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Green Grows Grassroots | The Nation

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Green Grows Grassroots

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"In 2004 Kerry lost Colorado, but we won everything else here," says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Jones's group was a key member of a broader progressive coalition that, in a state with a majority of Republican voters, passed three progressive ballot initiatives, took back the state legislature and won the US Senate seat. "Seeing how the conservatives who orchestrated the Gingrich revolution [in 1994] went back to the grassroots made me realize that we needed to do the same thing," says Jones.

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Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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The key in Colorado was to "appeal to people across the political spectrum" by addressing their concerns as much as environmentalists' own. To pass the renewable energy initiative, progressives won over economically strapped farmers in the east of Colorado, who have traditionally voted Republican, by stressing how wind farms could help them pay their bills. Even the Farm Bureau, usually environmentalists' enemy, ended up backing the initiative, as did the Republican Speaker of the House.

A similar green upsurge has taken place in Michigan. "For fifteen years we counted it as a success if we could just protect the status quo," says Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. "Now we actually move the ball down the field. And we have a Republican House and Senate and a Democratic governor, so we have to move things through both parties." Much of the change comes from implementing what Pollack concedes are Politics 101 tactics. "You have to work at the ground level. We turn out thousands of letters to get constituents informed and revved up. We don't put out dense reports but shorter, more newsworthy releases. We stopped looking at everyone outside the environmental world as the hostile, unwashed masses and saw them as distinct interests that on occasion might align with ours, including nurses groups, business groups and the Michigan Association of Realtors."

Leaders of national groups say they too are returning to the grassroots, mainly by collaborating more with state and local organizations. "It was critical to be in Washington the last few years to resist the [Bush] rollback, which we've done," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But when the Administration proposed allowing inadequately treated sewage to drain into coastal runoff systems, Beinecke adds, NRDC "took the issue out of Washington to a state that would be severely affected by that proposal, Florida, and worked it there. We put local groups like the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs out front to raise awareness of the issue, and we got eighteen out of twenty-five members of the Florida Congressional delegation to come out against it, including very conservative members like Katherine Harris."

The successes in Michigan and Colorado might not have happened without deep-pocket local donors who supported such grassroots organizing, local activists say. But national activists complain that national funders, especially foundations, have resisted this approach in favor of quick-fix solutions. "Funders have very short time spans and want to see measurable results, and you can't build the kind of [movement we envision] in a short period of time," says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. Carl Pope says the Sierra Club is now "in partnership with the United Steelworkers, the biggest industrial union in America, to go into a number of states and try to create a class-blind environmental movement." But foundations have declined to fund the initiative because it cannot promise specific policy outcomes within the next two years, says Pope, who adds, "I assure you, not a single important right-wing funder in this country thinks that way."

Some $2.8 billion is donated every year to progressive service and advocacy groups in the United States, according to Democracy Alliance, a group of nonfoundation donors and activists who are working to fortify the progressive infrastructure. Only $500 million of that money, about 18 percent, goes to groups that work locally. Within the environmental field, activist groups receive a total of $1.7 billion a year, of which only $187 million--barely 10 percent--goes to groups that work at the local level. (By far the largest portion of environmental funding goes to land trusts, which buy and protect land that is environmentally or aesthetically valuable.) "Those numbers show what is readily apparent when you look around Washington, DC," says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "This is a top-heavy movement. You need lobbyists and experts, sure, but not as many as we have. Look at the National Rifle Association. They know that power is built in the field, so they focus on individual Congressional districts.... The difficulty is, organizing is not sexy. It doesn't get you headlines in the New York Times. It is scruffy, dirt-under-the-fingernails power building."

"In-depth organizing is a hard sell to national foundations," says Bill Roberts, president of the Beldon Fund, which underwrote the organizing in Michigan. Roberts does not bring up the following example but does confirm it when asked: After some environmental groups finally began to collaborate with other progressive organizations during the 2004 election campaign, Roberts tried to convince other funders to help him keep the best parts of the infrastructure in place for future work. His appeal was rejected. "Some funders were persuaded," he recalls. "But many others wanted to know what specific activities would be developed and implemented in 2005 before committing funds."

Joshua Reichert, managing director of the policy initiatives and environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, counters that it is unreasonable to ask foundations to underwrite long-term organizing. Arguing that the current state of the movement is "reasonably strong," Reichert charges that green groups are themselves responsible for any lack of grassroots organizing: "Most of these groups get more of their money from memberships [in dues] than they do from foundations. Groups can pour that money back into organizing, if they choose to. Foundations put money in when they're interested in a specific program a group is doing."

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