Grassroots Organizing

Every day, people facing threats to their health and environment call CHEJ for help. They are looking for proof that all landfills leak, health studies linking incinerators to cancer, or the environmental record of a company that wants to build a plant in their community. CHEJ tries to provide those facts. But we also stay on the phone to help people through the terrible realization that simply speaking the truth about landfills, incinerators, or previous violations won’t stop the poisoning.

The truth is only a start. In order for things to change, the truth has to be understood by a large group of people who then use this knowledge to fuel their efforts to win justice. The truth won’t stop the poisoning, but organizing will.

According to Webster’s dictionary, organizing is “uniting in a body or becoming systematically arranged.”  Organizing to protect our communities from environmental harm means pulling together a large enough, diverse enough, active enough group of people to convince corporations and the government that they have to stop making people sick.

Organizing is how we restore the balance between the rights of the people to safe food and healthy communities, and the rights of corporations to profit and pollute. We will never have as much money as the corporate polluters. We will never be able to afford their Madison Avenue media campaigns or their twenty-four hour access to elected officials. But we can build our own power to overcome their influence. We can do this by organizing to demonstrate the strength of our numbers and the righteousness of our demands.

Successful organizing happens when a group of people finds visible ways to use the truth to wake up the conscience of a larger group. In an era when politics is defined by scandals and sound bytes, organizing can remind the American people that political life is supposed to be about self-government, justice and the common good.

After years of doing it, we’ve come to the conclusion that organizing is more of an art than a science. It’s more important to be in touch with what is happening in your community and to respect and include your friends and neighbors than to follow a set of rules. But at the same time, there are some basic rules for organizing that usually hold true. These rules aren’t always applicable, but they are right often enough that you should consider them as you start to get organized around an environmental issue in your community.

Some of those rules are:

  • Power determines the outcome. If two or more groups care about an issue, and one of them has a lot more power, that group will get what it wants, no matter what the facts are or who will be hurt.
  • Our power comes from people, while corporations and government’s power comes from money. Communities need to use strategies that depend on people’s creativity, courage and caring. The corporations and government will use strategies that depend on things which can be paid for, like experts and lawyers.
  • Polluters and government agencies write the rules so they can win using the experts and lawyers which are their strength. You can assume going in that if you play exactly according to the rules of their game, you will lose most of the time, whether you are at the slot machines in Atlantic City or the hearing process of your state environmental agency. Create your own rules instead.
  • To win, communities will have to work harder than polluters and government agencies do. Polluters and agencies are doing what they do because they are paid to. They’ve done it before, and they know most of the facts before the fight even starts. You are opposing them because you believe your health and your community are at risk. This gives you an unmatched motivation for working harder than they do.

These rules may seem harsh and they are. And sometimes things turn out to be easier than these rules would lead you to expect. But when our communities are at stake, it’s important to start out vigilant, alert and ready to face the challenges ahead of us.

Experience has taught us that organizing isn’t easy. Recognizing this should help us to be forgiving of each other and ourselves. We are trying to build a democratic society without adequate blueprints and models, so our trial-and-error method has to leave room for experimentation and mistakes. And recognizing how necessary organizing is should help us to be inclusive and persistent. There are no magic facts. There are no perfect heroes to give perfect speeches that will convince the polluters to stop polluting. There is only the dogged determination of people working together to protect their own health, their families’ health and the health of their communities. This is why we organize.