Thursday, February 26, 2009

Texas Environmental Leadership Conference: Strategies for Achieving Change

I attended the Texas Environmental Leadership Conference today. I sat in on "Leadership for a Greener Houston," a set of lectures followed by a Q/A session on strategies for making change happen. The speakers included Martina Cartwright, law professor and director of the Center for Environmental Law & Justice at Texas Southern University; Bill Dawson, former environmental reporter at the Houston Chronicle and now a lecturer at Rice University; Ginny Goldman, head state organizer of ACORN; and Leo Gold, host of The New Capital Show on KPFT radio.

They covered a number of interesting issues, summarized below (none of these are necessarily my own opinions):

Cartwright: The existence of adequate legislature is insufficient if enforcement agencies do not receive sufficient funding by the state government.

Dawson: The newspaper industry is in financial trouble: papers all over the country, especially small-time operations covering news outside the mainstream, are closing their doors. Some are concerned that this will negatively impact Americans' access to knowledge about current affairs. Dawson states that the internet may be a big catalyst for the closing of print operations; he also stated that few papers have figured out how to make money by taking their operations online. It's a tough life for reporters right now.

Dawson also stated that online reporting is viewed as parasitic: There's very little original reporting out there on the internet. Much of it is commentary on existing news, via blogs. There's also very little fact-checking going on online.

He then segued into some strategies for getting your message out there to the mainstream media, if you're an ordinary concerned citizen. He stated that you can gain credibility by creating a blog or using YouTube to disseminate messages about issues you care about. This can lead to an interview by local media stations, if you play your cards right (e.g., contact them and point them to your work).

You can eventually become a go-to person for reporters who cover subjects that interest you. You should position yourself as someone who can find newsworthy events they care about. Drop some story ideas to opinion-writers and special-topic writers employed by your local paper.

You can also organize publicity-seeking phenomena ("stunts"), such as an event in the park or a march in the streets, etc. Do such things on Saturdays (or Sundays), since Saturdays are the slowest news days of the week, and papers are more likely to pick up your story.

Dawson himself was the sole environmental reporter for the Houston Chronicle for years, and the Chronicle still doesn't have an environmental blog.

Goldman: People who make choices about public transportation, dilapidated neighborhoods, etc., are usually those who are not affected by such issues. How can we get those who are directly affected to speak with a unified voice?

For example, poor people in one area kept talking about huge rats in neighborhood alleys. ACORN organized hundreds of people to assist with rat abatement.

Goldman also stated that people directly affected by issues -- those who speak from personal experience -- have a real impact when their voices are heard. Additionally, she's found that it's very difficult to influence legislators unless media outlets cover the issue.

Finally, she stated the obvious: People don't care about environmental issues if their basic needs are not being met.

Gold: Gold still earns a living by being a financial advisor (he owns a financial advising firm, hosts a radio show, and owns a nature preserve in Texas!), and he states that it's important to "stay where you are" if you want to become a leader in the environmental movement. Stay in your own field, however removed, but notice issues and get the word out about them or work on the issues directly. Gold was concerned about the lack of recycling in Houston, and used his radio show to get the word out. The city is now running a pilot program, and if it works, they'll expand it to city-wide recycling. He got people to sign a petition -- he found people interested in his project, and he led the project himself. He says that this is a much better strategy (obviously) than confronting legislators alone.

He noticed that every component of his effort was important: the petition, a website, and his radio show all contributed to the success of his project.

Q/A Session: The host, a guy apparently associated with Environment Texas, stated that you must be specific when dealing with legislators, and that you should never underestimate how much they know about the issues of concern to you. You must tell them exactly what the problem is and exactly how you want it to be addressed. You absolutely should not approach them with vague demands. Therefore, do your research beforehand.

Some other random tidbits were the solar power issue: The current mayor of Houston is interested in solar power and brings it up occasionally. However, no real headway seems to have been made, and the next election is coming up soon, so we should vote carefully. Gold apparently hosted (not sure about this) an environmental forum in which he questioned the candidates...I'm really interested in The New Capital Show now, and plan to keep up with Gold's radio show and website!

One lady stated that she's having trouble getting her neighborhood to implement a recycling program, despite an apparently massive effort on her part (an Earth Day event in her neighborhood, etc.), and Cartwright stated that if logical argument doesn't influence elected officials, then it turns into a power issue, and you should focus on running someone with your own values against them in the next election. The host suggested that this lady present her dilemma to the city commissioner (I think).

Cartwright also stated that she's concerned that the people who bear the consequences of our consumption often live in communities that have no voice.

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