Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Redefining Activism
distributed 1/6/06 - ©2006

I won't say that "I said it first," but I have been saying it for quite a while, and I was saying it when only few others were. Effective activism, substantial work for social change -- in faith terms, work toward God's shalom -- has to spend a lot of time and energy on defining values, on considering big ideas, and on reconceptualizing strategies.

That conviction has shaped my work for almost a decade. I am glad to see what is now a growing conversation about those concerns. Among political and environmental activists, new questions are being raised about what we need to do to accomplish our goals.

On the political side, George Lakoff is the most visible person in a diverse group that is calling on progressives to understand the importance of "framing issues." Within the environmental movement, a controversial article, The Death of Environmentalism, has stirred up lots of passionate discussion about new visions and new strategies.

It is becoming clear that there needs to be a comprehensive and coherent agenda to shape our approach to the vast and complicated problems we face. It is becoming clear that we need to look at many different layers and strategies toward change. It is becoming clear that traditional forms of issue activism are not adequate to the times.

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To see why the calls for intentional, comprehensive strategies like re-framing are controversial, it is helpful to understand the reigning model of issue activism which is being critiqued. I have a personal experience that helps me to see that model clearly.

Several years ago, a national environmental organization sent me to an excellent course on Principles of Community Organizing. In that week-long, intensive workshop, I learned skills and perspectives in the style of renowned grassroots activist Saul Alinsky.

In the context of the course, and central to that style of organizing, there is a very limited definition of an "issue." The instructors made it clear from the start that many things commonly called issues are not what they meant by that term. Global warming, water pollution, racism and poverty are important causes, but they're not issues.

An "issue" -- according to this technical definition -- is a matter where a specific choice can be presented to a single decision-maker for a clear-cut answer. A demand taken to the board of an auto maker about fuel efficiency is an issue. But telling people about the threat of climate change isn't an issue, because there's nobody making a specific decision.

In the community organizing model, an issue is defined by your ability to declare a win (or recognize a loss) within a short period of time. Vague causes that drag on forever without clear-cut decisions don't count as issues. In fact, we were told that causes should be avoided because they can destroy the focus that might go into an issue campaign.

On some levels, I know that there's great wisdom in that advice. Working from a broad cause down to a tight issue is important in getting something done. (Instead of talking about energy efficiency in the abstract, get your church to install solar water heating.) A tight focus on issues can allow activists to measure successes, and analyze failures. There are good reasons why issue activism is the standard model for political organizers.

But the emerging conversation among progressives acknowledges that there are profound limits to issue work. If the community organizing model is our only approach to addressing problems, then lots of important stuff won't get addressed, and we're likely to fail in our larger cause. The very strength of issue advocacy -- its tight focus on a particular decision -- keeps that style of activism from considering or strategizing on other levels. In the long run, working at the levels of values, beliefs and language is just as important in shaping our society as our work on policy decisions.

George Lakoff has documented an intentional strategy among US conservatives to build a broad political coalition around a few overarching values and principles. In well-funded and closely coordinated efforts spreading across more than 40 years, leading conservatives have articulated a consistent "frame" or worldview that has come to define the way most political issues are now discussed, even by those who seek other outcomes. Lakoff has a very harsh critique of progressives for their fixation on technical issue advocacy, and their failure to define and express the values that undergird their policies.

So, too, the authors of The Death of Environmentalism criticize the environmental movement for its bondage to "special interests and single issues," and they discuss the flawed conceptual framework that recent environmentalism has used to define their issues and to build coalitions. Their paper calls on the environmental movement, not to craft new policies, but to claim different values and to embrace different kinds of political engagement.

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I am often asked, "What issues are you working on?" I can always come up with a list (Endangered Species Act, Climate Stewardship Act, energy efficiency in churches, etc.), but that list misses the point of what Eco-Justice Ministries is doing. For going on six years, our work with churches has been doing precisely what Lakoff and The Death of Environmentalism now affirm.

Eco-Justice Ministries is defining, expressing and embodying a new conceptual frame. "Eco-justice" -- the well-being of all humanity on a thriving earth -- represents a different conceptual lens through which we re-examine political policies, personal actions, our notions of community and progress, and how we see ourselves in relationship with God and the whole creation. Our work for eco-justice, especially in churches, calls us to build new coalitions, and to look at new strategies for personal and social transformation.

As Lakoff acknowledges, defining and expressing a new "frame" is a very slow process. It involves the tasks of shaping new language, new metaphors and concepts, new styles of relationships -- and connecting all of those to our deepest traditions and hopes. Precisely because "eco-justice" is a dramatically different way of understanding our selves, our society and our ethics, it takes a long time to get that language into common use, and develop the frame so that it has deep seated resonance within our communities. But that gradual task, which is not directed at any single decision-maker, is a form of activism.

If we fall into the trap of seeing "activism" only in the model of tightly-focused issue work, we'll miss the more powerful forms of social change work that happen at the level of values and beliefs, stories and images. If we limit our activism to issue work, and allow other perspectives to define the most influential frames, then we'll always be fighting a losing battle.

I invite you to broaden your notion of "activism," and to join with Eco-Justice Ministries as we help churches express an "eco-justice" frame for ministry and community life.

The Rockridge Institute has a helpful article by Lakoff on the basics of framing.

The Death of Environmentalism article (PDF format) and a "one-year-later" column, Death Warmed Over, are both avalable on-line.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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