Mobilizing or Movement Building?

This past weekend, the fifth annual Environmental Action Conference was held at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. The conference offered more than 20 skill-building and issue-oriented workshops to over 250 participants. It featured a video address by governor-elect Peter Shumlin and a keynote by Professor Patrick Parenteau, who among other things is a former Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation in Vermont.

The conference’s promotional materials stated: Environmental Action is the largest grassroots activism conference in the state of Vermont. The conference provides an excellent opportunity for environmentalists, community leaders, and local activists to come together, learn from experts, and network with one another. The conference definitely delivered on the promise of providing an excellent opportunity for people to come together, learn and network. With the multitude of workshops and table displays and the engaging speakers, there was certainly plenty to learn. There was also time to network and socialize – a welcome activity at any conference. I am always excited to see so many people who want to be engaged in our political process and who are willing to share skills and develop new ones.

This conference is well worth attending for anyone interested in environmental issues in Vermont. It provides a good opportunity for environmental activists to learn new skills and educate themselves on various issues. I’m glad it happens every year, and I hope it will continue.

I did find myself wondering what made it a “grassroots activism” conference, though. The conference was organized by a few staff people from large organizations. It primarily involved “experts” sharing information with the participants. Many invitations were offered for the participants to “get involved” or “take action,” so there was a mobilizing aspect to the conference, but these invitations were offered by separate organizations, rather than being defined by the community that came together.

I’d like to attend an environmental grassroots activism conference that focused on building a movement – planned by activists who have identified the issues they want to work on, and where we spend the day working together to plan for success and share skills. I’d like to see the activists sharing their feedback in a structured way with the organizations that are working on these issues with paid staff, and identifying ways to engage that are meaningful and productive. I’d like to see the “experts” be the activists who share why certain issues are important to them in their everyday lives.

Vermont’s environmental community has done a lot of work toward this end – developing a common agenda, sponsoring this Environmental Action Conference and Citizen Action Day in the statehouse every year are just a few examples of how the environmental groups in Vermont have worked to engage activists in a coordinated way. Also, most of the groups have clear ways that members can engage with their leadership to set the agenda.

With the environmental community’s recent recognized success in the elections, now is a perfect time to capitalize on that success and build even more strength for this community. If the election success can be translated into momentum and activism for the legislative session, we could see some real progress for the environment this year, despite the deficit we are facing. If the activists are engaged in the process of setting the agenda for the environmental community, then it is more likely that the energy and resources needed will be there for the groups that are working on the issues. A few issues, agreed by many to be the priorities this year, and worked on by thousands of Vermonters could have surprising results.