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  November/December 2000 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Generation Green

More on Generation Green: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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 doorbells later.

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 houses.

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 laughs.

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 books."

"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 300 schools.

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 movement."

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 Atlantic Monthly and Business Week.

More on Generation Green: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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