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Sierra magazine
Create | New Possibilities

Heart and Sole
Grassroots organizing: 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent shoe leather

By Michael Brune

I learned my first lesson in politics and grassroots organizing from my father, Robert Brune, who served two terms as the mayor of Toms River, New Jersey, when I was growing up. One night when I was only seven or eight years old and playing in the living room, my dad came in, fuming.

"You see these?" he asked my mother, holding up his battered dress shoes, whose soles were almost worn through. "This is how you win an election." Even though it wasn't an election year, my father had been out campaigning—alone, and he wasn't happy about it. "Those . . . ," he hesitated, glancing at me, "people in the township committee don't want to put the work in to get the job done."

Years later, when I became Rainforest Action Network's executive director, my parents were very supportive, but my father warned against bureaucracy: "Watch out for people who spend their days shuffling papers around between meetings and conference calls and task forces—and then nothing actually gets done," he told me. "Got it," I noted to myself: "Work hard, minimize paper shuffling, have a real impact."

It's that insistence on results, plus knowledge of the persistence it takes to produce them, that humbles me about becoming the Sierra Club's new executive director. Filling the shoes of John Muir and David Brower is, I'll admit, a daunting prospect—as is realizing how central the Club has been to many of the country's most important environmental victories over the past century.

Above all, though, I find the undertaking exciting, especially in light of the Club's recent accomplishments. Those include environmental-justice victories in Texas, New Orleans, and West Virginia; stopping 128 (and counting) coal-fired power plants; and protecting wilderness areas from Florida to British Columbia. With a chapter in every state, a group in almost every major city, a grassroots base of 1.3 million members and supporters, and strong partnerships with labor and faith communities, the Club's best days may be yet to come.

Here's an immediate challenge for all of us: How can we be as good at promoting solutions as we are at fighting bad ideas? The Sierra Club has honed the latter to a fine art, as seen in our successful opposition to destructive mining operations, new coal plants, and attempts to log ancient forests. But stopping bad things from happening is only half the job; we don't want to simply slow the rate at which our planet is degraded. Our vision for a clean and sustainable world must also come alive.

For every dirty coal plant that gets bulldozed, a new solar park, wind farm, or other clean-energy facility must come online. For every oil pipeline that's rejected, a concrete plan to actually reduce oil consumption must be approved. Let's be strategic and creative as we craft visionary solutions and be relentless in our push to make them real. When we do this, we'll change the story about energy development in this country. We won't just make noise; we'll make history.

When I rode in the car with my parents as a kid, they'd point to a strip mall or housing development and say, "There used to be a beautiful forest here," or "We used to build forts in the woods over there." Someday soon my wife and I will be driving our kids (or better yet, riding the train with them), and we'll be able to point out the window and say, "There used to be a coal plant where that wind farm is," or "Look at how the forest is coming back," or "Did you hear that factory's now a union shop?"

Protecting the planet isn't just an obligation; it's an opportunity. As my friend Paul Hawken, entrepreneur and author of The Ecology of Commerce and Blessed Unrest, says, "Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider."

Amen, Paul. Now let's go and wear out some shoes.

Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Photo by Lori Eanes



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