Coordination plays a crucial role in synergizing the efforts of different groups, especially in the field of environmental activism because these groups often have to campaign against much stronger political and economic powers. It is definitely heartwarming to occasionally see different groups stand together and champion for a common cause like the Portland Clean Energy Fund that happened a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, what I did not know prior to this internship is that coordination is such a significant issue that conservation leaders have to frequently grapple with.
The label of environmental conservation indeed creates an identifiable banner that groups with similar agenda can unite under, but at the same time, this banner obfuscates the fundamental differences between two groups’ ideologies and strategies from the public and even in some cases from young adults that aspire to be environmental advocates. Working with Crag inspires me to think about the causes and merits of such a unique form of organizing and coordinating in environmental activism.
Groups disagree on strategies. One would expect the main job of Crag’s attorneys is litigation on environmental issues. That is partially true because aside from litigation each of the attorneys generally has his or her own side project that is not necessarily based in or motivated by their legal expertise. For example, one staff attorney has spent a significant portion of his time over the last seventeen years on education projects about forest fires. Not only do these education projects target potential supporters, but some of those are directed at colleagues from other conservation groups. Activists will argue with each other vehemently over the aggressiveness of campaign messages, strategies, emphasis on either scientific facts or values and personal relationships between group leaders. Another debated issue is the amount of branding that each organization gets for itself in a big joint campaign. These arguments occur despite the fact that they have the same understanding of the impact of forest fires and the same propositions to deal with them. He voluntarily acts as a coordinator who mediates between parties that have the same agenda. Seeing his work, I get a sense of the insane amount of coordination and compromise that lead to the recently popular call on ban of plastic straws.
Groups differ on vision. Last Saturday DukeEngage Portland students volunteered at the Oregon Food Bank for half a day. I helped in their own garden to harvest squashes, cucumbers and beans and remove weeds. While fellow DukeEngagers were working in the other end of the garden, I sneaked onto a fifteen-minute guided tour in the actual warehouse. The tour guide explained eloquently the uniqueness of the Oregon Food Bank, in that it does not just serve as a storage unit for food in case of emergency or feeding the poor, but it is an environmental nonprofit that advocates for more radical policy changes that will address the “root cause” of hunger. One notable achievement is the food stamp program in Portland. However a few weeks ago, when I volunteered for Operation Nightwatch, one of the homeless people that I talked to frankly admitted that “job was not my thing” because he was eligible for food stamps. Although not fairly literate with the policy details, I imagine fierce disagreements can arise between environmental justice groups that examine the consequences of food stamps differently.
Many long-time supporters and former interns of Crag that I interviewed agreed on the necessity for better coordination between conservation groups. For groups with a common identity, lack of coordination can result in not just lost opportunities but the additional pressure from a conveniently formed counter-movement or counter-propaganda. For example, an organization that is subtle in its tactics may have to unduly take the brunt of negative connotations associated with “environmental groups” such as violence, non-cooperation and disregard for economic complexities. A lot of groups are stuck in a love-hate relationship with each other because each needs the complementary vision or tactics of a group that it hates, to capitalize on the campaign power that has been built into the banner of “environmentalism” over the last several decades. This tradition of organizing, at least in the United States, goes back to the civil rights movement where the NAACP, SCLC and SNCC among many others engaged in constant support and criticisms of one another. In a certain sense this “infighting” almost adds appeal to the overall movement to an outsider because of its nature democratic discourse of ideas.
As a college student, I understand my criticisms above do not do justice to the resources and time spent specifically in resolving the problem of coordination. My knowledge and limited experience with Crag allow me to see one facet of this whole intersectionality but nothing more than that. Today’s reflection of course does not imply my vision for how environmental organizing ought to be. It serves as a nice starting place, or food for thought, for college students like me to figure out ways to situate ourselves in environmental organizing or any other systems. Beyond feeling excited when we are accepted or frustrated when our ideologies are drowned out by the system, how can we navigate to a point of support and self-expression?