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Annie Leonard: Reconnecting to Your Role as a Changemaker

Words by Deborah Fleischer
Investment & Markets

In the wake of the success of the Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard, now executive director of Greenpeace, had the opportunity to travel to dozens of colleges and universities.  In her keynote talk at the opening ceremony of the AASHE 2014 conference in Portland on Sunday, she shared that while in college she thought of the journey to sustainability as a sprint.  Today, she has matured into thinking about it as a relay race, where we might not be around to see the results we are working toward.

According to Leonard, change is slow and hard.  Below are several tips from Leonard on how to reconnect with your role as a changemaker and recommendations on leverage points that can make a real difference, including commit to 100 percent renewable energy, divest from fossil fuels, leverage purchasing and encourage student engagement, as well as some great advice on how to stay positive on the path to sustainability (don't miss the last quote at the bottom of the post). While targeted toward higher education professionals, many of these tips apply to any company or institution.

Reconnect with your role as a changemaker and build your 'citizen muscle'

Leonard's theory of change is based on the idea that we have two parts of ourselves, two different muscles:  a 'citizen muscle' and a 'consumer muscle.'  What keeps Leonard up at night is a worry that we have forgotten as a country how to make big, bold changes, and she is advocating that we all build our citizen muscle.

Forget about striving to be an eco-perfect person.  We can't perfect our lifestyles, nor our institutions, within a context that is not sustainable.  As many of us know, swimming against the current, against the existing system, is exhausting.  She argued, to get serious about innovation for sustainability, the most important thing we can do is reconnect with our sense of being a changemaker and flex our citizen muscle.  Her call to action:   Move beyond small, individual, minor actions and find ways to scale-up bigger, more strategic solutions.

Commit to 100 percent renewable energy

I had the great opportunity to speak personally with Leonard the morning after her speech.  I was curious what top action she recommended as a potential game-changer for higher education.

”I think that going to clean energy is the number one thing.  Commit to 100 percent renewable energy," Leonard said.  "This is really important. We can’t expect the energy providers to switch over unless they are secure the demand is there."

She pointed to Greenpeace's new campaign Clicking Clean, which is working with business leaders to green their data centers. “If places like Apple, Google and Facebook can do it, colleges and universities can do it,” stressed Leonard.   Collective commitments from these companies is providing a clear signal to utilities to build more renewable energy facilities, rather than coal-burning power plants.

Some other ways you can exercise your citizen muscle include:

  • Divest from fossil fuels:  Some argue that even if you could get colleges to divest, it is just a drop in the bucket and won’t really hurt the bottom line of fossil fuel companies.  However, according to Leonard, it is an incredibly important campaign. She believes that when colleges divest from fossil fuels, "it begins to remove the social license of companies.  Do everything you can to get your university to divest from fossil fuels.  And to invest in the clean-energy economy."

  • Leverage purchasing:  She pointed to campus-wide procurement as a way to leverage purchasing and scale-up impact.  She recommended the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council as a great resource to help institutions.  Creating demand for greener products, whether for recycled paper or a commitment to 100 percent clean energy, is really important for the carrot part of getting the economy to change.

  • Encourage student engagement:  “In terms of process, the number one thing schools can do is encourage student engagement," said Leonard.  She urged campuses to include student representatives in all decision-making bodies. She believes this pays off because when students have formal roles on decision-making panels, and opportunities to participate, they own these problems. Enrolling people to co-own and be part of figuring out the solution is a great way to get better, faster solutions. She is also excited about the explosion of student-led initiatives.  From organic food in the cafeteria to advocating for divestment from fossil fuels, students are actively involved in a range of campus sustainability-related projects.

How to stay inspired?

Leonard's positive energy is contagious and I asked her if she could share a few tips on how she personally stays inspired.  A few ideas she shared include:

  • Find a buddy:  It is easy to feel alone or marginalized on the path to sustainability.  Find a buddy or allies.  She pointed to Greenpeace Greenwire, an online platform where students can find other students who want to get together to work on these issues.

  • Take the changemaker quiz:  Did you take the quiz yet to determine what kind of changemaker you are? Once you have done the quiz, you will get an invitation to participate in the Citizen Muscle Boot Camp, a new group program that will build your citizen muscles (currently in Beta testing right now).

  • Focus on solutions:  Seek out information about solutions. Go to the Biomimicry website, read YES! Magazine, go to conferences, or visit solutions. “I visit solutions often, because if you actually visit them and see them with your own eyes, you internalize the knowledge that there is a better way. It seeps into every cell of your body, so you can’t get depressed because your entire body knows there is a better way," shared Leonard.

  • Make a personal decision to wake up every morning happy and excited:  And last, but so not least, were some final thoughts from Leonard that brought tears to my eyes.  I conclude with the entire quote because I found it very powerful:
"There is one other thing I do. I just made a personal decision not to get depressed. It is a personal decision. It is my most personal, fundamental act of resistance. I feel that these planet destroyers have taken so many things from us — the people who I loved that have died from cancer, the rivers that I used to swim in as a kid that I can’t swim in now, and my ability to breastfeed my child without fear. They have taken so many things from me.  So I decided to draw a line right in front of me and say you can’t have my sense of joy and hope.  It is a very fundamental, personal act of resistance to wake up every morning happy and excited."
Images by the author

Deborah Fleischer

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.

Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate.

She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts.

You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at Deborah@greenimpact.com.

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