Celebrating Our 12th Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference
[Leaders of grassroots environmental groups from around the country (and the world!) gather at the Stanford Sierra Camp to learn the latest tactics and techniques to aid in their ongoing work. All photos: Tim Davis]
On the list of points of pride that come with working for Patagonia, the Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference is near the top. As an employee, I’ve known about it for years, but as with many of our environmental initiatives, it’s a largely altruistic affair. The tools presented at this conference are, after all, for the activists who are on the front lines of today’s environmental issues. And what this means for employees is this: most of us don’t get to go.
Every job eventually feels like a grind, and there are plenty of work days that can leave one feeling pretty far from things like “meaning” and “purpose.” But it's things like our Tools Conference that provide meaning and purpose to the work we do here. I haven’t always felt a part of the difference that I know is being made at the Tools Conference, but attending this year’s gathering changed all of that.
[Participants in the 12th Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference gather for a group photo at Stanford Sierra Camp.]
I was fortunate to be part of the team of Patagonia employees asked to share their skills with the activists at our 12th Tools Conference, which was held this year from September 14-19th. This year’s gathering offered a mix of core skills (strategy, grassroots organizing, lobbying) and new tools (technology forums and training, strategies for working with business, fundraising in uncertain times). The hope behind these workshops is that by balancing skill-sets attendees could receive critical strengthening and support for their organization’s environmental work. By sharing what we've learned as a company, and inviting the contributions of proven experts from a wide range of disciplines, we can together explore best practices and swap ideas for getting the important work done.
With the help of experts like this year's keynote speaker, Annie Leonard, of the Story of Stuff project, it's hard to go wrong. Annie's rousing keynote was followed by energetic and informative presentations from folks like Owen Bailey (Sierra Club), John Sterling (Conservation Alliance), Tina Andolina (Planning and Conservation League), Diane Brown (Non-profit Assistance Group), Ben Alexander (Headwaters Economics), and the dynamic trio of Karin Tuxin-Bettman, Tanya Keen, and Raleigh Seamster (Google Earth Outreach) - just to name a few.
At its core, the Tools Conference was conceived with the belief that the ways in which grassroots activists confront and publicize issues, convince the public of their importance and motivate others to take action is not unlike bringing a product to market, promoting it and convincing the public that it’s the best. While a business like Patagonia might call it marketing, others may refer to this process with different words. Either way, delivering one’s message – whether it be about wicking underwear or imperiled Poorwills – in a creative, honest way can mean the difference between success and failure; for a product or an issue.
From the company perspective, our Tools Conference teaches Patagonia invaluable lessons that can be applied to our own mission to drastically reduce our environmental impact as a business while providing useful assistance to environmental organizations. This conference is a great way to give more than just grant money to the groups we support. And it’s also the perfect setting for learning about today’s front-lines environmental work and building close relationships with the people who are getting it done.
And it’s this final piece – the people and relationships on which our greater environmental movement is built - that makes the magic in each and every Conference we’ve held. More than anything, our Tools Conference serves as a much needed potlatch for a community of activists that are far too often working at great distances from each other, and with budgets too meager to make regenerative minglings feasible. The difference we make is directly related to our belief in our ability to do so; there's no question that it’s hard to keep that belief alive when the work grows long, and we feel alone. With so many activist groups working passionately on behalf of Earth’s natural resources, it’s easy to lose sight of our ultimate resource – each other.
Statements like that can sound like platitudes, until you’re sitting there in the middle of it.
As this year’s Tools Conference wound to a close, we gathered into small groups to discuss which tools we were most eager to put to use. The question arose, “What did you learn?”
Our group launched into a lively debate, almost missing the fact that we’d yet to hear from one of our members, Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, from Headwaters Initiative. That’s when we noticed her eyes - happily dancing in pools ready to shed tears. For a moment, no one spoke. Then Geraldine,
“I have been fighting for years for something that is impossible. How can First Nations people stop the tar sands when Canada’s own politician’s want it so bad?
But I have learned here that I am not alone. Now I know that, I can do anything. Together, we can do anything.”
Indeed. We can.
[Above, right: Annie Leonard gives the keynote address at the 12th Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference.]
For more on the power of individuals to affect change, check out this short video of Yvon Chouinard's visit at last year's Tools Conference.
Another great first-hand account of this year's event and festivities was put together by Rob Nixon, from the Texas chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Scroll down for more pictures from this year's gathering.
[Jill Dumain, one of the folks responsible for Patagonia initiatives like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Footprint Chronicles, offers an introduction for Annie Leonard's keynote address.]
[Conference participants enjoy breakout sessions during their training - this one was an attempt to meet a challenge offered by Brian O'Donnell from the Conservation Lands Foundation: convince a corporate developer why protecting a threatened piece of their own property might be good for business.]
[One of the people who makes it all happen, Hans Cole of Patagonia's Environmental team, enjoys himself at the Saturday night hoedown, a chance for conference goers to cut loose and put a little fun into conference mix.]
[The group gets warmed up before the square dance kicks into gear.]