What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From Marriage Equality

Marriage equality supporters brave the cold to attend a rally at the at the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2013.
Marriage equality supporters brave the cold to attend a rally at the at the U.S. Supreme Court on March 26, 2013.

By Jessalyn Kiesa

As global leaders join forces at the United Nations Climate Summit this week and grassroots organizers celebrate the success of last weekend’s climate march — the largest in history, with over 300,000 participants — there’s a sense that the environmental movement and its advocates face a new set of opportunities. With the next big round of international climate talks scheduled for December 2015, the moment to change public opinion and drive global legislative change is now.

But how do we get and keep supporters engaged? The answer might come from one of the defining social justice movements of our time. Given its success and continued momentum, we can learn a lot from the movement for marriage equality.

It seems like a distant memory now, but it was just a decade ago that conservative lawmakers — concerned in part about growing support for Massachusetts’ new marriage measure — responded by introducing anti-gay marriage initiatives on ballots. By 2004, 16 states had approved constitutional amendments banning marriage equality, and it appeared, at least from the outside, that the movement had lost a good deal of momentum.

But by evolving its messaging and harnessing changing demographics and emerging technologies, the marriage equality movement has experienced a stunning turnaround. Today, across 19 states and the District of Columbia, thousands of same-sex couples have secured legal recognition of their love and commitment. The United States Supreme Court could end marriage discrimination at the federal level as early as next year.

Over the past five years, we’ve worked alongside Freedom to Marry to win marriage in more states, grow public support and create the climate necessary for the Supreme Court to bring the issue to national resolution. And in the process, we’ve learned what it takes to successfully build, activate and scale a movement.

These lessons extend far beyond the realm of equal rights, and there are a lot of parallels to be drawn: The stakes are high, the challenges global, and the conversation very public. The environmental issues we face require action on a grand scale, and true change means building and mobilizing a strong community of advocates. Nowhere is this more achievable than online.

Now is the time, environmental organizations. Here are three recommendations we hope you will take to heart to be riding a similar wave this time next year.

1. Make it personal

Just as the freedom to marry movement shifted the narrative to focus on love, the environmental movement needs to create an emotional message. Climate change is deeply personal: It impacts our health, our communities, our livelihoods and our futures. Freedom to Marry grew public support by elevating personal stories that connect with supporters on a emotional level. They put faces to the issue, moving it out of the courts and into the heart.

Similarly, by demonstrating how environmental issues specifically impact people — not just the planet, not just adorable polar bears, but also the people of this planet — it will become easier for supporters to connect, and ultimately act.  A challenge for the environmental movement is the perception of “other” — that threats are far away in space or time and impact communities different than our own. The truth is, climate change is happening in all of our backyards.

Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project recently launched “Why? Why Not?” (which we worked on with other WPP agencies) to invite young adults from around the world to ask important questions to leaders via video.

The creators of the six best submissions were flown to New York to attend the U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. The goal is to put pressure on world leaders to commit to meaningful carbon emission reductions, but it also works to put a face to the issue; to elevate the stories of real people, like Dominic from the Philippines, whose daily existence is challenged by the impacts of climate change. The campaign makes the issue personal.

2. Offer tools for action

Passionate supporters are your best advocates, and giving them the tools to recruit friends and call on lawmakers can pay big dividends. Freedom to Marry leveraged their ranks of supporters by empowering them with decentralized digital tools, like one to recruit their local mayor to join a coalition of nonpartisan mayors for marriage.

Within the often fragmented environmental movement, knowing which actions to take can feel overwhelming. Supporters become impassioned through an experience, an article or amazing film, but then disengage because they don’t know what actions to take to follow through.  Like political campaigns and big brands, the environmental movement needs to adopt more sophisticated digital tools to segment their audience and deliver more personalized, action-oriented campaigns that match people’s passions and their geographic locations.

We need to blend dynamics of grassroots organizing with sophisticated digital tools to drive real world results.  Organizations can reach people in the right ways by leveraging the power of big data and crafting personalized opportunities that feel tailor-made.

3. Give them hope

It was Harvey Milk who taught us, “You gotta give them hope.” Over the past four years, Freedom to Marry has helped reshape the national conversation on marriage around a narrative focused on hope, progress and a practical roadmap to victory — and it’s resonated.

This is arguably the most critical lesson the environmental movement can learn from the fight for marriage equality: People want solutions, not apocalyptic messaging. Those who join environmental campaigns to fight for sustainability want to know that their support is helping to make an impact — and that change is achievable. This isn’t to say that the gravity and urgency of the environmental challenges we face today should be ignored, but we need to focus more on hope, possibility and solutions for a better world.

We recently had the pleasure to partner with 100 Resilient Cities, a new nonprofit pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, to create a digital platform that showcases emergent solutions around urban resilience. The reality that 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050 poses some daunting challenges, but 100RC demonstrates the power of integrated resiliency efforts to create change. It connects cities facing similar challenges, elevates shared learnings, and offers hope for a better, more resilient future.

There’s no question that the environmental movement is the moral imperative our time; the future of humanity depends on its ability to succeed. The question is: Can the environmental movement adopt new principles to build and sustain an army of advocates? Can environmental issues become deeply personal ones? Can sophisticated digital tools change public policy? Can resiliency drive hope? The answers to these questions may be the turning point for action and ultimately real change.

Image credit: Flickr/perspective

Jessalyn Kiesa is a senior account director at Blue State Digital, which works with some of the world’s leading nonprofits, advocacy groups, and brands to mobilize their communities to take action.

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2 responses

    1. Joe Starinchak, are you assuming that the environmental movement canNOT
      ‘actually learn’? Time, as usual, will tell. I believe that anything is
      possible, and my notion is reinforced precisely by the one social movement Ms
      Kiesa chooses for comparison here. Always fascinating to watch unexpected
      yet desired deep change take shape by gradual practical means, thus to see social evolution as it happens. Taking the long view does not diminish the wonder at what humans can achieve.

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