I was part of a climate action. Now what?

Organizer and strategist Daniel Hunter talks to Nonviolence Radio about his new book "The Climate Resistance Handbook."

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Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist who worked widely across the globe supporting organizing and direct action for social movements and is currently the Global Trainings Coordinator for 350.org, an organization fighting climate change. He talks to us about nonviolence, organizing, and his latest, “The Climate Resistance Handbook.

Stephanie: Welcome everybody to another episode of Nonviolence Radio where we explore the power of active nonviolence. Today on the show we’ll be speaking with Daniel Hunter. He’s an organizer and strategist who’s worked widely across the globe, supporting and organizing direct action for social movements. He’s trained tens of thousands of activists in over a dozen countries. He’s currently the Global Trainings Coordinator for 350, an organization fighting climate change.

There, he works with communities developing training programs and grassroots responses to fighting the climate crises. It’s with his work at 350 that he’s written the “Climate Resistance Handbook.” He’s worked for years with Trainings for Change, a group based in Philly that’s developed experiential training for activists, and authored a compelling narrative about his campaign to halt a politically-connected $650 million casino development project, teaching the city of Philadelphia the power of direct action. That book is called, Strategy and Soul. Before writing the “Climate Resistance Handbook,” he wrote, Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow, an organizing guide. which is a complimentary book to Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow. He’s here on show with us today. Thank you for joining us, Daniel Hunter.

Daniel: Thank you so much for having me.

Stephanie: We are really inspired by your work and we think that our listeners are going to learn a lot from your experiences. Thank you very, very much. Let’s get started and you can tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to nonviolent organizing and direct-action work.

Daniel: Well, I was always a troublemaker. I had a real strong sense of what was right and wrong. And it got me into a lot of trouble as a kid. I would stand up for people when I thought something wrong was happening. For a while, a lot of my friends would describe me as annoying, bothersome, etc.

I really had to learn strategy in order to not only be sticking up for what’s right as I thought, but also to become more effective. My work with Trainings for Change made a big influence on me, actually, when I got coached into nonviolence as a technique: learning that it’s not just that you get out, muster, and yell at people — but there’s a strategy to it. So I moved from being a little bit of a punk kid just doing a bunch of stuff, to hopefully getting more strategic and more effective in the way that I would do resistance.

Stephanie: So, that’s how it started, you took a training with Training for Change then?

Daniel: Yeah. I took a training. In the middle of the training – it was ‘Train the trainer’ by George Lakey — there was a moment where I kept telling him that I didn’t like a thing he was doing, one after another. I kept raising my hand, “I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I don’t like that.” And after a while, he said, “Look, I get your point. You don’t like it.” But he spent a good time listening to me, so it wasn’t disrespectful.

And he said, “I want you to understand if you really think it’s wrong, you haven’t convinced me. And if you really think it’s wrong, then go organize all the other participants to not do it.” And then, I can’t do it.

He was teaching me to be a rebel, and that rebels don’t do their best work when they just tell people to stop doing a thing. We do our best work when we inspire other people to join. And so, he was teaching me how to be, in that moment, an organizer, who would then go to other people. Anyway, it was a huge moment for me. I learned how to be a better rebel.

Stephanie: From that, did you begin to organize people?

Daniel: No, no. I was still freaked by the possibility. [Laughs] It was so novel for me. I just hadn’t seen it that way up until that point. It needed to get into my system before I actually got to go do it.

Stephanie: Besides that, in itself, teaching you how to be a rebel, what other principle or strategy did you see George using that helped reinforce the power of nonviolence?

Daniel: Well, I’ve been an educator for the last 20 years. It’s been my primary work. I think one way that activist educators don’t assist people is when we pretend as though the wins are easy. Sometimes activist educators will have someone say, “Oh, I want you to do it this way,” and we’ll accommodate right away. “Oh, sure, you want to – no problem.”

George saw an opportunity to make a teaching point which was, “Social change doesn’t happen just because you ask. It happens because you organize for it.” He told me later, “I could have given you what you wanted. I didn’t have a moral stance on it. But I realized that I want activists who are comfortable in the land of conflict.”

That was very much a nonviolence principle, that is, nonviolence is a “pro-conflict approach.” So, if you’re not up for being in the middle of a conflict, you will struggle in nonviolent action.” That was another piece he was modeling, which was being pro-conflict.

Michael: You were talking about that moment where George, as I would put it, flipped the script on you. You’re in a good lineage there, Daniel,  because it reminded me of an episode where Gandhi one time stepped off a train and all these black flag people were threatening to — they had these lathi’s, you know, these sticks, and they were just getting ready to beat up on him.

And he laughed and said, “What good is it going to do to break this head?”  And they said, “Well, we have a problem with you.” And then he proceeded to tell them how they should organize against him. Finally, they said, “Well, what if you don’t respond to even that?” He said, “Well, then you have to go on a fast unto death to change my mind.” And they said, “We’re not prepared to do that.”

Daniel, we were so thrilled with your book. I can’t imagine anything more timely, anything more needed at this point in time. You talk about experiential training for activists. How would you define that?

Daniel: Well, one way I wanted to reflect in the handbook is through story. I think people learn best through specific examples. Just like you told that story, I tell lots of stories to make points along the way. I think of experiential education as starting when I’m working in a training room, rather than starting from a piece of theory —  I want to start with people’s lives.

I have a 15-month old daughter who already knows nonviolent action. She knows how to get what she wants through resistance. We don’t have to teach people theory in order to get nonviolence. We just have to find a way to connect with their life experience.

And one reason that’s so important is because so much education is geared towards making people feel inadequate, that they don’t have the skill, that there are experts out there, that it’s someone else who will save them, there’s a politician or someone else who will figure things out. And the bottom line is we are the ones we’ve been waiting for and that should be reflected in how we teach.

So, the idea of experiential education is starting with people’s life experience and working from there. So, we listen to them, about their stories and draw out principles and theories from life examples.

Michael: Daniel, you are sounding dangerously like Plato there. [Laughs]  You have a number of books and we want to talk about all of them and all of the websites that are available at some point in this conversation.  But one thing I was really impressed with in your handbook, the recent one, “Climate Resistance Handbook” is how available it is: it’s a free download.  You have so many people coming out of denial now and pouring out into the street.

But as we know from bitter experiences, Gandhi would say, “That doesn’t often lead to effective change.” So, we have to reach those people and give them tools and they have to be simple and assemble-able. That’s why I was so impressed with the various models and images, some of which you’ve used for a while.

I wanted you to talk about them. Let’s start with the Spectrum of Allies. I just breathed a sigh of relief when I read about that.

Daniel: Yeah, so the Spectrum of Allies, it’s a particular campaign model that emerged out of struggle where people were analyzing situations. One of the dynamics that people kept observing is that it’s attractive to spend an enormous amount of our time and energy against whoever is our most full opposition, and to try to move them, moving the fossil fuel industry, or moving whoever. And the fact is, they’re very unlikely to move. They are what they need to be: an opposition.

But actually, in order to win social movements, it’s about moving the people who are in-between. If we think of the opposition on one side and then us on the other side, there’s a whole spectrum of folks in between – passive allies — neutral, passive opponents.

Our job as activists isn’t actually to convince or move the active opposition – the extreme opposition. Our job is to move the people along the way in the middle. So, moving neutrals over to being passive support. Actually, they don’t have to move all the way to being fully active allies, but they become passive supports. To move people who are in the passive opponent category into being neutral, to standing on the sidelines. That’s our role.

We’ve been using this tool a lot in 350 to analyze our local situation or our local campaigns, to identify “Who are some of the different neutrals? Who are some of the different passive allies?” in order to win. Otherwise, we’ve spent all our time just dealing with our extreme opponent who isn’t really going to move. It changes the focus of our energy.

Michael: Daniel Hunter, I really love what you’ve done with that old concept of Gene Sharp’s, the Pillars of Support. I’d like you to talk about that in a second, but it seems to me that this is a version of that. That those people who are very obstinate are refusing to move are supported by all the passive or passively sympathetic bystanders. When you move them to a higher level of awareness, of the problem and sympathy for our approach, you are, in effect, removing one of their pillars of support.

Daniel: That’s right.

Michael: Yeah. And this leads to what is my favorite image in the book which I’ve used already several times. I’ve been stealing from you without your knowledge. I have a funny feeling you don’t mind. It’s the balloon and the rock. Tell us about that.

Daniel: I’ll tell you where it came from, which was a campaign I ran in Philly. We were fighting a casino industry — talk about an industry with a lot of money. They spent millions of dollars fighting us. During one part of the campaign, it became clear to us that many of our members were analyzing politicians. They were looking at our city council, our mayor, and analyzing them as if they were the final decision makers and thinking, we should simply convince and lobby them, we should spend more and more of our energy meeting with them, going through all the processes – the jumps, the hurdles, the hoops.

And whenever I’ve seen people doing extreme lobbying campaigns as though they’re the only operation, I’ve found them very demoralized because they would go into meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting…and get run down. We decided to take a different strategy entirely.

Daniel: We said we will never ask for a meeting with any politician. If we’re asking for a meeting it means we don’t have enough power to control the outcome. We’re going to wait for them to ask for a meeting with us. The way that we’ll get that power is we will keep organizing more and more people to apply pressure. We love pressure on politicians.

And so, for example, we did lots of sit-ins. We would show up at offices and, you know, lock arms and do classic nonviolent direct action. We did lots of fun action. But what we did in essence was that we would wait for politicians to want to meet with us, in order to have us stop putting on the pressure.

That whole relationship we were developing, we realized we wanted to explain it as instead of going in as the listeners, begging for things from politicians, we thought of them as people who we would move by moving the population underneath them. And we started to talk about politicians as if they were a weathervane, when you blow a wind and they sort of point in whatever direction the wind is blowing, we’d think of them like that. And so, the metaphor that we generated during this campaign was that politicians are like a balloon. You can push a balloon to the left or the right. You can make a balloon kind of go one direction.

Maybe it’ll wobble back and forth, but at the end of the day, [politicians] are like a balloon tied to a rock. They’re not really that bold or creative, by and large. Good politicians want to get re-elected. That’s what they do. They want to stay close enough to their base that they can get away with whatever they can get away with. So they’re limited, actually. They’re very restricted in their positions.

The more effective way to move a politician, we found, was don’t move the balloon. Move the rock that they’re tied down with. The rock then is people’s activated social values, things that they’re expressing, pushing, moving. And that’s what we did in Philly. We found that when we were able to move our rock, our people, they would move from being reticent to casinos to being in high opposition to casinos. And it was at that point that politicians moved along. We didn’t have to do lobbying for each one of them.

And so the whole city council moved, moved because they followed the flow of the wind. So let us not spend time on the politicians. Let us move the wind.

Stephanie: That’s a wonderful lesson for all of us, Daniel Hunter. Your first move there was nicely strategic. What I hear is that it’s empowering the people that you’re working with to say, “We’re going to have fun. We’re going to be here for what we believe. And we’re going to show up for what we believe in.” And these people are eventually going to ask us for a meeting. It starts off with escalation, which seems really, really powerful.

Daniel: There is a lot of fun. One of my favorite actions during that campaign was when, after doing what we had wanted for almost a year, we decided that we would go to the city council and give them a thank you. But we wanted to thank them in our way, in a direct action way, to let them know the pressure was still on.

So we went to city council. We interrupted the hearing. We took over the mic. We said, “We want to announce a big thank you to everybody.” The police were scrambling and city council wondered what was going on as we interrupted their hearing. And we said, “This is our city council. You’re our representatives so this is our meeting too. We just wanted to take over and just say, Thanks so much.” And we handed out awards to them for standing with the people for the time — and so even in our act of thanking them, we were still signalling our power relationship.

I think what’s so important is understanding our power. And that means we have to claim it.

Michael: I couldn’t agree more, Daniel. There are a couple of other things that come up with your description with this particular story. One, I’m really impressed. It reminds me of listening to Doc Lafayette one time – Bernard Lafayette –  talking about how they conducted the sit-in campaigns by the lunch counters in Virginia and elsewhere.

One of the things he said was that when it wasn’t immediately obvious that they had reached the minds of the general public very much, they were still negotiating constantly while that was going on. That is the point. The point is not to make it noisy, to make a fuss. It’s to engage. And as I’ve always said, real nonviolence is a kind of conversation. But it’s a conversation with actions and when you can’t do it with words.

The other thing that you bring out very well in the book that we’ve all experienced – those of us who are in this strange business — is the need for flexibility. When the tactic becomes the movement, you’re lost. It’s like an organism that can’t evolve, it can’t respond.

Daniel: Yeah. One reason we wrote the “Climate Resistance Handbook” was we were being asked by youth climate strikers for support. What are ideas, suggestions, support, etc.? And I’m not in the business of telling people what they should do, but I wanted to give people some ideas, some examples, and some models that they can work with, some things to play with in their own local context.

So, we wrote it for a global audience, for youth strikers, because we were asked. And one of the big things in my opinion is how dangerous it is for a movement to get caught in a single tactic behaviour.

Even as we call them, “Youth Climate Strikers,” I fear that they – their work gets too narrowed down to, “We do the strike.” And so I quote Yotam who’s a friend of mine — we both were organizers during the Occupy Movement —  and Occupy had a similar problem which was they got stuck on a single tactic. We became known for that tactic.

And that meant one, we were predictable, and two, we were stuck. It became very hard for us to even entertain new tactics because people associated us with those same things. Even though Occupy New York, for example, kept experimenting and trying out new things, nationally and internationally, it became so associated with a single tactic that it was very hard to break out and be more flexible.

The third thing is, we become very easy for our opposition to dance with. If the opposition always knows what you’re going to do next, then there’s no surprise. And as you’re talking about nonviolence as a conversation, if you just keep saying the same thing or using the same expression, it doesn’t move forward. Tactical innovation is very important to me.

So in the book, I talk about how movements have adapted and found new tactics. In our campaign in Casino Free, we actually made a promise we would never do the same tactic twice, just because it pushed us out of our comfort zones so regularly. Staying tactically creative, I think, is very important for us because our voices have to adapt to the moment.

Michael: Yeah. I see a balance here, actually, between the stability of clinging to your basic values and the utter flexibility of how you’re going about achieving them. It’s like a unity and diversity thing. It’s just brilliant. You know, Daniel, you mentioned Occupy. I never thought about it quite that way because Occupy did actually reach out and do other things.

They branched out. They branched out into the area of constructive program during a catastrophe, which I think is so underappreciated. They were helping with what became Occupy Sandy, and they were setting up a debt relief program that was just brilliant. But these things don’t get known. It’s just the one tactic that they were famous for.

Daniel: That’s right. That’s right. And so the one thing becomes our own cage.

Michael: Oh boy. I went through that in the Free Speech Movement. [Laughs] We were starting to plan how we were going to get into the newspaper, not on how we were going to get free speech.

Daniel: Can I ask just contextualize one other thing? That is, “Every movement has problems.” That’s the nature of anything, any big endeavor, for anyone worried, like, “Oh, we’re not as good as X, Y, or Z movement in the past,” or whatnot. I’m so optimistic about movements so far as we can learn and adapt, because we’re always going to get stuck somewhere. We’re always going to get stuck on one thing or another.

And one reason I wrote the book was to say, here’s some things that I think are likely we might get stuck on. And here’s some tricks, techniques, lessons from other movements on how they’ve gotten unstuck from similar situations. That’s what I think is so important. It’s not we did it just right, it’s that we develop a learning curve, identify what’s not working, and adapt.

We keep trying out new things. That makes me optimistic. The idea that we can – with whatever box we’re in — learn, adapt, try out something new.

Michael: Makes me optimistic just hearing about it, Daniel. But Stephanie wanted to say something.

Stephanie: Daniel, you also wrote a manual, an organizing manual to accompany Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow. And I was wondering, what is, in your view, the relationship between organizing to end mass incarceration and organizing for youth and the climate strikes? Do you see any parallel tools, ideas, any ways that the issues overlap that you’d like to speak to?

Daniel: Yeah, I think there are. There are very practical things. Right now, there are more and more articles and people talking about life in prison as climate change grows. For example, in Texas, there’s more and more people who are caught in jails and prison living under extreme heat; prisons are not prepared for climate change either.

There’s other practical issues. For example, I live in Philadelphia and the massive under-infrastructure support for north Philly, which is predominantly African American neighborhood, has created a dearth of jobs, where unemployment rates hit 75% in some neighborhoods.

And so we’re looking at these phenomenal situations in which there could be local jobs available. In Philly, we’ve been fighting a campaign to get local jobs, in buildings, installing solar panels, We want to get our utility company in that game, to force that business into it. But our utility company, they send a million dollars away to Chicago to rich shareholders and CEOs.

We have similar issues on many of these things which is about people power, about where money goes, etc., etc. In some cases, the parts are identical, and in some cases they are overlapping. But I think the similar theme is how do people fight from bottom up. When we look at who are opponents are in the fossil fuel industry, they’re massive. They’re huge. They’re the people who are making millions and billions of dollars on the backs of our own oppression.

The patterns of oppression are replicated across all of these issues. Therefore, we need to focus on the skills which can empower the oppressed to stand up for themselves, we need to learn how we can fight back in ways that are effective, meaningful and fun — as much as it can be fun. And also, we need to remember that we can win some stuff. Those are the things that are interesting to me.

That’s part of what I’ve dedicated my life to, the study of how do we fight? And that’s what I offered in that book. There’s some overlap, like the Spectrum of Allies was in both, though some of particular lessons are different from one movement to another.

 Michael: That’s going to be a life very well lived. Daniel, I’m leading up to a very important question I want to pose to you and it arises from a conversation I had with Bill McKibben a couple of years ago, where I proposed a strategy for the climate movement and he immediately said, “That won’t work,” and he was right. “The reason it won’t work,” he said, “is that our target is so diffuse.” You know, it’s not like dislodging Milosevic or getting somebody out of power.  It spread out all over the whole system.

Daniel: Right.

Michael: And he was so right. And so, my question to you is, “Have you identified key issues that climate activists should concentrate on?” Because we have to turn this thing around fast.

Daniel: Well, when I analyze that, I ask myself a couple questions. And one of the first questions I ask is, who got us into this? And who makes the set of choices to keep us in this? I’m very struck by the recent unveiling over the last couple years about how much Exxon and other fossil fuel companies knew. They had the knowledge that climate change was real, that it would happen. These companies made a very conscientious decision, looking at the research, they said: “We would rather put profit above potential human survival.”

I mean the extreme of what we’re saying is hard to overstate. They made a very conscious business-based decision: profit over environment. I think one thing is to break the back and the grip that the fossil fuel industry has on so many sectors of our society. They can create advertisements and talk about themselves as good companies. They should be in the same category as slaveholders are now. We should see them in that way, an industry that’s willing to run the entire planet off the rails.

One reason one might be for them is because they hold such a grip across the globe – I’m seeing this in Brazil. I see this in almost anywhere I turn. I can watch the hand of the fossil fuel industry. Geopolitically, as we look at move after move that the U.S. empire makes, it continues to be supported based on oil, based on the old model of how to build and burn energy.

I think that [fossil fuel industry] is a major target, and this is one reason I’m so in line with the work that we do at 350.  It’s an industry that has shown a willingness to do the wrong thing. And it continues to – while we’re trying to push the rock one way and push the balloon one way —  they keep buying and doing their best to push the rock the other way. So I think that’s one key target in all of this.

I’m also moved by a second fact actually, related to them, which is seen in Philly. I mentioned we’re targeting our local utility company, PECO. They’re owned by Exelon, a big national energy company. PECO spends $1 million a day out of my community. That’s $1 million a day out of our economy that we could use, and instead they move it into the hands of the wealthy. And they already have that money.

When I analyze what we’re doing…  like, our instinct on the left is to move towards government. Though I think clearly the government has a huge role in this, I think that putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry, breaking their back is important because that’s where the money is. And in order to do the good things, money has to get moved out of their pockets.

Stephanie: Thank you. We are so happy to have you here with us. Daniel, this is has been a very educational show. Before we let you go, I’d like to review “Daniel Hunter’s Top Five Tips” for anybody looking to get involved in nonviolence organizing. So far, I’ve heard a few. If they’re not on the tip of your tongue, I can help draw out some of them. But my guess is they might be on the tip of your tongue.

Daniel: It’s funny, I think of it as a top five [Laughter] Number 1 is, I think people should do stuff, try some things out. If it doesn’t work, adapt. I think a second core thing is in terms of when you want to start, you want to look at, “How can I be effective? How do I make a change?”

And one of the things I suggest in this book is to identify some goals, something that’s meaningful to you, for the people around you. Climate change is a massive problem. There’s so many aspects of it, as you just said, Michael. Therefore, Tip Number 2 would be, find a local goal, a local campaign that means something to you. As an example, a campaign in Jordan run by Omar and Hiba, they picked local infrastructure for public transportation as one way to talk about climate change and it mattered to the people around them.

The third, be creative. Try new tactics. Don’t get stuck on the same one. If you’ve seen it and done it and kept doing it, it’ll eventually get boring to you and it will certainly get boring to the people around you who watch you do it. So keep experimenting, trying out new things.

Four would be, analyze and identify your own power — I talk about the pillars of support, which you can read about. But the basic concept is that you don’t have to move through the world seeing how other people make decisions in your life. You should see the world through the ways which you can influence it.

What is the power and skill that you have? Analyze it from the bottom up. Nonviolent methodology gives us agency.What’s the ways in which we, by our behaviour, support and continue to endorse the fossil fuel industry? And what are the ways that we can take that back so that we can take away their power?

Number 5 would be to make your own list. Keep learning. I love that both of you tell so many stories, and that your work has involved bringing so many story-tellers about their own movements and work, because I think we cannot learn enough.

Learning and trading stories and trading tips, examples from other people, tt’s been so critical for my work and I know it’s so helpful for all the colleagues that I know. I really try to bring this in in the “Climate Resistance Handbook,” lots of stories from around the globe because I think that’s so critical.

Stephanie: And where can people get the “Climate Resistance Handbook” as a download or for print?

Daniel: We’ve made it available for free. People can download it for free. We want it out there. It’s a commitment of 350 to move – we got to move. We got to do stuff. So you can get it our website. It’s www.Trainings.350.org. Go on the website. In addition to the “Climate Resistance Handbook,” we also have training tools.

We also have a number of really cool online courses that I’m delighted we recently launched, I think, in about six languages. Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, etc. Also, there’s courses on campaigning, on movement life, also on how to have climate conversations, how do you talk to people about climate, that kind of thing – Climate Science 101. All of those are also available.

So on the website, you can get the “Climate Resistance Handbook” as a download or you can order a print copy to hold in your hands.

Stephanie:  And thank you so much Daniel Hunter for joining us here today.

Daniel: Great. It’s delightful talking to both of you today. Thank you so much for your work.

Stephanie: And thank you for yours.

Michael: Thank you.

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