In her introduction to “How Organizations Develop Activists,” Hahrie Han argues that “what really differentiates the highly active associations is the way they transform their members’ motivations and capacities for involvement.” Her book articulates the fundamental responsibility of organizers to provide experiences that transform activists’ perspective and ultimately gives them a sense that they have the power to create change in the world.
As a college student at Indiana University, this moment occurred for me when I was working to convince the university’s foundation not to sell land it owned to a company that sought to burn toxic waste near an elementary school. I realized that by working with like-minded people on a well-orchestrated effort that I could influence decision-makers. Over time, this feeling inspired me to choose a career in environmental organizing that led to my current role as the National Program Director of Sierra Club.
I was drawn to the Sierra Club because of our extensive network of committed volunteer leaders who make the decisions, locally and nationally, that set the organization’s course. As philanthropy has changed over the past few decades, we have fewer dollars to invest directly in recruiting, training and nurturing leaders. However, as Han suggests so convincingly in her book, and as I have witnessed, leadership development is at the heart of successful organizations. For organizations that seek to build grassroots power, developing volunteer leaders is not a secondary result or a byproduct. It is the way we win victories today and, crucially, maintain the strength to win victories tomorrow.
This work of recruiting and training leaders can only be done in the context of compelling campaign work. As scientists’ warnings on the catastrophic potential of climate disruption grow direr and more urgent, the Sierra Club puts a premium on identification of local activists who can win local initiatives that move communities away from fossil fuel use and toward renewable energy solutions like solar, wind and efficiency.
Society has never faced a problem as complex and multi-faceted as climate disruption. Thousands of successful efforts knit together give a sense of momentum. Because so many people are demanding change and feeling their power to create it, I believe we are nearing the tipping point that decision-makers will not be able to ignore climate disruption as American elected officials have done for so long.
Like my experience at Indiana University twenty years ago, I believe the sense of satisfaction derived from planning, executing and then winning meaningful campaigns, gives activists a sense of their individual and collective power that will sustain their engagement over time. “How Organizations Develop Activists” lays out in research and hard findings an essential truth that all organizers know: Once a person has played a meaningful role in creating change that improves their community, there is no turning back.
Hahrie Han makes a vital case for organizational investment–and I also hope philanthropic investment–in leadership development. As someone making decisions daily about strategies and resource allocation, I am convinced she is right.