Green Corps Volunteers: “Being the Change” in the World
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi.
Caitlin Seeley, 23, from Boulder, Colorado, decided that hand-wringing about climate change and other environmental crises was not going to work for her. She wanted to “be the change,” in Gandhi’s words, rather than waiting for someone else to fix the world’s environmental problems. So, she joined the non-profit, activist group, Green Corps, and is busy “being the change” every day. “Organizing as a career, as a job, enables you to make an important impact on lots of people, communities, and the world,” Caitlin said in her recent interview with Blue Planet Green Living.
“Green Corps is the Field School for Environmental Organizing. It’s a non-profit organization funded by grants and by the other agencies and groups for whom we do the “on-the-ground” organizing. It’s a year-long training program, where 30 to 35 recent college graduates are taught the skills they need to work on grassroots organizing campaigns for some of the most important environmental issues we’re faced with right now. We’re working on climate change, clean energy, land conservation and other similar environmental problems. It’s an opportunity to get the skills to do grassroots community organizing and then actually work on and run campaigns to address some of these issues and start to make changes happen.”
BPGL: How did you get involved with Green Corps?
SEELEY: I graduated from Oberlin College last May. During my senior year, I was trying to figure out what to do next. I knew I wanted to work in the non-profit sphere doing something to make things better in our world. I was lucky that a Green Corps organizer came to our school and had an informational session. When I looked at the description of what an organizer was, I knew that was something I could do. I decided to apply and went through the interview process. As I proceeded, I realized this was something I really wanted to learn to do.
BPGL: What is the Green Corps training like? Do you spend time in class, or get out in the field from day one?
SEELEY: The first part is three weeks of classroom training in Boston. We all live together, go to classes every day, and get trained in all the basic skills of organizing. Among other things, this includes learning how to gather petitions, how to run meetings, how to run press conferences, all the skills you need to do this job.
In addition, we had people who came in to talk with us about specific environmental issues — the big topics that are on everyone’s mind right now. For example, we had IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientists give us briefings on climate change. The activist Judy Bonds spoke to us about mountain-top removal in West Virginia. Lois Gibbs, who was the community organizer in Love Canal in New York, told us about her campaign, which is an Erin Brockovich-like story. The Executive Director of Environment America (EA) spoke to us about campaign strategies. A wide range of people from across the whole environmental movement talked with us and shared their experience and skills. It was an amazing learning opportunity.
The rest of the training is “on-the-ground” campaign work. This involves going out and working on grassroots campaigns. Green Corps organizers work on three to five campaigns every year. We work with non-profit environmental organizations, which contract with Green Corps for organizers to run their field campaigns. These organizers work with the contracting organization as well as with our Green Corps staff to develop strategies and implement them in the field, working in different communities across the country.
BPGL: With three to five campaigns, you must move around a lot during your year with Green Corps. How do you adjust to each new community?
SEELEY: When Green Corps organizers move to a new place, we take the first week to focus on entering the community. We take time to find housing, get set up in our offices, and make connections to people who can help us get to know our new community. We reach out to different groups who have worked with us before or who work on environmental issues and might be able to help orient us and connect us with groups or individuals who could be helpful. During this time, the goal is to get a sense of the area — what people are thinking, what they are taking actions on, what is culturally important for the community. This helps us figure out the best way to reach out to people and ask them to get involved in these campaigns.
BPGL: You mentioned that the Green Corps is working on clean energy. Has any of your own work been related to clean energy?
SEELEY: Yes. While I was in Texas, I was working to get the Mayor of Abilene, where I was working, to sign onto my coalition in support of incentivizing solar power and energy efficiency. After meeting with him, I called his office every single day to see if he had made a decision. He kept saying that he needed more time to look into it, but I wanted him to sign on before our press conference, so that I could announce his endorsement. At 4:45 the day before my press conference, I called him one last time, and he told me that he would sign on!
BPGL: It must have been quite exciting to get mayor of Abilene to support your efforts. What are some other memorable experiences you’ve had in this job?
SEELEY: Green Corps Organizers worked in Missouri during the fall to pass a Renewable Electricity Standard on the November ballot. It passed at 66%, and now the utilities must generate 15% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2021. I worked with a team of eight Green Corps organizers to register 5,000 youth voters and collect 23,000 supporter cards from people pledging to vote ‘yes’ on the Renewable Electricity Standard.
One part of our campaign in Missouri was to distribute 100,000 lawn signs across the state. Because they were printed in Kansas City, the task of distributing them to the other organizers across the state was given to my co-organizer and me. What this meant was that we had to drive a 26-foot long Penske moving truck across the state, carrying 80,000 lbs. of lawn signs to four cities in one weekend. It was a pretty wild experience! While in Kansas City we also petitioned the line at an Obama rally, where 75,000 people showed up, which was pretty cool.
BPGL: Now that you’re in Iowa, what issue are you targeting?
SEELEY: This is my third campaign this year. We’re working with Food and Water Watch, which is the organization that fights against corporate control and abuse of our food and water resources. We are launching the School Milk Campaign, with the goal of giving schools across America the clear choice and the right to buy milk that is free of rBGH, an artificial hormone.
I really wanted to work on this campaign because I have always been interested in agricultural issues. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much our agricultural system is impacting our environment and all the tolls agriculture makes on it.
A lot of people have been asking me why we’re working on the issue of artificial hormones in milk if we’re “Green” Corps. They think it is more of a human health issue than an environmental one. But it is really both. It’s about human health, animal welfare, and the environment.
People get involved for all these different reasons. I was really excited to be assigned to this campaign. I’m in Iowa City because we’re targeting the key legislators here. Iowa is a key state in this fight because of its prominence in the agricultural industry.
BPGL: Why is rBGH in milk considered a human health issue?
SEELEY: rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is injected into cows to increase the rate of milk production. The problem is that it has links to cancer. When you inject rBGH into cows, it increases the amount of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which survives digestion and pasteurization, causing increased rates of IGF-1 in humans. Increased levels of IGF-1 have been linked to increased rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer.
IGF-1 also harms the cows. They have higher rates of mastitis — an infection in their udders — which then requires increased use of antibiotics, accelerating the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can transfer to humans. This, in turn, increases the potential for antibiotic residues to end up in the milk or meat.
BPGL: I understand the rBGH has been made illegal in some other countries, but our Food and Drug Administration hasn’t banned it in the United States. Are you working toward that as well?
SEELEY: Not directly. rBGH has been banned in most other industrialized countries. The entire European Union, Japan, New Zealand, and Canada have all banned the use of it. The FDA here has decided not to ban it, because they say the research linking the use of rBGH to health issues isn’t conclusive.
Where we’re at right now with the rBGH fight in America is that 15% of farms use rBGH, and over 40% of industrial factory farms use rBGH. These are the farms producing most of the milk supply. But consumer demand is going down. More and more dairy companies don’t want to buy milk with rBGH anymore.
The school lunch programs are the final battleground. Schools have such limited funding and, therefore, limited options about where to purchase their food. A lot of times, they have to buy milk produced with rBGH, because it is the cheapest option for their bids. They are the last market for this milk, so if we can get the schools the right to buy hormone-free milk, there won’t be a market for this milk. Then dairies will have to go rBGH free.
BPGL: Why is our own FDA ignoring the research that other countries find compelling?
SEELEY: There have been studies done across the USA and across the world about this issue, which have shown pretty clearly that there is a connection between cancer and rBGH. I think part of the problem is that our FDA views this as an animal drug. The one test that was done in the USA, upon which approval was based, was done on rats – a very short 30 day study. There have been a lot of people who have objected to the way it was tested and approved. It is unclear exactly what happened.
BPGL: What actions are you taking in Iowa to combat the use of hormonal additives in milk?
SEELEY: Our main targets are the legislators. Representative Loebsack is on the Education and Labor Committee in the House. That committee deals directly with the Child Nutrition Act, and that piece of legislation lays the rules for how schools buy their food and milk for lunch programs. We are trying to get language in the Child Nutrition Act that says schools have the right and choice to buy artificial-hormone-free and organic milk.
We’re working in 8 different states across the country, targeting legislators and asking them to support this language and to champion the issue. We want them to make it important. Senators Harkin and Grassley are on the Senate Agriculture Committee that will deal with it afterwards. We are building grassroots support to get them to take on our position.
Other actions in the works include collecting 1,000 petition signatures. We’re going to generate 100 phone calls into legislators’ offices asking them to support rGBH-free milk in the schools. We’re building up a lot of media attention by holding a press conference, soliciting letters to the editor, submitting opinion editorials, and holding editorial board meetings with different newspapers, asking them to write about our concerns. So we’re doing a lot to raise the visibility and educating people around this issue.
We’re holding district meetings to lobby Congressmen and -women, and bringing in members of our coalition of organizations and different groups to talk to them about why this initiative should be supported. That includes farmers, parents, physicians, food-related groups, and a wide range of others who support getting rBGH milk out of school lunchrooms.
Locally we’re working to pass a resolution in the Iowa City Community School District that says they pledge to only buy hormone-free milk. As a matter of fact, that is something they are already doing, which is great. We want to use that as a sign to our congressmen that it is important to people in Iowa City and should be important to them as well.
BPGL: It sounds like you’ve been making some good progress.
SEELEY: Yes, there have been a lot of people who have been supportive and active on this campaign, who really care about this issue. We’re moving forward quickly.
BPGL: What projects are other Green Corps volunteers working on?
SEELEY: Right now we have a group working with Environment America on their Re-Power America Campaign. They also worked to pass the federal Green Stimulus package. We have a group in Oregon working to pass a statewide Green Initiative package, which would provide increased funding for public transportation, reducing carbon emissions within the state, and some other similar beneficial changes. And some Green Corps volunteers are working with an organization called Corporate Accountability International. They are running a “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign, which is fighting against corporate control of our public water resources.
BPGL: What will you be doing after this project is finished?
SEELEY: I’ll have one more campaign. With Green Corps, we always work in a summer canvass office, raising money, which is such a huge part of a non-profit. It’s important to build our infrastructure so we can continue to do this work. I’m not sure where the office will be — we keep moving around. I’ll do that for the summer and then graduate from Green Corps in August.
BPGL: How has volunteering with Green Corps benefited you in terms of your own experience and your own life path?
SEELEY: Throughout my life, I’ve always known that taking care of the environment was important, that we need to protect our earth and our natural resources. But I had never really taken action. I was aware, but never did anything about it.
I’ve been able to learn so much about what is really going on, about all the problems we’re dealing with. I realize this is something that is highly important affecting all of us, not just something for “green hippies” to be concerned about. This is affecting all of us on so many levels: It’s affecting our health, our politics, our economics, and the survival of our planet. It’s a widespread problem. So it makes sense to me that this is the area where we need to be focusing our actions and really be putting our energy into dealing with these issues. We’re running out of time.
I feel really lucky to have been able to learn about these things, and to work on these campaigns to create changes. As I said before, I always wanted to work for a non-profit to do something to make this a better world. The more I learn about organizing, the more I know it is the best way to make the biggest impact, by building up people power.
What we need to do right now is to influence our legislators and get the corporations of the world to stop abusing our environment and make changes. We’re the ones who ultimately need to get this message across and stop some of the worst atrocities that are creating global climate change. Learning how to empower and activate people and give them the tools they need to accomplish this is the best thing we can do to build volume and have our voices be heard.
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