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Protests, Political Clout and the Power of Inclusion

Climate change is making headlines after negotiators from nearly 200 nations reached a deal last month on a new plan of action at the COP26 summit, following years of intense pressure from activists from around the globe. Few issues are as complex or as intensely debated as climate change, which makes it the perfect issue for students of advocacy. To explore what education advocates can learn from the world of environmental advocacy and other major protest movements, 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee spoke with Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology and the director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. Fisher is one of the leading experts on democracy, activism and climate politics, and she is the author of six books, including National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime, Activism, Inc. and American Resistance.

Even a casual observer of the climate debate can see how challenging it must be as an advocate to make progress right now. What drew you to this issue and what have you learned about what works and doesn’t work in securing big changes?

I’ve been studying advocacy around climate change since the beginning of my career. My dissertation was on the Kyoto Protocol. And during this whole time, a lot of advocates really want to believe that if they just keep saying that the science of climate change lays out clearly that it is human caused and an existential threat to humanity, the world will come together and do something.

Well, that's just not true. It was really clear when I did that research back in the 90s, and it’s been confirmed over-and-over again since then, that just talking about a scientific consensus does very little to accomplish the bigger advocacy goals of the movement.

Science is necessary but insufficient for policymaking. That’s a fact everyone needs to absorb.

That feels like a universal lesson. In education, we have seen advocates neglect the hard work of building political clout in the hopes that if they talk enough about kids falling behind it will move public officials to action.

As long as there are folks who are benefiting from the current system, they will fight hard to defend it no matter what the facts are. With climate change, it's pretty obvious, right? Anybody who follows the traditional extractive way of creating electricity or generating power will lose out if you're going to make a huge shift to a clean energy future. It makes sense that they're going to fight that. It's the same playbook across so many causes. Never underestimate the motivation of entrenched interests to resist change.

If that’s a big thing advocates get wrong, what’s an example of something they are getting right?

One thing that the environmental movement has gotten right in recent years is doing the hard work to build a bigger, more diverse coalition.

The environmental movement in the United States started out as a conservation movement, driven by a lot of privileged landholders who wanted to protect the green space in their communities and in the places they wanted to visit.

What is emerging now is a true environmental justice coalition, which includes families from across the country threatened by polluted water, polluted air and other environmental problems. That’s a bigger group and it provides an opportunity to have a more inclusive and more powerful movement.

And that requires the existing advocates to let go of some old ways of thinking?

Right. The John Muir theory of why we have national parks is to protect the land from the people. It’s really not about people having access to green space or nature. And I believe it was John Muir who actually said he didn't want there to be too many roads in there because he wanted to make it so you have to earn your right to experience the outdoors. That's really a privileged way of thinking about it.

The environmental-justice movement, in contrast, is about solving problems for people in their communities. For years these two movements didn't work very well together. Now the environmental movement has really turned to focus on these equity issues in ways that cross class lines, racial lines, ethnic lines in ways that broaden the coalition for change. And I think that that’s a really big shift that makes sense when you think about the evidence of how power is built and change actually gets done.

In your own work, you have also sought to expand the sphere of people talking about what works in advocacy, in particular by breaking down the barriers between the academic study of advocacy and the broader public discussion of protest movements. Why is that so important to you?

From the very beginning of my academic career, I had a passion for advocacy and thought that I could “bring data to power,” so to speak, by doing rigorous social scientific research that could help advocates be more effective. My naïve expectation was, “If we build it, they will come.”

I was really disheartened to learn that the work could be easily dismissed, misinterpreted or just ignored. So I decided I needed to take more responsibility for repackaging my results for general consumption, both directly and through the media.

I would imagine that one challenge is translating the research to a broader audience. Is another that the academic pursuit of the truth sometimes leads to conclusions people don’t want to hear?

Yes. Sometimes the research doesn't come out supporting my personal political beliefs or the message that I wish would work. As someone trying to do science, my top goal is transparency.

Can you give an example of that?

I conducted research on the March For Our Lives rally after the Parkland school shooting in 2018. The school shooting was on Valentine's Day and within six weeks they had organized this huge, 800,000-person rally in D.C.

I got invited to go on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to share the results of my research and before the show started, they asked me: "Okay, so what's interesting?" And I explained that while the rally was pitched as a show of force by the nation’s young people against gun violence, when I crunched the numbers it turned out that most of the people at the march were not actually young people, and the new activists who did show up were actually less likely to be there because of gun violence than the people who were longtime activists.

They responded with blank stares, and I didn’t get a single question about it during the show. It was clear they weren’t interested in anything that might complicate the narrative that this was a youth movement and therefore they didn’t want to even have that conversation.

It seems like at its core, your position is: Don’t let people ignore the facts when they don’t fit their narrative.

Yes, whatever the findings are, you have to try and learn from them. That’s my big thing. That's the hill I'm going to die on.

For all the criticism thrown toward academics these days, I think most people don’t appreciate how seriously the best researchers in the field take their pursuit of the truth.

I completely agree. And particularly because I study advocacy and activism, I have to be explicit about that. I spend all this time training my students when we go out to collect data that it is all about following the method and not our personal beliefs. Then I can analyze the data knowing that whatever I find is going to be legit. It’s super important.

Where does your advocacy research go from here?

If we are going to develop climate change plans that work, we need more social scientists at the table who understand the social and political side of the work. There is some progress being made on that front. I was asked by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to write for the forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report about the role that civic engagement and activism play in addressing climate change. It’s a start and hopefully we can build from there.

[Read More: The Science of Advocacy]