LETTER FROM AN ENERGIZED FUNDER: Do you consider yourself an activist?

Theresa Preston-Werner

September 16, 2021

A few days ago, I participated in my first training for political organizing to further climate action. I’ve been a donor for several years, and our foundation currently supports many activist organizations. I’d like to consider myself an activist, but when I took time to think about it, I had to admit I was closer to an advocate.

But what’s the difference between an advocate and activist? Risk, I think. Bold willingness to face physical violence or police brutality. In contrast, I wonder if being an advocate means something softer. Using your voice to speak out about, or on behalf of, others. Bringing attention and awareness to groups of less powerful people and shifting the hegemonic gaze. This is not an unimportant question.

I don’t know if this distinction between activist and advocate is true, or if that is what other activists or non-activists would say. Please tell me.

At any rate, I want to do more than write checks on behalf of the climate. More than just talk about climate, as well. I want to be in the trenches. At least as much as I can be, given my other life responsibilities.

So I signed up for a Sunrise training to learn about the Citizen Climate Corps, which, in their description, is the piece of the Federal Jobs Guarantee that is potentially winnable this year. This legislation would provide 1.5 million jobs per year and normalize government employment programs.

If we are able to include this (and there is no guarantee) within the federal budget reconciliation package being debated in Congress, the ripple effect would be tremendous. It would set a new baseline for work conditions across the United States. Also, since the projects would derive from consultation with communities themselves, the program would feel deeply relevant to people coming from all life situations.

This week, when I entered the Zoom room for the two-hour Sunrise training session, I was unsure what to expect. This was my tenth meeting that day, which I chose to attend in lieu of eating dinner. Let me say, unabashedly, that it was the best group meeting I have ever attended. For two hours, I did not check my phone or shift to my email or browse on Etsy.

Our trainers, Laura Black and Nick Tuta, were unintimidating humans. We identified our current pronouns, and which indigenous lands we were sitting in, and where our ancestors called home. Next, the trainers quickly modeled their own climate testimonials, and Zoomed us into breakout rooms to share our own stories with each other. We were instructed to time one another and follow up with recognizing how we felt in response to the story.

Immediately I felt a kinship with my fellow breakout room storytellers. One female undergrad signed up for the training because she felt no one in her state, North Carolina, seemed to feel any impact of climate change, as compared to those in neighboring states. She felt alone but didn’t want to be a “one fewer” voice in the fight; she wanted to be one more. Another fledgling activist, a senior gentleman, grew up on a family farm and watched it transition to a suburban house, and I could hear his frustration at the loss of his pastoral childhood and concern over what to do next to preserve the natural areas dear to him.

As a large group, we were constantly encouraged to post comments in the Zoom chat, or write ++++++ or ** or other symbols indicating we were in agreement or experiencing something similar. These engagements made us constant participants while slyly encouraging us to pay attention. I’d never really seen chat used so heavily or personal story practiced so effectively in a meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, we were encouraged to sign up for a Day of Action on September 20, among other ways to get more involved. Sunrise trainers broke down their actions into very discernible modules, and I felt surprisingly confident at the close that I could host a call party or go door-knocking. And I’m a total introvert.

Last week, I wrote a blog post because it was my 40th birthday. One year ago on that day, the sky in northern California turned an apocalyptic shade of orange from the wildfires raging through the state. My family and I spent the year hiding from COVID in the Redwood forests and homeschooling our 3 young kids. On the day my world turned orange, my heart raced and my mind reeled. I couldn’t believe we were hiding from a global pandemic, far away from civilization, and now my children most certainly would have their lives moulded by yet another world-wide catastrophe: climate change. We had expected to put away our masks after COVID, but suddenly it was clear that, at least for four months a year in California, the air would be so polluted with ash that mask-wearing could become standard practice. And this was the most minimal of consequences.

For the first time, I felt the pain of climate change directly. I wasn’t just feeling a cry for justice on behalf of others. It was me and my family who were being harmed. What possible future could my kids have if the Earth continued to warm?

The only possible response I could muster was that we needed to fight. And the only group I could think of that seemed to be getting attention and speaking clearly and loudly was Sunrise. They were a ray of hope, in a really, really bleak sky. I wanted to fight with them. I wanted to be an activist.

I hope you will join me on September 20 for a Day of Action to show Congress how important the inclusion of the Civilian Climate Corps into the budget bill is to us. If you can’t join that day, I’ll also be with my kids on Friday, September 24, to skip school, Greta Thunberg-style, and protest in support of in support of Climate Action worldwide. Thank you so much for caring.