…And so I trudged in the cold to the Friends Center early last Saturday morning. I was sated by a delicious breakfast and hot coffee, and soon made friends with people that ranged in age from high school students to senior citizens. Though we all came from diverse backgrounds and experiences, we had come together today to learn how to build a strategic climate movement in Philadelphia in order to avert climate catastrophe. As often happens in these trainings, we quickly created a mini-community and became comfortable around each other. We shared our fears and hopes about our future, and ideas about how 350 Philly could work for climate justice in a way that aligned with other movements fighting oppressions.
Towards the end of the day, one idea that I had not internalized in my previous trainings became more and more clear. That was the idea that organizing is not just building a movement of numbers, it was much more than that–how to act strategically so that it is easier for decision makers to agree with you than to oppose you. It’s not how many people you have, it’s how you use the resources and people you do have to build power and to create a landscape that tilts the odds in your favor.
We watched a video, “A Force More Powerful,” about the nonviolent demonstrations in Nashville to end racial segregation at lunch counters. After multiple sit-ins and arrests of black students peacefully studying at lunch counters, the discussion of racial segregation was heating up nationally in the year 1960. Supporters staged protests outside of the sit-ins, and eventually the students called for a boycott that leveraged economic pressure on the businesses. Soon, store revenues were plummeting, the city center was deserted, and the issue was forced to the forefront of public thought. After the vicious bombing of the residence of Z. Alexander Looby, the black lawyer who was leading the defense case for the arrested students, nearly 4,000 people silently marched to City Hall to confront the mayor. Diane Nash, a black student involved in the sit-ins, asked the mayor if he thought it was right to discriminate against a person based solely on the color of their skin. What could he answer after all that pressure on the morality of the issue besides an obvious “no”!?
After watching this video, the mood in the room was changed. Inspired by the moral courage of the students, we began discussing what it was about the Nashville campaign that worked. It was not that they had a large number of people working on the campaign. It was that they had a strategy that ultimately made it easier for the mayor to agree with them, than to not. They created a moral landscape where the mayor would have looked ridiculous to disagree with them. In each step, they built power in their movement.
All in all, this 350 training was important for a number of reasons. For many, it was a first look into the skills of community organizing. For others, it was a chance to connect with like-minded people and to get involved. For me, I took away a new perspective on how to think strategically in the climate movement. And I have a new understanding of what Margaret Mead meant when she said,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to be part of the small group of thoughtful Philadelphians that I have no doubt will change the world.