Confessions of a Weekend Activist (as printed in The Lake Connection, the publication of Wisconsin Lakes organization)
In the old days, about 9 months or so ago, I liked to sit on my dock on Pleasant Lake in Coloma and catch up on my reading. The pressures of my day job would slip away as I listened to the gentle sound of waves brushing against the shore.
Those days are gone. I can’t go back. And I wouldn’t if I could. Too many people are depending on our outcome, and too many people don’t know where to start to defend our environment and our quality of life from specters like livestock factories and contaminated drinking water.
There are no primers on how to become a weekend activist. And if you’re going to make it work, it can’t be a weekend endeavor. I had no idea what I was getting in to or what to expect. But in hindsight I have learned a great deal, the first being that I have so much more to learn.
My lesson on being an activist began when it became apparent that a large dairy CAFO was moving in just a few miles from our lake. Much is at stake with the excessive pumping of water and possible contamination that will negatively impact nearby Pleasant Lake as well as several nearby Class 1 trout streams. Significant increases in truck traffic will potentially damage roads and make them less safe. Noxious odors will invade our landscape, and much more.
Getting involved is something everyone should do, and someone needs to step in to the middle of it all. But when you do, you should know that it can (and will) consume you. Everyone assumes that the issue (whatever it is) is not as bad as it sounds, that the threat is somehow more distant than reality.
Success is measured in small increments. The granting of a public hearing, hundreds that show support, signs appearing in front yards, and decisions that are delayed are all small things that motivate to continue the fight. Progress has been made, but the foes are bigger and the terrain tougher than I imagined. This fact only makes me work harder, but you need to go into these fights with your eyes wide open.
Whatever your issue, the odds are good that your opponents are more experienced. They have fought these battles before, and have probably been working for years to have the laws and regulations of the land work in their favor. They are organized, they are well-financed, and they give no quarter. To succeed, activists need to match them on all three of those levels.
With that said, let me share a few observations on how to get off to a good start:
**Don’t delay. I first heard about the plans for the “dairy” months before I did anything. When the full impact of what the corporation was planning dawned on me, I assumed that someone somewhere must already be on the case. I was wrong, and we lost valuable time.
**Seek out allies. I knew nothing about activism before. Most of what I knew about environmental causes came from my son, and most of what I knew about Wisconsin’s natural history came through the work of Aldo Leopold. Through this new adventure, I have met a group of people whom I never would have met before. Very early on several people stepped forward to help and support all that needed to be done. They have surprisingly become some of my dearest friends – farmers, retired professionals, stay-at-home moms. Many of them are people of strong faith, and their prayers for me and this battle have been humbling and heartwarming. This group of people has been invaluable. I will never forget all that they have done.
**Keep going. You can’t walk away because the fight seems too daunting. It is, in fact, overwhelming. But if you slow down, or stop, the other side wins.
**Talk to your family. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of this journey. This consumes you. You have no time or patience to sit in front of the TV to “relax”…there is always more to do. They need to understand and support you. I cannot ask for a more supportive and understanding family than my own. Everyone should be so lucky.
**Find funding. Your opponents have deep pockets. If you can’t match them, you need to at least get on the scoreboard. T-shirts, signs, postage, websites, and campaigns to seek media coverage aren’t free.
**Draw inspiration from others. When this started I had no idea where to turn. Soon people were connecting the dots to many other great organizations that have fought the fight before…WisconsinLakes, River Alliance of Wisconsin, Crawford Stewardship Project, PEPL of Rosendale, SRWN… and many others. These groups have been my inspiration, the standard by which I measured success. They gave me advice, help, counsel and a warning of what was up ahead. They have been invaluable.
**Educate the community. Most people assume that the government is there to help them, that elected officials (and their political appointees) will look out for the public’s best interests. This is a fallacy. My Number One biggest disappointment is that it often seems like no one in government is looking out for our best interests. In fact, they are often working against you. If I have learned anything it is that citizens working together can demand that our elected officials keep an eye on our interests, not just those of big business.
**Get some legislative help. Having a couple state legislators speak at our rally was in many ways a turning point for us. They have been very helpful, but with the stakes being as high as they are most politicians will tread very carefully. Be realistic about your expectations for their involvement.
**Stick to the facts. As counterintuitive as this sounds, keep emotion at a distance. There will be plenty of that coming from the community, both for and against, and your knowledge of the actual facts can sometimes help people see the light. Many people have said to me, “There has always been a farm on this property. What’s the difference?” There is a huge difference in the concentration of animals and in the amount of water they will draw from the aquifers and the amount of manure they will spread on the land. Know your subject, know your enemy, and know what a difference the facts can make in a fight.
**Steel yourself against disappointment. Expect little. If you can get in front of people, they will become enthusiastic and offer to help. But most people tend to fade back into their everyday lives. Few will follow through on their eagerness to help while others simply need to be given direction. You can’t let this infect you with sadness or bitterness. Most people believe that “you can’t fight city hall.” You need to remember what got you off the couch, or the dock, in the first place. What can one person do? A lot!
**Understand residents’ fears. In the beginning, a number of people were very outspoken against the factory farm. They very quickly got an education in peer pressure. One business owner found out rather quickly that her opposition would make enemies and cost her business. One family received intimidation from neighbors.
**Remember the media is not your friend – or your enemy. You may hit it off quite well with the media. Don’t get too cozy. They have a job to do, and you are one way they can do their job. I once felt like a reporter was lending a very supportive ear, but the article that came out felt like a stab in the back. They won’t necessarily forgive any naiveté you have about your topic. Research the media and the individual reporters just like you would research your cause.
The battle has not gone our way at every turn as we would have liked. Several months ago the WDNR granted the final permits required for the CAFO. After all we have done, after all of the evidence that had been provided, after the rally’s, the speeches, the articles and letters, the meetings, the phone calls, the late nights, the early mornings. After all the effort that so many have put forth, the decision to grant the permits was kick in the gut. And for the first time, I cried.
**Finally, celebrate your victories. A local woman let me know early on in the fight that she was very much opposed to what I was doing. Months have passed; we have done our very best to educate the community about what is coming down the pike, and what it will mean to have this CAFO as their neighbor. I was shopping in a local store recently and ran into this woman. She came over and handed me a $20 check to help our non-profit organization in the battle. I was speechless. It was such a powerful statement of a changed heart.
That’s the stuff that keeps me going. If I stop, I let people like her down. We strongly disagree with the decisions and basis upon which they were made. We have committed to continue this battle whether alone or in support of others who may be better positioned for the fight. But one thing is for certain… this isn’t a job for the weekend. Once an activist you have to be all in. What can one person do? A lot as it turns out.