Harnessing Grassroots Power

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When people band together to engage in smart, strategic activism, they can sometimes compel their government to act in their best interest. That seems to be what happened recently when the Maryland state legislature passed a permanent statewide ban on fracking, against the wishes of a powerful oil and gas lobby.1But it didn’t happen by chance, or because the politicians wanted to do the right thing for the people. The law passed because the governor and legislature came under intense pressure from their constituents. Creating that groundswell took years of hard work and a highly orchestrated strategic campaign led by grassroots organizers.

The fight to ban fracking in Maryland was supported by a coalition of over 100 local and national organizations.2 Some of these groups put organizers on the ground to knock on doors, hold volunteer meetings and develop local leaders. One organization that took a leading role in this effort was the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN).3

CCAN is a local nonprofit organization, confining its activism to Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. It is not one of those activist groups that engage in random protests with vague goals like “peace” or “save the planet.” Rather, they deliberately choose objectives that are limited, specific and achievable. Then they develop carefully planned campaigns aimed at attaining those goals.

That approach has paid off, leading to many successes for the group—from the repeal of a tax on hybrid cars in Virginia to the passage of a bill incentivizing wind farms off the coast of Maryland. CCAN sees these small victories as stepping-stones on the way to “building a bigger and stronger movement for change and long-term success.”4

Last month I interviewed Brooke Harper, one of the professional CCAN organizers who was instrumental in getting the anti-fracking bill passed. I spoke with her shortly after the bill was signed by Maryland’s Republican governor in April 2017.5 I was particularly interested in her approach to strategy and tactics.

“We like to be very strategic in our campaigns,” Harper told me. Organizers began by talking to Maryland state legislators. They discovered the politicians thought their constituents, especially in rural Western Maryland, were in favor of fracking for economic reasons.

To counter that perception, CCAN and other groups began organizing residents in Western Maryland towns. They also recruited business owners who feared the fracking infrastructure would despoil the local environment and harm the all important wine and tourism industries. Over 200 businesses endorsed a letter to the General Assembly urging them to vote for the statewide ban.6 Then organizers then made sure key people made it to Annapolis to testify at legislative hearings:

Harper: Making sure we’re elevating different voices as well as looking at who legislators listen to, we continued on the municipal level before putting pressure on our state legislators. We looked at all the counties in Maryland that had gas reserves under them and targeted them first to either pass a resolution in support of a statewide ban or to just ban it outright in their own municipalities.

By the end of the campaign, as a result of grassroots pressure, a dozen cities and counties had passed local anti-fracking bans or announced support for a statewide ban.7

I asked Harper about some of the tactics they used in the campaign:

Harper: There are a couple of mainstays. Petitioning and calling legislators are always a big component of it and calling them at key times as well as making sure constituents are showing up at Annapolis or at their district meetings.

For [the anti-fracking bill] we turned out about 700 grassroots activists to lobby their legislators through a series of legislative nights. And then we had one dedicated to Western Maryland residents so our General Assembly could see the growing outpouring of support for a ban on fracking.

We typically do a first day of [legislative] session rally and that helps our legislators know from day one this is what were going to be working on and our number one priority in the General Assembly.

To engage the faith community I started a program called Climate in the Pulpits. This will be the third year we do this, where we try to get leaders from the faith community to dedicate a service to climate change and get the parishioners to sign on to petition cards for our priority legislation.

I asked her about the importance of media coverage:

Harper: I think it’s very important. Just to keep it in the news and to make it a priority issue. I would rate that is being one of the top ways, but being a grassroots organizer I think cultivating your grassroots is also very important. We did a lot of earned media with the resolutions and bans as well as had our champions come out when they introduced the bill and do several op-eds and feature several different voices so they were prevalent in the media.

Harper said they will generally use civil disobedience only as a last resort to try to pressure legislators. But for the anti-fracking bill, though it seemed they had enough votes, they deployed the CD anyway to add a little extra insurance right before the bill went to a vote in the Senate:

Harper: This [civil disobedience] was a little bit different because we hadn’t exhausted all of our avenues and there was still hope they would do the right thing in the Senate. But to ensure that they did, we highlighted and elevated the voices of Western Marylanders as well as faith leaders to talk about why this was a moral imperative and also to have the faces of the people who lived in the frontline communities put forward first.

The CD participants were carefully chosen for maximum impact, and the action was dignified and respectful:

Harper: We knew we were under a pretty conservative administration but it [the CD] did work, and I think it was because of the tone that it set. It wasn’t an in-your-face civil disobedience. It had statements from all the mainline [religious] denominations and why they were coming out for a ban…

For this particular instance I saw our civil disobedience as the moral call to action and also a way to set the tone for the Senate that people were willing to put their bodies on the line and risk arrest for this. And I think being very careful about selecting who those messengers were and who participated in the civil disobedience and the tone of it also helped propel that message forward in a really respectful but bold way.

Harper thinks it’s very important to celebrate victories. Success generates momentum for future campaigns. She also thinks it’s crucial to give props to the legislators who have supported your cause:

Harper: One of the things we found that was very important was not only getting our constituents excited about the victory but getting them excited enough that they’re reaching out to their legislators and thanking them for taking the right stand, especially those that are in vulnerable districts.

It’s also important to celebrate and debrief with your activists. I think that’s how we learn to go forward and evaluate our work. A really important part of this fracking campaign that we’ve embarked on is how did we do it and how do we document that and share that. And not just the strategy and tactics but also what were the personal lessons learned from an activist standpoint and an organizational standpoint.

In Western Maryland I found that for a lot of our activists, just recognizing they overcame fear—a lot of fear—and for many folks it was their first time standing up. So I think it’s always worth going back and debriefing with folks and having them realize how far they’ve come as an activist and what they’ve contributed, and for that to be part of celebrating that victory.

I wanted to know if she had any advice for other groups trying to get a successful campaign started:

Harper: Reach out to folks that have done it before. Find other organizations that are doing similar work. Work to develop volunteers and leadership amongst your group. Take time to develop activist leaders and to develop a personal relationship with the folks you’re doing movement building work with because it takes a toll and it takes a village, and sometimes an army to do these things. Really work on developing leaders as well as reaching out to other groups that have done it before and who can guide you in the right way.

I think those are the really two important things: don’t try to reinvent the wheel and adapt it for your community.

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Footnotes

  1. Maryland was the first state with proven gas reserves to ban fracking by legislation.
  2. The Don’t Frack Maryland coalition brought together over 140 diverse groups representing environmental, business, labor, and religious interests.
  3. http://chesapeakeclimate.org/
  4. From the CCAN website: http://chesapeakeclimate.org/mission/
  5. Gov. Larry Hogan’s support for the ban came as a surprise to many, since he had previously been a supporter of natural gas development in Maryland. During his campaign he called fracking a “gold mine” for the state.
  6. http://www.dontfrackmd.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Business-letter-FINAL-228.pdf
  7. http://www.dontfrackmd.org/local-actions/

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