Climate Access hosted an online conversation on May 13 about how United States environmental communicators can build relationships with low-income and minority communities. Insights from Detroit, Mississippi, Alabama, New York, New Orleans, and southeastern coastal states enriched the conversation.

“The folks who are most impacted or most vulnerable are not at the planning table,” said Jacqueline Patterson, director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. She said low-income minority communities may have poor-quality housing, live in flood plains, lack infrastructure, and have few grocery stores nearby. During weather-related disasters, women become more likely to experience domestic abuse and sexual violence.

When weather-related disasters happen, authorities don’t always communicate with low-income housing residents, Patterson said. She recalled one flood in Mississippi where people returned to homes that “were contaminated with mold and other toxins.”

In Alabama, Patterson said, a black family was turned away by a nearby church during a tornado and returned home. As a result, almost all of the family died.

Environmental organizations can be part of the solution to climate-related social problems by building genuine, sincere relationships with low-income and minority communities. “A relationship takes time and takes investment,” said Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess and head-of-state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation in the southeastern United States.

For minority communities, Patterson said, contacts from majority organizations can feel very “transactional.” “There is not enough attention to just building relationships,” she said.

Goodwine offered advice for minority community leaders who want to build connections with environmental organizations. “One of the key elements is being vigilant about seeing what people are working on besides your own circle of people. You can start to reach out to groups that don’t even know you exist.”

Approaching people by speaking about topics that interest them already is also valuable. Community activists may not think the issues they care about are connected to climate change. For example, said Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, the Detroit activists she has met care about improving safety, beautifying the city, getting rid of vacant lots, and taking care of trash. Planting rain gardens can beautify Detroit while helping the city adapt to climate change.

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Photo Credit: buckshot.jones via Compfight cc

Freshwater Future’s staff went through a one-day training on environmental justice once they realized they needed to reach out to the urban communities in the Great Lakes region which are likely to be hit hard by global warming’s weather and flooding. The training was led by Judy Hatcher, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network.

Local low-income and/or minority communities may be very familiar with the signs of global warming in their own backyards – or on their shores. “We literally live in a hurricane zone,” said Goodwine. “We became knowledgeable for how to watch for different changes in the environment.”

Goodwine observed trees falling along the shore and herbs not growing correctly. “It made me be more inquisitive as to erosion,” she said. This motivated her to learn more about sea level rise and climate change.

“I take examples from my daily life and what has happened and utilize it in inter-generational training,” Goodwine explained. Before she began talking about sea level rise with the Gullah/Geechee Nation, she said, her community thought of sea level rise as a problem which affected people in other countries.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation is working to prevent erosion and preserve water quality by planting oyster beds in shoreline areas where people are unlikely to walk. “We have been evaluating areas where oysters grew over the generations,” she said. “Where the shore is more firm, we bag the oyster shells. The more that we have these oyster shells planted into our waterways, the more we have a barrier. There are a number of creatures that feed from the oyster beds. Other sea creatures lay their eggs in the oyster beds so they can have a safe haven.”

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Photo Credit: Basenisa via Compfightcc

Cara Pike, director of Climate Access, said hands-on activities like planting oysters can help bring concepts of climate change, sea level rise, and erosion prevention into perspective for people who are new to these subjects.

Localized messaging matters to Goodwine as well. “We are place-based people. Staying there is always part of people’s ongoing life identity in this region. That’s the thing that galvanizes people who have been there for generations.”

Goodwine said she would like to see scientists share their resources by doing community-based environmental work and hiring staff from underrepresented groups.

Environmental organizations can also partner with local leaders. “We come in mostly as a way to provide some resources,” Baughman said. Freshwater Future links local organizations to small grants, professional expertise, and regional policy activism.

Reaching out to underrepresented communities “can be uncomfortable, it can be a little scary, but you have to do it,” Baughman said. “Start building authentic relationships. That trust has to be built on something real.”

Like a will-o’-the-wisp, Earth Day captures media attention periodically before fading into the background again.

Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-'o-the-wisp.
Media focus on environmental issues is somewhat like a will-o’-the-wisp. (Source: Kikasz via Compfight cc)

Why does this happen? Thomas Hayden has some ideas about why media focus on environmental topics waxes and wanes. He mapped out the coverage of environmental topics in The New York Times and found a gradual upward trend over the decades, punctuated by wild fluctuations.

These fluctuations – the jagged peaks on his graph – happen to coincide with our collective moments of excitement about environmentalism, which I have renamed:

  • “hippies and whales”
  • “tropical rainforests”
  • “temperate rainforests”
  • “climate change science”
  • “climate change movie”
  • “climate change reality” 

Although journalists’ interest in environmental issues may be growing over time, it is based on short-term events and catastrophes.

Do other people forget about environmentalism as often as journalists do? It’s hard to say. But an article on fads and the environment suggests social trends need to build on deeper underlying values in society to succeed.

This is an important point. If you want to build a successful environmental trend or meme, you need to speak to what already matters to people – their existing cultures and priorities.

Should environmentalists try to catch people’s attention with a series of trends and hot topics? Maybe that is not enough.

Like dieting, environmental change has to be more than a fad to succeed. If environmentalists want to achieve long-term, successful social change, that will require making structural changes to our everyday lifestyles so positive choices will lead to rewards. These rewards do not all have to be financial; they can be social. They can even involve saving time or simplifying our lives. 

Maybe environmentalists need to augment those will-o’-the-wisps of media coverage with solid structural changes behind the scenes.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

“What is the main lesson you’ve learned from trying to target specific audiences in your climate work?” David Minkow, who edits content for Climate Access and the Social Capital Project, asked me this question recently.

In three words, my response is: “Customize your messages.”

Today’s media environment is a crowded place, dense with conflicting demands for our attention. In this climate, the messages that rise to the top are the ones with the greatest relevance and the most effective targeting.

Know your audiences. Read the news publications they read – even if you disagree with them. Understand the jargon they use at work and the casual language they use on the weekends. Find out what they do for fun. Become familiar with their values. Try to think the way they think.

One of the best ways to learn how to customize messages for an audience is through cultural immersion. Go and visit your audiences in person. Go out to dinner with them. Get to know their priorities. Learn how to establish credibility with their organizations. Work with them and talk with them as much as possible.

Then, once you know your audiences, use techniques like community-based social marketing. Find out what constraints prevent them from taking environmental actions. Address these challenges through concise and direct communication. When you talk about benefits, tailor your language to your audiences.

Don’t rely on messages about preserving the environment or saving money. These popular messages may not resonate with your audiences at all. To develop messages that work, you need to know your audiences and understand them as well as people in a small town understand their next-door neighbors.

My neighbors listen to very good music... whether they like it or not.
Get to know your audiences’ cultural preferences as well as you know your neighbors’. (Source: Someecards.com)

When I was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2013 Annual Meeting this Thursday, I attended a panel presentation on how to talk about science in political contexts.

Buried among many nuggets of quotable insights was a surprising statement. I noticed later that many people posted it online. One of the speakers advised scientists to present themselves as either Democrats or Republicans if they choose to talk about “values” with politicians – and to stick to the stance they take.

Although this advice may be practical, I think it may oversimplify the complex reality of scientists’ views and values about policy. Thinking in terms of a simple two-party system obscures that:

  • If politically independent scientists “choose a party” because of social pressure, they will not be presenting their views accurately.
  • Bipartisan science organizations exist. They also write recommendations for the federal government. Some of their messaging does reflect values.
  • There is no reason to expect that a scientist will agree with all of a party’s platform, even if he or she supports most of it. That expectation could put a scientist in an awkward position.
  • Some scientists may support third parties.

Also, it is very difficult to present science without involving values at all. Values are almost always present in how we talk about science. Here are some examples of common science-related statements which contain values:

  • “The United States should increase funding for science and technology so we can maintain our competitive edge.” 
  • “New technology is good for our society.”
  • “We should evaluate K-12 schools in terms of their standardized test performance.”
  • “We should teach science in ways that are culturally competent.”

Rather than attempting to maintain a fiction of value-free objectivity, it might be more effective for scientists to adopt a stance of open-mindedness. An open-minded researcher considers information from sources with which he or she may disagree. An open-minded researcher also talks with people whose viewpoints differ from his or her own.

Simran Sethi, an associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications at University of Kansas, gave the TED talk below to illustrate how she talks with hunters, Christians and Libertarians about environmentalism. In the video, she challenges listeners’ ideas about their own political superiority and shows the benefits of conversations that cross political divides.

I’ve blogged before about Public Conversations Project, a nonprofit organization which facilitates dialogues to bring together diverging viewpoints. In my opinion as a science blogger, an open-minded stance should be an option for scientists who are approaching politicians.

The fact that our federal government operates as a binary system doesn’t mean that this system matches the scientific method, reflects who scientists are, or represents the menu of options scientists should have when they communicate.

Scientists can be politically independent, affiliated with third parties, open to views that differ from their own, or interested in bipartisanship. If scientists choose to question either/or thinking, that could improve the quality of public conversations about science.


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Dr. Laura Akers, who works at Oregon Research Institute, has spent years studying what motivates social change movements. She studies both the positive motivations behind activism and the dangerous edges of movements that pose risks to the public.

Recently, Akers wrote about how evoking hope can help us avert disasters like global warming. As she emphasized in several blog posts:

If we want people to act consistently with their beliefs about the world, we’ll be more effective if we stop talking about what we might lose. Instead, let’s make a point to stress all that we have to gain.

Whenever lifestyle choices are involved, we need to make it possible that “building” and “creating” and “growing” – positively framed activities – can be the ones that will address the problem. People want to build, create, and grow. We can build a more energy-efficient economy. We can create better technologies… In other words, let’s talk about global warming as a creative challenge, not a looming crisis.

Research posted on the Climate Access website shows talking about climate change in terms of public health can accomplish this goal.

A webinar Climate Access hosted on Jan. 22 underscored Akers’ recommendations.

“I always encourage people to communicate [about climate change] in combination with solutions – mitigation – what we can do on the front end – and adaptation,” said Dr. Suzanne Moser, one of the presenters.

Moser is working with a team of hundreds of experts to create the United States’ National Climate Assessment. The team is following best practices in communicating its results, which she says can be overwhelming for audiences otherwise.


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Pull out the firecrackers and Mardi Gras beads! It’s time for the Nonprofit Blog Carnival, where we’re writing about our big dreams for 2013.

My big dream is to advance a meme.

Memes are catchy ideas that stick in one’s imagination and influence one’s worldview. SmartMeme’s book Re:Imagining Change contains many examples of nonprofits deliberately disrupting existing social memes and creating new ones.

Here’s an example of an environmental organization’s disruption of a popular meme:

Greenpeace satirized GMOs with this ad campaign.
Greenpeace satirized genetically modified corn with this ad.

The meme I want to promote this year is about a broader topic than Greenpeace’s – and it might appeal to a wide range of people.

Here it is:

Our environment is the root of our economy.

Everything we manufacture, produce, sell and trade comes from the planet we inhabit. If we disregard our environment, we will have no economy left to show. This is all we have – our somewhat damaged planet and its many resources.

Since I like automotive analogies, I’ll make one here. Imagine that you’re moving from New York to Arizona with everything you own in the back of your truck. As you drive across the desert, your truck starts having mechanical problems and your cell phone dies. It’s time to get out the wrench set.

Similarly, if we want a healthy planet, it’s time to repair our decisions and set a better course. Like the driver in the middle of the desert, we have no alternative. The repair will have to include economic adaptation and innovation. Businesses have the energy to transform society.

How do I plan to advance this meme in 2013? I plan to tweet and write about the green economy. I want to focus on solutions, reconstruction, and the repair of our existing systems.

How will this influence what I write? There are multiple avenues I can pursue to expand on this meme and make it part of my work.

  1. Using constructive angles in journalism and in this blog can motivate readers to take positive actions at home and at their jobs.
  2. Breaking news about university research can disseminate creative solutions.
  3. Supporting cross-pollination between sectors can build collaboration.
  4. Writing about urban sustainability projects can shine a light of possibility on the road to economic and environmental recovery.
  5. Building work relationships with larger organizations that support this meme can give me the tools and resources to take this message to larger audiences.

I work for an organization which supports sustainable business decisions and plan to make connections with other groups in New England which are doing the same. These groups include Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Council, and E2Tech.

Do you have any other ideas about ways to advance this meme about the environment and the economy?


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Midwest Energy News recently mentioned a quirky art project sponsored by Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois electric utility. To promote its refrigerator recycling program, the utility paid artists to take its message to the streets by recycling refrigerators.

The reworked refrigerators were on display in Chicago on Michigan Avenue during the summer of 2012. The photos below are from a Fast Company slide show.

Dream Engine Refrigerator Sculpture
Dream Engine refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture
Fridge Pic refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

 

 

Camperator refrigerator sculpture
Camperator refrigerator sculpture (Source: Fast Company)

To see photos of the other redesigned refrigerators, check out this article from Commonwealth Edison.

If you saw a fridge like this sitting in the middle of the street, would it make you think about recycling your own refrigerator? Would you have to read the plaque to realize what it was?


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Image

How does seeing this infographic make you feel? When you see how much coal you’re using, does it motivate you to green your home? Or does it leave you saying, “So what?”

The infographic, originally published in an article by EnergySavvy, puts energy use in context. But it could be improved. The EnergySavvy article explains the infographic using the following paragraph:

Reducing the original coal pile to 2,000 pounds prevents nearly 6,300 pounds of carbon dioxide, 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 16 pounds of nitrogen oxide from being emitted into the atmosphere annually (Environmental Protection Agency). It could also save the home around $300 on their electricity bills each year.

The problem with these numbers is that they do not translate directly to impacts people can understand. If I tell the average person that his new air conditioner will prevent a certain number of pounds of sulfur dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, what will he be able to do with that information? Not very much.

What is missing from this infographic is context that readers can use to relate these numbers and impacts to their everyday lives. What does that 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide do to the environment? Adding an illustration to show the scale of each environmental impact would make this infographic much stronger.

Without context, numbers mean much less than they would otherwise.


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This month, Mother Jones published the results of a surprising investigation into the foul effects of lead in the United States. The article claims leaded gasoline caused a wave of crime in the last century. Crime rates dropped once the lead was removed. The author also says lead causes lower IQs and ADHD.

Journalist George Monbiot was skeptical when he first saw the news. After digging up related academic studies, he published a supportive article in TruthOut. He focused on crime, not on ADHD or IQs.

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism website weighed the evidence and cautions us that other chemicals may be involved and that the connection between lead and violence is not entirely clear. As the article says, there is “no clear biological pathway by which the metallic element lead somehow turns on a violence switch in the human brain.”

A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)
A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)

I’ve been interested in investigating the link between crime and heavy metal pollution ever since I read a publication which said that researchers had tested biological samples from prison inmates and found that the heavy metal concentrations in their bodies were much higher than that of a control group. This article describes that study and other research on the connection between lead and crime.

Race and income may play a role in kids’ lead exposure. For example, lead pollution tends to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans. The maps in the Mother Jones article show income and lead concentrations in these communities.

Based on this evidence, one can reasonably say: if a young person grows up in a lead-polluted community, experiences hardship due to poverty and/or violence, and is more likely to be arrested and judged guilty based on his race and/or income, his likelihood of entering the prison system could become very high.

It is possible that other chemicals in addition to lead may be affecting youth too. We should address these problems when we talk about environmental issues, equal opportunity, and public policy.


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