An older
woman explains she's just been diagnosed with cancer and can't afford it. One guy won't
even look up from his garage woodworking project. "Don't want to talk," he
growls. A middle-aged woman comes to the door, then gets her husband. "What's your
pitch?" he says gruffly.
Naomi starts the rap.
"Uh, I think the clearcutting and roads are terrible, but I think I'd
support selective logging," the man says. "You know, I love the Sierra Club
"Well, thanks anyway!" Naomi says cheerily. Finally, at 6:10
p.m., we catch a man, in his early 30s, just home from work. He balks when Naomi suggests
a $60 Sierra Club donation, but brightens when she quickly suggests $35. "I think I
can do that," the man says, adding that he's always thought the Sierra Club was
"a good outfit." He goes inside to get his checkbook.
"That experience makes up for all the others, doesn't it?" Naomi
asks. But then hours pass and it's no, no, no.
"I already gave to help save the Boundary Waters," says a sweet
old lady, referring to the lakes along the Minnesota-Canada border.
"You say we've lost half our forest since when?" asks a
middle-aged man with a ponytail. "I'd like to check your numbers."
We walk what seems like miles and only raise ten more dollars. Naomi reads
the totals from our "tick sheet": 75 doors, 44 conversations, 3 contributions
for a total of $55. "That's my worst night since my very first week," she sighs.
Doesn't it get her down when it goes badly? "What do you mean?" Naomi asks.
"There's always tomorrow night."
Driving back to my motel room, achy and brain-dead, I feel humbled by
Naomi's seemingly unflagging optimism. Contrary to the popular rumor that Generations X
and Y are mostly slackers, these young people take action. They're angry. They're
energized. They're committed to making the world a healthier place.
"There's an awakening happening now," says Naomi. "It's not
just a fad. People are serious about it." For young activists like her, the sense of
fighting the good fight makes up for the often grinding, sometimes numbingly repetitive
work they've chosen. When asked why they do what they do, they mention being part of
something larger, of doing their little bit for the planet. Last year, one applicant gave
up a $70,000 job offer to take a $17,500 fellowship with Green Corps. A junior manager in
the Minneapolis canvass will go on next year to direct her own canvass office; another has
applied for an environmental internship in Washington, D.C.; still another will be the
midwestern regional coordinator for Free the Planet!
Naomi's sense of an environmental awakening is confirmed in events like
last year's Eco-Conference in Philadelphia, which drew more than 3,000 young
activists--far above predictions. Representatives from 40 countries have attended 65
week-long training camps organized by Youth for Environmental Sanity (YES!). Camp
participants and attendees at other YES! presentations have gone on to found more than 300
environmental nonprofit organizations and clubs and introduce recycling programs in over
Ask environmental leaders in their 20s what all this means and many
envision a coming war with corporate power. Camilla Feibelman, the 24-year-old national
director of the Sierra Club's 12,000-member Sierra Student Coalition, likens the goals of
this movement to the aspirations of our founding fathers. "They wanted separation of
church and state. We want separation of corporation and state," Camilla says.
"That will be the rallying cry. That will galvanize all these efforts into a
The young leaders predict that this movement will unify activists of all
stripes: environmentalists, union workers, anti-corporate protesters, development experts.
It will be a sophisticated battle, one waged with public-relations gurus, impassioned
lawyers, shrewd grant writers, online outreach, and political campaigns.
"There used to be environmental activists and race activists and
justice activists, but there's a marriage happening now. Young people are more willing to
see the connections," says Ocean Robbins, 26, who founded YES! in 1990. "That's
what was happening in D.C. and Seattle. Suddenly you don't have to choose one cause over
another; you can be for all of it. That's where our power lies."
Heather Millar has written about environmental issues for such
publications as the AtlanticMonthly and Business Week.