Monday, January 27, 2014

An experiment in collaboration

NYC environmental groups have no shortage of events, but a common drawback is their tendency to preach to a very small demographic of the converted.  How can they do a better job of reaching out to the vast majority of New Yorkers who don't identify themselves as environmentalists? This winter I'm organizing a series of film screening events on sustainability and resilience.  I think the approach is unique for a few reasons.

(1) The screenings all aim at raising awareness about big picture issues, and the need for fundamental change, as opposed to focusing on individual issues without the global context.

(2) Events are held not in central Manhattan locations but in neighborhood venues, with the support of community based organizations who can invite their lists of local, non-environmentalist contacts;

(3) The screenings are followed by facilitated discussion among attendees.  People have the opportunity to share their own reactions, and meet their neighbors.

(4) I ask attendees to consider how they could respond to issues raised in the films in their own community.  (I am inspired by the Transition movement, which encourages community-level organizing in response to climate change.) Recognizing that some attendees can be well-intentioned but not have clear ideas about how to do this, I distribute a guide with links to sustainability and resilience programs already available in NYC which can be applied.    

(5) The Bloomberg Administration's sustainability plans were great, but there was not that much focus on community buy-in or involvement.  In the di Blasio Administration, it's likely there will be a much greater appetite for getting community groups involved in resiliency and emergency preparedness programs.  A film / discussion series like this could be a valuable addition to this effort.

 As of January, 2014, I have a monthly evening set aside in Long Island City through June.  There's an event in early February in Flushing, and one in discussion in Forest Hills.  As an independent organizer, I am not able to get this format as widely tried out as I think it should be.  So I need organizations to sponsor it.  

Right now, Sierra Club NYC has a number of presentations planned for Seafarer's and International House near Union Square.  Emailing them to the very big SC NYC list gets a number of enviros - but what is SC NYC doing to promote its broader agenda to the rest of NYC? It seems like there might be value in collaboration.  Will SC NYC co-sponsor these screenings, and help identify community co-sponsors and venues in Brooklyn and non-midtown Manhattan neighborhoods?  We'll see if they're interested in collaborating.  As a gesture of good faith, I have taken down a number of posts on this blog that some found controversial.  


Neighborhood Resilience
Film Screenings

Followed by facilitated discussion.  Meet your neighbors and act locally!
Second Mondays of the Month, 7 - 9 PM, in Long Island City, Queens
No charge to attend. Coffeed, 37-18 Northern Blvd., LIC, NY 11101, near the 36th St. stop on R & M trains, just a few minutes from midtown Manhattan.

After Hurricane Sandy, it's clear that NYC must become more resilient, able to bounce back after disruptions.  Our sustainability programs are being upgraded to handle not just long-term gradual climate change, but increasingly frequent extreme weather events. 

The good news is that many resilience upgrades can also increase long-term sustainability, save money and create local jobs, all at the same time. Raising public awareness about our environmental, energy and economic challenges will tap into the creativity of New Yorkers – and ensure that our City and our communities will act on those opportunities. 

The free video screenings are followed by facilitated group discussion to explore audience reactions and options to increase sustainability and resilience at the scale of NYC neighborhoods.  Resilience NYC Meetup, the organizer of the screenings, will distribute a resource guide to programs already available in NYC for interested residents. Coffeed is a locally sourced eco-cafe, downstairs from the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm, generously providing free coffee and home-baked pastries for these events.
January 13 - Do The MathClimate scientists have measured the carbon in fossil fuel supplies still to be burned and the consequences if it is all used.  This film features the movement to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis, and promote a global power shift to clean energy. (42 minutes)

February 10 - The Crash Course

Our economy, energy systems and environment are interdependent and will face increasing challenges as we meet limits of finite natural resources.  Presented in a clear and factual way.   (45 minutes)

April 14 - Crisis of Civilization
This dark comedy documentary connects the dots between global crises. It combines archival film clips and animations with detailed analysis and specific positive options to transform systems. Watch it free online. (80 minutes)

May 12 - Passive House RevolutionMuch of our energy is used to heat and cool buildings
.   Those designed with the new Passive House standard use 80% less energy than average, compared to 15-40% reductions with Energy Star & LEED standards.  We have 116 million existing homes to retrofit.  (45 minutes)

June 9 - In Transition 2.0
Inspiring stories of Transition initiatives around the world, responding to uncertain times with creativity, solutions and engaged optimism - communities, growing food, localizing their economies and setting up community power stations.
(50 minutes)
To set up customized screenings for your group or community, contact Dan Miner, volunteer organizer, Resilience NYC Meetup / Beyond Oil NYC at 212.319.3750 or 
Visit and

Monday, September 20, 2010

Chicago's Sierra Club Local Volunteer Group - A Shining Example

Sierra Club, the nation's largest environmental organization, owes its reputation in part to its networks of volunteer members. Those networks are divided into regional or state chapters, which are in further divided into subregional groups. The New York State Chapter, whose leaders prefer the anachronistic name of the Atlantic Chapter, contains 11 regional groups, one of which is the NYC Group.

Some chapters and groups, especially in large urban areas, are amazingly dynamic. Here's a statement from a leader of the Los Angeles area network.

"The Angeles Chapter, which covers both Los Angeles and Orange Counties, is the oldest and largest chapter in the country. We are currently planning our Centennial 1911-2011. The Chapter is comprised of 62 separate entities which is a combination of regional groups, activity sections, task forces and committees. The Angeles Chapter has a membership of approximately 46,000 people, of which 8-10,000 actively participate in our outings (of which we have over 6,000 per year), our political advocacy and our conservation efforts which include our Water Committee, Transportation Committee and Global Warming and Energy Committee just to name a few…." - Ron Silverman,

Chicago is an urban center comparable to NYC, right? The chair of Sierra Club's Chicago Group sent an article, originally for printing in the NYC Group newsletter, to tell New Yorkers what they are up to. Briefly, they maintain a volume of activity on a vast scope of issues and programs that is completely unlike what we have in New York City. What's the difference? Purely and simply, it's about the quality and competence of volunteer leadership. Read what they're doing in Chicago...


By Christine Williamson
Chair, Chicago Group of the Sierra Club

The Chicago Group of the Sierra Club is having one of its busiest years ever as we fight to shutter coal-fired power plants in the city, battle the spread of Asian Carp into Lake Michigan and spread the word about the impacts of global warming on wildlife, plants and people.

Our group has about 8,500 members spread across a wide geographic area. Our territory encompasses the city of Chicago and suburbs south of the city to the Indiana border, north to the next county and extends about 20 miles west of the city. Our territory includes intensely populated inner city business and residential areas, a narrow green band 20 miles long of parks along Lake Michigan, many large and small neighborhood parks and open spaces, industrial areas and typical suburban landscapes.

Our issues are varied and so are the activities of the group. We have a fairly small Executive Committee and like many Sierra Club groups, that cadre of core activists does much of the priority setting, planning and executing for the much wider group.

But we’ve made a concerted effort to reach out to our members through monthly electronic newsletters and a well-maintained web site. We only publish a print newsletter once per year. We also advertise many of our events on Facebook, Meet-up, in print and electronic versions of local newspapers, many core activists blog regularly about their work and some of our younger members have very strong “viral” networks of friends and acquaintances that they prevail upon to come to events and work days.

We also are very fortunate because the Illinois Chapter office is located in Chicago and it is well-staffed with both state and national conservation organizers. Chicago Group works closely with all of the staff in the office on various political, lobbying, fundraising and conservation issues. Our chapter staffers, for example, are coordinating with other Great Lakes states on the Asian Carp issue and our members respond eagerly to action alerts that ask them to contact the federal legislators to take action to control the spread of this voracious non-native fish.

One of our most important campaigns this year is in support of an ordinance that’s been introduced into the Chicago City Council called the Chicago Clean Power ordinance. You may have read about this issue recently in a story in the New York Times, which suggested that the plan to clean up or close the city’s dirty coal-fired power plants may prove to be a good model for other cities.

The ordinance is stuck in committee right now and Mayor Richard M. Daley has not expressed support for the ordinance. But with the help of national clean energy staffers, Chicago Group’s Air and Energy Committee members are reaching out to their city council representatives, known as aldermen here, to try to gain more support for the ordinance. Using the person-by-person organizing approach of the Obama presidential campaign, our members and those of our coalition partners are gathering friends, family and neighbors together to learn about the ordinance and then setting out to lobby their aldermen.

The goal of closing or cleaning up Chicago’s coal-fired power plants has been a priority for about six years now. It might take more time to make it a reality, but the issue has proven to be a powerful rallying point for our members.

Chicago Group also works on park and public land use issues and one of the ways we find more volunteers for this work is through the adoption of Chicago’s largest beach, Montrose Beach. We hold beach clean-ups monthly from April through September and also help the land stewards of the bird sanctuaries at Montrose with habitat restoration work. We typically have about 100 people attend our April Earth Day beach sweep and about 400, including many local school groups, attend our September event, which is part of International Coastal Clean-up day. The international event is sponsored by the Ocean Alliance and 2010 is the event’s 25th anniversary. We expect an even bigger crowd this year and have struck partnerships with Whole Foods to provide snacks for the workers, with REI, local coffee shops, hardware stores for supplies, and a host of other supporters.

Chicago Group is very active politically and we endorse environmental champions on the local, county, state and federal level in every election. For the February primary elections this year, we endorsed more than 20 candidates. We also work hard to get our champions elected and have made a big difference in hotly contested races by getting our members out on the streets to hand out campaign literature and on phone banks to talk to other Sierrans about the importance of voting for environmentally responsible candidates.

Most importantly, we have fun in doing all of these activities. We love to feed people and Sierrans love to eat and one way we combined the food focus with good environmentalism is to hold “service parties” in the Illinois Chapter office. There is always something to be done, from addressing thank you letters to donors, to data entry and carpentry. One year, we cleaned out and completely reorganized the chapter’s cluttered storage area. Our staff was amazed on Monday when they saw the efficient new storage scheme and could actually find everything they were looking for.

The party ends with a dessert pot luck and wine and lots of social interaction! But innovation often happens spontaneously. Last December, one Sierran stopped at a tiny family-owned Mexican restaurant on her way over and picked up tamales. They disappeared in minutes and members insisted that we make it an “appetizer and dessert” potluck this year. There’s no way to say no to that demand!

Chicago Group also has had an active outings program for many years which takes members on outdoor adventures all over the city, the state and the Midwest. Our Inner City Outings program that takes underprivileged kids out into nature also is thriving. In fact, our ICO kids are among the best workers we have at our Montrose Beach sweeps and some repeat attendees will become trainers for new kids this September.

Our philosophy with outings for kids and adults is that if you can help people experience nature in a positive way in a wonderful place, they will become advocates not only for “real” wilderness, but also for the wild corners of the city (we have an unbelievable wildlife population in this city!).

And last, but not least, the demand for social connections remains very strong within Chicago Group of the Sierra Club. Our Social Committee hosts monthly dinners, bar nights, neighborhood walks, movie nights and book discussion groups. Environmentalists want to hang out with each other. We don’t fight it: we embrace it and provide the opportunities.

Sometimes it seems that as environmentalists, Sierrans have such deadly serious work to do. If we don’t get those coal-fired power plants cleaned up or closed, more people with asthma could die or suffer with ill health. Asian Carp could decimate Lake Michigan’s eco-system if they reach the lake through various rivers and canals. If the BP plant just south of the Indiana border emits any more pollutants into Lake Michigan, our water supply may be compromised and the underwater eco-system once again will suffer.

But unless our members, potential members and supporters have fun with each other and feel like they’ve accomplished something important, we won’t see them at another event or they won’t act on an action alert we email to them. So our goal always is to provide a high quality experience that’s very well-organized and that’s as much as it can be.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Plan to Revitalize Sierra Club NYC

Official disclaimer: This site is not sponsored or supported by the Sierra Club.

SC NYC's Past

For many years, a handful of volunteers with Sierra Club's NYC Group maintained a rather low profile: organizing occasional presentations on random environmental topics, and issuing carefully debated resolutions supporting or opposing various policies. While some individual volunteers have been active on particular projects, the Group did not prioritize building its own capacity to engage New Yorkers on an ongoing basis, developing projects or campaigns, and judging the success of efforts by measurable results. Potential volunteers and activists have generally moved on to more active groups very quickly. The Sierra Club name, with its power to mobilize volunteers and create positive change, has been underused in NYC. We can do better.

A Plan to Revitalize Sierra Club NYC

Here's a plan to quickly create positive collaborations for the Sierra Club, recruit many volunteers, and develop grassroots contacts with civic leaders all over the City. Best of all, it's already underway! We're promoting an existing sustainability program already being offered by NYC which lowers costs and carbon emissions at the same time - the City's Cool Roofs program, painting the roofs of buildings white, lowering their air conditioning costs, and their electric bills. The City needs help recruiting volunteers, and finding nonprofit buildings to be painted by the program.

At least 100 have volunteered through John Kolp, Sierra Club's Cool Roof coordinator, and are receiving updates of white roof painting days. Our two summer interns and some volunteers are contacting elected officials and civic leaders, many of whom have indicated their interest, and are looking for buildings in their districts for volunteers to paint.

The Cool Roof projects are just the start of our discussion. We'll recruit for local roof painting volunteers, and get positive publicity for the nonprofit and civic leaders involved, by helping neighborhood partners set up sustainability events. Already being organized by City and State agencies to promote energy efficiency services, our versions will get higher turnout by getting other neighborhood groups and leaders to sponsor and promote them, and by bringing in other presenters that will bring money-saving, quality of life-raising services to neighbors. Partners already on board include NYSERDA, the State energy agency, with free energy efficiency surveys and discounted upgrades; GrowNYC, which organizes the City's greenmarkets and offers composting and recycling workshops; the Cool Roofs program, offered through the City's Department of Buildings.; and of course, Sierra Club NYC.

Because there's something in it for everyone, just a few volunteers are already getting a strong response, and we're enabling Sierra Club to become a strong new factor in NYC sustainability plans. (Request a copy of the proposal that has been sent to many civic leaders from

Building One Success Paves the Way for Other Volunteer Projects

Of course, that would never be the only set of projects taking place under the Sierra Club NYC name. However, quickly developing a highly visible string of successes is likely to attract other activists who can create their own Sierra Club projects. We need an Executive Committee that sees Sierra Club NYC's higher potentials - to catalyze many sustainability projects and improve the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.

Other candidates for the ExCom with a smaller vision for SC NYC are of course welcome to continue their activist projects - but should not stifle the growth of the organization.

That's why your votes for Warren Berger, John Kolp, Len Maniace, Gary Nickerson, and Anasa Scott are essential. Please mail your ballot today.