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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
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One Small Step
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Neighbor to Neighbor
Building environmental community with a handshake and a beer.
by Jenny Coyle

Organizers in Atlanta
Staffers Natalie Foster (standing) and Kate Smolski chat up volunteers Micah Wood (standing) and Sean Tenney.
It's a frigid February afternoon in Atlanta's hip Little Five Points district. A gloomy sky hangs over Euclid Avenue and gusting winds have swept the sidewalks nearly clean of human life.

Still, the streets glow in this neighborhood the locals loosely compare with New York's Greenwich Village. Brick storefronts are gussied up in hot pink, glittery turquoise, and neon green with red polka dots. Soul Kiss peddles jewelry and Tibetan temple bells, and the Gypsy Market advertises incense, oils, and henna.

As evening descends, a flurry of activity erupts under a green Sierra Club banner at the entrance to the Five Spot, a trendy nightclub. Young professionals and college students in heavy coats and parkas hunch over a table, signing a registration sheet and getting their hands stamped to gain entry to a new monthly event: "Sierra Club and Beer." There's no cover charge, and the beer, donated by the local Sweetwater brewery, is served up for free.

On this night, 155 people will eat, drink, and mingle. They'll also meet the founder of the state's sole biodiesel company, mix it up in random teams and play an environmental trivia game, hear about a hike scheduled for thatweekend, and learn about upcoming opportunities to get involved with the Club.

Organizers in Atlanta

Growing a Movement

The Sierra Club's "Building Environmental Community" campaign was launched last year with just a handful of organizers working in targeted neighborhoods around the country. By the end of this summer there will be more than two dozen sites, and the number will continue to grow over the ten-year life of the program.

"The real impact will be in the eighth, ninth, and tenth years of the campaign, when we've built powerful, grassroots pressure at locations all over the country," says national campaign director Debbie Sease. "This is about rebuilding the environmental movement at the community level."

Each Building Environmental Community project shapes itself to local environmental concerns. In Texas, 43 toxic-waste sites–a dozen of them in the Houston area–are included on the EPA's National Priority List for cleanup.

But actual cleanups are rare, and polluters are no longer required to pay into the Superfund program. Instead, taxpayers pick up the tab. Organizers in Houston are educating local communities about the poison in their backyards and helping them hold the Bush administration accountable.

In other Building Environmental Community locales, neighbors are banding together to fight mercury contamination of their water, massive timber harvests on their national forests, and nuclear-waste transportation and storage near their homes. And it's all done one doorbell, one neighbor at a time. –Jenny Coyle

To find out more, go to

The brainchild and pet project of four 20-something women who staff the Club's local office, Sierra Club and Beer is bringing hundreds of fresh activists—and their friends, and their friends' friends—into Atlanta's environmental fold.

"One of our retired volunteer leaders has been trying to get us to do a singles group as a way to bring young people into the Club," beer-night organizer Colleen Kiernan explains, wrinkling her nose. "But nobody would come if we called it a ‘singles' gathering. We chose to offer something that would attract those people without using the word ‘single' or ‘social' because they sound so old and funky."

Hence, Sierra Club and Beer.

The event fits perfectly with a new nationwide Sierra Club campaign called Building Environmental Community. The ten-year program is designed to inspire people to be more active citizens. BEC organizers connect the dots between the Bush administration's attack on environmental protections and its effect on real people in real neighborhoods, and then create a community of activists that will demand change.

For instance, when the administration launched an effort this year to weaken controls on toxic mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, organizers in Georgia—home to the largest such plant in the nation—got the word out that the fish in more than half of the state's waterways are already too contaminated with mercury to eat. In the West, organizers in Nevada have educated residents about the potential perils of storing high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas.

In these and more than two dozen other areas, Club members hold community discussion forums, speak at public hearings, knock on neighbors' doors, table at outdoor-gear stores, tell their stories at press conferences, host house parties, and gather signatures on postcards and petitions. Organizing on local issues isn't new to the Sierra Club, of course. What's new is an emphasis on using activists' personal networks to get the job done. Americans are bombarded by an estimated 60,000 messages, ads, signs, and e-mails every week, up 20,000 from just five years ago. Personal contact cuts through the clutter.

Call it a return to traditional one-on-one grassroots organizing. But Harvard University public-policy professor Marshall Ganz says that alone won't do the trick; to be anything more than a marketing or public-relations campaign, it's got to put the "roots" back in "grassroots." Ganz worked with Cesar Chavez from 1965 to 1981, organizing United Farm Workers campaigns like the national grape boycott to pressure growers into recognizing the union. The UFW itself was built through house meetings, he says, employing Chavez's simple but effective technique: "First, you talk to one person, face-to-face, and then you talk to the next and then the next."

"The key," says Ganz, "is in finding people in the community and drawing on their social networks, which gives the movement much more staying power. As you're promoting your cause, new people become participants. The power lies in the rootedness of it."

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Photos courtesy Flip Chalfant; used with permission.

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