25 years with Greenpeace

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Twen­ty Five years ago today, I stuck my foot in a door.

It was a trick that Cathy Dees, my field man­ager and train­er, taught me, for ensur­ing that no sub­ur­ban house­wife in any devo turf was going to ter­mi­nate my rap before I’d got to the bit about the slaugh­ter of the harp seal pups, the big eyes, and the ask. That was the day I became a can­vasser for Green­peace.

If you’ve nev­er gone door to door for a cause, the next few para­graphs may not mean much to you, bea­cuse what I’m about to say here requires first-hand expe­ri­ence to under­stand, and if you ain’t been there, you ain’t been there. But I’ll do my best to explain.

You trav­el with four or five com­pan­ions in a car or a van to a cheap din­er some­where in the Amer­i­can sub­urbs. You have your din­ner, you chit chat and gos­sip, your field man­ager tells you what issues may be hot, what Green­peace is doing that might be on TV, what issues might be res­onat­ing in this par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hood, what the orga­ni­za­tion is push­ing at the moment. Then they hand out your turf map. That’s a xerox­ed slip of paper you tack to the back of your clip­board with high­light­ing in col­ored pen­cil which shows you the con­fines of the area you’ll be cov­er­ing. You also get a set of 3x5 cards list­ing any cur­rent mem­bers that are in the area so you can ask them to renew. You all plunk down mon­ey for your meal, and some­how, every sin­gle time, the pot is short and the field man­ager has to work it out.

Your field man­ager drops you off one by one on dif­fer­ent cor­ners. High per­form­ers get dropped off first. Per­son­al favorites or peo­ple on a down day go out last to min­i­mize street-time.
And there you are, some­where in Amer­i­ca, where the most reli­able sig­nal that some­one is home is the blue flick­er of a tele­vi­sion screen on the cur­tains. You’re alone with a clip­board, and a map, and a job to do: con­vince peo­ple to join Green­peace.
I spent two years walk­ing up the dri­ve­ways of good turf and bad in all kinds of weath­er, pray­ing to see a Volvo with a bumper stick­er, but often get­ting a pick­up with an Amer­i­can flag decal. Can­vassers are impro­vi­sa­tion­al demo­graph­ics experts, and after a while you could just look at a house and read the secret signs that told you if this was a poten­tial Green­peace mem­ber or not. Among hope­ful sig­nals, none in the 80s rivalled a Volvo in the dri­ve with a bumper stick­er of any descrip­tion. If a pet came to the door with the own­er, it was a piss-poor can­vasser that didn’t walk away with a mem­ber­ship. It that pet was a gold­en retriev­er, you gen­er­al­ly didn’t have to open your mouth: they already had their check­book out.
The pick­up truck with the flag decal was almost always a lost cause, with the one excep­tion I can remem­ber of a right-wing mil­i­tarist who sur­prised me with a back-slap­ping, crew-cut, have-a-beer-good­bud­dy kind of wel­come. As it turned out, his incom­plete knowl­edge of Green­peace led him to believe we were an anti-Rus­sian orga­ni­za­tion, as I slow­ly real­ized amid his paeans to our work at “going after them damn Com­mie whalers.” At most doors, I used whales or seals as my open­ing salvo, then moved on to talk avid­ly about our dis­ar­ma­ment cam­paign and the need for a nuclear weapons test ban — the issue that brought me to Green­peace. But on this occa­sion, I’ll admit, I just took his check, and gave him a heart­felt thank-you for his con­tri­bu­tion to world peace.

There are a hun­dred sto­ries. The old wom­an who stood silent­ly in the door and just point­ed at me with nar­row eyes. The Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion mem­ber who chased me off his prop­er­ty with gun in hand. The ancient fel­low who I believe had me con­fused for a Jehova’s wit­ness (or given the look I had in 1982, Amish) when he heard the first sen­tence of my rap and said “Green­peace? No thank you, I have my own reli­gion.”

I was a decent can­vasser. Not an extra­or­di­nary one, but most nights a solid deliv­er­er of mem­ber­ships and peti­tion sig­na­tures. I say most, because every can­vasser runs hot and cold. Can­vass­ing is an emo­tion­al­ly drain­ing exer­cise. You need to be pumped up, con­fi­dent, able to con­vey pas­sion and inspi­ra­tion. And there’s no fak­ing it: you have to gen­uine­ly feel it if you want to con­vey it to a stranger at the door. Because every door is nev­er more than 3 sec­onds away from slam­ming in your face, and the rea­sons for slam­ming that door are infinite, the mes­sages that will swing it open, few. There were nights that I bound­ed out of the car on my mis­sion, and nights my field man­ager prac­ti­cal­ly had to pry my hands from the uphol­stery to get me out into the streets. On the nights you didn’t believe in what you were doing, the evi­dence was mea­sur­able in dol­lars and cents.

The first night that I broke $500 in a night and got a ‘grand slam’ — what we called a $5, $10, $25, $50, AND the elu­sive $100 dona­tion — I crawled into the van that round­ed us up from our turf and said noth­ing. Nor­mal­ly, a good night makes a can­vasser effu­sive. Every­body shares their tal­ly. Every­body shares their sto­ries. I remem­ber just set­tling into the car seat, lis­ten­ing to a Gen­e­sis tune on the radio, and savor­ing what I’d done as the van rolled through Boston and the steet­lights flick­ered past.

I’d con­vinced some­one to take action to save the world. Yeah, you can say it was only a check. You can say it’s an easy way to shift the guilt and respon­si­bil­i­ty off your own plate. You can quib­ble about how much of that check gets lost in admin­is­tra­tive costs. But I’d talked to peo­ple who didn’t know what Acid Rain was. I’d told peo­ple about whal­ing. I explained how we thought the world could get rid of nuclear weapons. I told them about peo­ple who had hope, and were act­ing on that hope, and need­ed oth­er peo­ple to hope along with them as well. And they opened their doors, and they invit­ed me in, and they gave me mon­ey. They vot­ed for what I had to say. They joined Green­peace. May­be all they had to give was a few bucks. But a few bucks would buy a spark plug. And a spark plug would fire an engine. And an engine would dri­ve an inflat­able boat into the path of a har­poon. And those two bucks would be a part of what saved that whale. And sav­ing that whale would be part of what was need­ed to save the world.

In the car that night, I felt a sense of direc­tion my life hadn’t had until then; that I was on a path, I had some­thing to give, and I believed in what I was doing.

I start­ed out can­vass­ing a cou­ple nights a week. Then it was Mon­day through Sat­ur­day. Then I was vol­un­teer­ing in the office on Sun­day too. Then I was help­ing out from 9am until we hit the streets at 3pm, can­vass­ing my turf, and rolling back to the office around 9pm. When it became obvi­ous I had to quit my day job to main­tain my Green­peace habit, I threw the I-Ching. “Work on what has been spoiled” was the hexa­gram that decid­ed things. And that was that.

I stuck it out as a can­vasser for almost two years, vol­un­teer­ing the rest of my time, before a salaried posi­tion opened up as a dis­ar­ma­ment cam­paign­er, and I was off the streets.

Tonight I’m up late at home after a day in the office that began at 8:45 and end­ed at 11pm. I’ve been work­ing on a web­site that tries to con­vince peo­ple to take action to save the whales. It’s late and I’m tired and some­how in the 25 years since that night in the can­vass van and this I’ve become old­er: a father, a hus­band, a home­own­er — things that kid in that van couldn’t even imag­ine becom­ing. I’ve lived in a half a dozen coun­tries. I’ve sailed the Arc­tic Cir­cle and the Bay of Ben­gal. I’ve walked to ground zero of a nuclear weapons test. I’ve been to sea, I’ve gone to jail. I’ve helped set up Green­peace offices in Rome and Moscow. I’ve had laughs and drinks and adven­tures and hor­ri­ble mishaps and mis­er­able expe­ri­ences with some of the most inspir­ing peo­ple to have graced this plan­et and this time. And I’m still work­ing for Green­peace.

Andrew Davies, who has been around a while now him­self, was telling some young vol­un­teers about what 25 years in Green­peace meant. He was try­ing to explain why that’s rare, and why Green­peace has a high turnover rate in peo­ple com­ing and going. “If you stay too long, it makes you crazy,” he said. When I men­tioned that wasn’t a very flat­ter­ing com­ment on my men­tal health, he looked at me and said “Let me put it to you this way. I’m not tak­ing it back.”

OK, point tak­en. I’ve spent 25 years try­ing to keep in bal­ance the dai­ly dos­es of despair and the gen­er­al sense of hope that by mak­ing a choice to do some­thing for the plan­et, peo­ple can actu­al­ly achieve some­thing for the plan­et. And there are days I believe that might­i­ly, with all my being, and days I cluck with ancient pity at how naive a 49-year-old man can be.

But I take com­fort in that old Bernard Shaw chest­nut: “The rea­son­able per­son adapts to the world; the unrea­son­able per­son per­sists in try­ing to adapt the world to them­selves. There­fore all pro­gress depends on the unrea­son­able per­son.”

In short, you got­ta be crazy to try. But if nobody tries, game over.

So Cathy Dees, wherever you are, I’ll drink a toast tonight to the heights of unrea­son­able­ness you intro­duced me to, and for mak­ing me stick my foot in a door called Green­peace.

Then I’ll put down my glass, and get back to work.

20 thoughts on “25 years with Greenpeace”

    1. i have nev­er fund raised but i have vol­un­teered and cam­paigned online so many times since Green­peace start­ed work­ing in India, its like i have seen it grow in my back­yard and I know every­one but I am just not the insid­er yet. Read­ing this gives me a new vig­or to keep on vol­un­teer­ing.. a paid posi­tion might just turn up! even though after read­ing your blog it real­ly real­ly doesn’t mat­ter. “you got­ta be crazy to try. But if nobody tries, game over”

  1. You´ve inspired so many of us through­out the­se years Bri­an. Thanks a lot for your com­mitt­ment, and gen­eros­i­ty.

    I hope to see you again soon, and I hope you go for anoth­er 25.

    With love, Alfre­do

  2. Thanks for every year, every min­ute that you has give to our Plan­et defense. 

    You have shown the way to all the ones who have the oppor­tu­ni­ty of talk­ing and work­ing with you.

    You have taught us and you keep doing the con­sis­ten­cy of com­mit­ment through the years.

    And all this, show­ing that it can be done in a fun way. 

    So, thank you very much. And Keep on rock­ing

  3. It may sound bor­ing but I also agree with Gillo. While the human aspect is often touched in the weblogs it would be com­fort­able to have some of the­se peo­ple sto­ries; it gives the organ­i­sa­tion a face.

  4. Hey Bri­an, com­ment­ed in your con­cen­tric cir­cle blog about cathy dees. She was work­ing in a marine sup­ply store in ft laud 1992. like cris said she went to sea. I worked with cris in SF. May have met you when lau­ren sent me to south­street sea­port to han­dle mer­ch for RW maid­en voy­age. Con­grats on the quar­ter century,good work

  5. Hey Bri­an, com­ment­ed in your con­cen­tric cir­cle blog about cathy dees. She was work­ing in a marine sup­ply store in ft laud 1992. like cris said she went to sea. I worked with cris in SF. May have met you when lau­ren sent me to south­street sea­port to han­dle mer­ch for RW maid­en voy­age. Con­grats on the quar­ter century,good work
    mer­ry christ­mas to all and to all a green and peace­ful plan­et.

    google nicky nod

    hey cris, had a great time work­ing with you and lark­in et al, good times at the beach house…

  6. Hey Bri­an, kind of warms my heart to see my sig­na­ture there autho­riz­ing your id. Wow, 2/15/82… Lot of water under that bridge. I always mar­veled that in spite of our ide­al­is­tic and often self-right­eous beliefs, we had to use the basic tools of trav­el­ing sale­men. But instead of Fuller Brush­es, Amway prod­ucts, or Bibles, we were sell­ing ideas. God Bless you for stick­ing with it all the­se years and keep­ing ideas alive!

  7. Wow, Cathy Dees! Last time I saw here was in SF in 1987… I head she was sail­ing on a boat some­where…

  8. Pingback: Virtual Possum
  9. 25 years of believe and ded­i­ca­tion, tru­ly won­der­ful.

    It may sound bor­ing but I also agree with Gillo. While the human aspect is often touched in the weblogs it would be com­fort­able to have some of the­se peo­ple sto­ries; it gives the organ­i­sa­tion a face.

    In my life I haven’t done a sec­ond of door to door can­vass­ing –I doubt if it still exists here, inter­net, tv and news­pa­pers seem to have replaced it com­plete­ly- but had a fair share of dis­cus­sions on envi­ron­men­tal top­ics when doing guide work, and with ran­dom strangers. It’s such a good feel­ing to found out that you con­vinced some­one 🙂

  10. The sto­ry of a man who believed and still believes in some­thing, and how this some­thing had an impact on him and many oth­ers like him. Why can’t I read this sto­ry on the Green­peace web­site? There’s plen­ty of infor­ma­tion about the cam­paigns and its play­ers, but where are the sto­ries of the peo­ple? Life sto­ries, that is…

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