In January 2014, Citizens’ Climate Lobby was comprised of numerous groups in the US and Canada and one each in Sweden and Bangladesh. Germany and Australia started up next, and expanded rapidly. Just 5 years later, the CCL family includes 125,000 citizen volunteers in 52 countries.
At the 10th CCL Annual Conference, on Sunday, June 9, 2019, volunteer leaders and coordinators from across that global network came together for a coordinating session. It was an inspired, purposeful conversation, in which friends and peers, and team-mates meeting each other for the first time in person, shared struggles and solutions inherent in this challenging work.
Some local group leaders, and even founders of national CCL networks, labor in isolation for months or even years, before a solid core group forms around them. A lot of the work of empowering citizen volunteers is counter-intuitive: sometimes the shy person with little policy or organizing experience is the strongest team-mate.
A successful coordinator gets to know everyone and meets people where they are, inviting them to bring forward their own strengths. And sometimes, for all the skill, intentionality, and inclusiveness one brings, volunteers will come and go according to pressures they don’t always share.
Our International Regional Coordinators from Europe, Africa, and Latin America, along with national leaders from nearly a dozen countries, and a large delegation from across Canada, came together to share their experiences and support each other. Some of the key insights shared in that session included:
- Building a local volunteer chapter is harder, longer-term work than it may seem, but the payoff in terms of sustained advocacy and team-building is worth the effort.
- Small person to person acts of support and generosity can make the difference between an event and an ongoing coordinated group of citizen advocates.
- Though all of our experiences are different, it is a common challenge for CCL volunteer organizers that they face both subtle and aggressive naysaying from people close to them.
- We are not working to heal all political failings everywhere; we are working to build trust, address human challenges in government, and make more good possible.
- There is a hunger for constructive, hopeful solutions-oriented political engagement; this can lead to cases where volunteer groups “grow too fast”.
- A solid core group of committed teammates is needed to ensure structure, focus, and values are not lost as bursts of interest move people in or out of the group.
In our international coordinating, there are also important dynamics of inequality among nations and regions. Low-lying nations like Kiribati are facing a true existential threat from rising sea levels. That their sense of urgency is greater is not a matter of perspective; it is about the human experience of facing geographical and cultural annihilation.
There was a solemn recognition among those in the group that this creates a deep ethical responsibility for all people, in all nations. We must hear the voices of those who are most vulnerable, and measure our own urgency against that injustice, not against our own sense of comfort or security.
In one after another country, citizen climate advocates find that the fears that hold policy-makers back from greater climate ambition can be resolved through dialogue and sharing of stories. Communities that innovate, even the least affluent, expand future opportunities and build a more solid base for future investment at all levels.
The question is: How do we bring the message of climate-smart system change to leaders in such distinct circumstances?
The sharing of insights among CCL coordinators from around the world provided some useful guidance:
- Listening well and genuinely does the most to build strong working relationships, and make progress quickly.
- Not every person who joins a CCL chapter is ‘already empowered’; CCL volunteers work to empower one another.
- Open civics is difficult; democracy is difficult; the hot mixing of ideas from all sides is difficult; honor that.
- Solving climate change brings far greater value than remaining mired in the status quo; listen for and tell that story, in context.
Advocating for big change means you will face resistance. Opposition to the improvement you seek will often have the backing of very powerful interests. We must accept that public officials are not unreasonable to fear those interests, but that they also, like all of us, already have the values they need to resist and reverse climate disruption.
The big news for CCL’s international leaders is that the work we did together at CCL2019 has made us feel and understand ourselves as a team. As Marshall Saunders, CCL’s founder, said to a group of young first-time volunteer lobbyists, nervous about how they would do in a real meeting with Congress:
You’re a team; you lean on each other.
A special thank you to Cathy Orlando, our International Outreach Manager (top-left in the group photo above), who keeps pace with all of the needs and challenges faced by all of our volunteer leaders and coordinators, across 51 countries, outside the United States. It is difficult to describe the complex nature of that job, but should be evident to all what it means to do it with tireless skill and grace.