Climate Conversations S3E7: Building a Community with Mothers Out Front Co-Founder Vanessa Rule


In Episode 3, we heard how Mothers Out Front takes climate action through learning in community, from and with each other. Here's an extended cut of our conversation with Vanessa Rule, a co-founder of Mothers Out Front Co-Founder and their director of learning and expansion. Hear how their organizing model, built on relationships, stories and continuous learning, empowers "unsuspecting activists" to become climate leaders and build the movement.

Curt Newton: [00:00:00] [00:00:00] Before we get started, a quick note. If you haven't yet, please listen to episodes two through four in this season on Learning to Change, where we tell the stories of three groups who have modeled our season theme. We had to cut so much good stuff out to create those stories, so now we're releasing extended cuts of the individual interviews. We hope you'll like 'em as much as we do, and that they lead you to a richer appreciation for what it means to learn to change.

Rajesh Kasturirangen: [00:00:29] This is Climate Conversations by ClimateX.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:00:39] Today we're going to be talking with Vanessa Rule, who is the co-founder of Mother's Out Front, and also the Director of Learning and Expansion for Mother's Out Front.

Curt Newton: [00:00:48] You might hear our producer Dave chiming in here. Here's Vanessa.

Vanessa Rule: [00:00:54] So, I'm Vanessa Rule. I'm the co-founder and Learning and Expansion Director for Mother's Out [00:01:00] Front, also co-founder of Better Future Project and 350Massachusetts. I've been organizing on climate change for 11 years now.

Curt Newton: [00:01:10] Can we go back on one aspect of your title, your role, Mother's Out Front. It was expansion ... What was it?

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:17] And learning.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:01:18] Learning and expansion.

Curt Newton: [00:01:18] Learning.

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:19] Learning and expansion.

Curt Newton: [00:01:19] Yeah. Yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:21] You want to know what that's about?

Curt Newton: [00:01:22] I'd love to hear more about learning and expansion, 'cause that's ...

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:25] And how are they tied together.

Curt Newton: [00:01:27] That sounds awesome.

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:28] Right. So, expansion is how do we go to scale, how do we grow beyond our existing states.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:01:34] You just moved to California, got things going in San Jose and other places in California.

Vanessa Rule: [00:01:40] Yeah. California's gonna be turning into what we call a 'deep organizing state', so that has stuff on the ground. I've been working with moms, in between six and eight other states in the last year and a half, who've wanted to get involved, but just working with them remotely which has been a really interested learning experience. As a community [00:02:00] organizer, organizing is all about relationships and face to face interactions and being right in the thick of it in terms of the strategy piece. So, talking to people 3,000 miles away and figuring out how to support them to do this has been a really different approach. So, one of the thing's we're trying to figure out is the balance between depth and breadth and building power, where you need people that are moving policy in a very concrete way and that you need a lot of power for that, you need deep organizing and a lot of resources to make that happen. But, we also know part of the strategy is to shift the cultural narrative within which change is possible. So, decision makers are looking at what's politically feasible within a cultural context, so there's the getting those concrete policy wins, but also changing people's relationship to climate change and what's [00:03:00] possible.

Curt Newton: [00:03:01] Could you go back on the depth and breadth thing for a moment?

Vanessa Rule: [00:03:03] Sure.

Curt Newton: [00:03:04] Just say a little bit more about what those constitute. What's the depth? What's the breadth?

Vanessa Rule: [00:03:08] Yeah. So, depth is ... One of the questions that you'd asked me was, at what scale do we operate? Basically we need a global transition, but our understanding is we have the experts, we understand the problem, we know what we need to do to address the climate crisis when we don't have this political will. In order to do that, we need to move decision makers and we need to build political power. The scale at which you do that is very local, because it depends on people's ability to build relationships with each other to experience agency together, so they need to be able to find things that they can actually get results on. They need to learn to organize and that takes a lot of leadership development, it takes a lot of learning.

 At the same time, there are mothers all over the country who are ready to jump on and say, [00:04:00] "We need our voices heard." So, the breadth is really about just giving mothers a voice, but we know just giving people a voice isn't gonna change ... it's not gonna easily result in any concrete change at the policy level. So, really utilizing the interface between those two things, of winning those concrete political wins and then just ... I always think of, I don't know if this is a good analogy, but the Tea Party did a really great job. They were just mobilizing people to be really loud in these town meetings.

Curt Newton: [00:04:29] Yeah, we should be learning from everybody here, right?

Vanessa Rule: [00:04:31] Yes. Yeah.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:04:33] I'd love to hear a little bit more about the leadership development and learning activities that you've been involved with or are happening right now that reflect what you've been saying.

Vanessa Rule: [00:04:45] The people that we work with, they call themselves 'unsuspecting activists', mothers who have never done any kind of political activism, organizing, who turns out many of them have [00:05:00] felt alone and isolated and paralyzed by the sense of overwhelm. So, the first step is to create community, so they're not feeling alone and realizing they can work together to affect change. Then, there are tried and true organizing skills that social movements have drawn on for the history of time. Knowing how to have a one-to-one conversation with somebody to find out what they're interested in and see where your interests match and how to get them involved, learning how to tell your story, learning how to develop a strategy, learning how to organize a rally. So, there's a lot of learning and there's a lot of risk taking for a lot of people as they grow.

 One of the most gratifying things about this work, to me, is seeing people's lives transform through the work that they do together, both in terms of realizing that they don't have to figure this out alone and that there's incredible hope in working together, but [00:06:00] also in discovering things they never thought they could do. The number of people who've said like, "I never thought I could do public speaking. I never thought I'd go over and talk to my elected officials. I never thought I'd be running a training or building a team." I've had members of Mothers Out Front, say to me, "This has been like going back to college. It's opened up these pathways that I didn't even know were possible."

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:06:26] Any examples come to mind that really illustrate, right now, what's happening in that learning space and growing and transforming for members of Mothers Out Front?

Vanessa Rule: [00:06:36] I mean, it's happening all the time. So, when Kelsey and I started, the first question was, is it even possible to engage moms on this issue? I was telling you earlier that I didn't come to doing this work as a mother, even though my kids were three and six when I started, because within my group of friends of [00:07:00] mothers it was a really unpopular topic. It was the downer conversation, like nobody wanted to touch that thing. So, I was not sure when Kelsey showed up and said, "Hey. I'm a mother. The reason I'm doing this is because I think about my children and there must be other mothers out there ..." The question was, how are people going to respond and how do we get them to step away from their incredibly busy lives to get involved? I mean, it feels like we've tapped into this untapped goldmine. It's about giving people a viable pathway for action and connecting them to each other, and then they learn together. So, a huge part of our learning approach is to create conditions for learning.

 We have some ideas and some tried and true practices, but everything we do involves a reflective piece. So, every Mothers Out Front meeting ends with what we call 'pluses, deltas, and key learnings', "What went well about this [00:08:00] meeting? What would you change to make it better next time? What's one thing you learned?" That's every meeting all the way to the major action, so there's this constant idea that we're figuring this out together. That there isn't a tried and true path that we're forming-

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:08:15] There's no handbook that you can pull of the shelf and say, "Okay, now we're at step two."

Vanessa Rule: [00:08:18] I'm trying to write it, but it keeps getting rewritten. It's like every time we move to a new state or a new community, it's like somebody ... I mean, people are bringing their resources and their life experiences and different insights that enrich our approach, so it's constantly evolving.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:08:36] Mm-hmm (affirmative), okay.

Vanessa Rule: [00:08:36] So, one of the challenges is capturing those learnings, and then figuring out what can you codify, and going back to expansion, and replicate, and what do you need to honor as ... I think it's more of the process as opposed to the content.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:08:52] Mm-hmm (affirmative). You can't necessarily fast-forward every group, they have to start where they are and that sort of thing?

Vanessa Rule: [00:08:59] Yeah. [00:09:00] So, part of how we encourage learning is through the process of coaching, and that's a scary word for some people, but there's always somebody who's ... We talk about coaching as being the fish shadow of the fishbowl, you don't know you're in water if you're in water. So, having that sort of person asking you questions to get you to connect the dots is a really important part of the process, and that connects back to the leadership and development.

Curt Newton: [00:09:25] I was wondering if we could go back in time, before Mothers Out Front. You have a history of working on these issues, that definitely predates, right?

Vanessa Rule: [00:09:37] Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Curt Newton: [00:09:37] Take us back before Mothers Out Front, what did doing this work look like?

Vanessa Rule: [00:09:41] Well, I think it was probably very similar to what a lot of people feel when they start getting involved in Mothers Out Front, which was I thought I had to do it all by myself, and I thought I had to have all of the solutions and all the answers. But, I had the instinct that I couldn't do it by myself. [00:10:00] I saw Inconvenient Truth and it scared the living hell out of me, and for whatever reason that spoke to me in a way that I think doesn't necessarily to most people, but my reaction was just to go find people in my community who were working on this, and approached it in a very rational, technical perspective, which was, "Oh, we have too many missions, so we need to transition off fossil fuels and this is a technological problem." I was leaving a group called Summer of Acclimate Action and we divided the cities carbon footprint into the different sectors and developed a strategy for working with each sector to draw down. Then, it became clear that that wouldn't cut it in terms of the rate at which the science was evolving and that the data was coming in.

 Then, 350.org made it clear that this was a political problem, not a technical problem. So, I learned about [00:11:00] movement building and my entry there was actually through a group of students called Students for Justin's Stable Future, who said, "Well, 350 has a great goal, but how are we gonna get there?" They said, right before the Copenhagen 2009 year end climate summit said, "We're going to call in the Massachusetts legislature to meet all of electricity needs 100% by 2050 with renewable energy. The way we're gonna do that is we're gonna protest having to sleep in dorms and homes powered by fossil fuels. We're gonna pitch tents on the Boston Common, sleep outside, and protest. Then, put on business attire on Monday morning and walk into the state house and say, 'We need to transition.'" So, I joined that. The students really led the way, for me, and opened that door to movement building.

Curt Newton: [00:11:50] So, there's this kind of pre Mothers Out Front way of looking at movement building. Could you say a little bit more? Kind of summarize what that looks like, for people who haven't been part of one [00:12:00] of these organizations.

Vanessa Rule: [00:12:01] Yeah. So, it's about developing leadership in others. I'm drawing ... A lot of what I'm sharing here is actually drawn from the work of Marshall Ganz at the Harvard Kennedy School, who has looked at the best practices in organizing history, and developed his own framework and codified it and now teaches a class. But, he defines leadership as enabling others to take action in the face of uncertainty, I think.

Curt Newton: [00:12:27] Yeah, yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:12:27] So, it really is about enabling others. When we talk about the paradigm shift, or how do you build political will, it's really changing our understanding and our relationship to power, from power over to power with, and the idea that you have experts at the top who are gonna have the solutions and that you need to trust them to do that. Shifting from that paradigm to the idea that it is coming together and trusting ourselves and having the agency, the collective agency, to create the future or the world that we want.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:12:58] But, you're not saying [00:13:00] science and technology is not an important piece of the overall action-

Vanessa Rule: [00:13:04] Oh, yeah, but that's not the missing piece of the puzzle right now. So, we have science and technology, but we don't have ... We have incredibly powerful special interests at the decision making table that are representing one set of interests, and what we need is to have more people at the table, because the more perspectives you have at the table, the better decisions you make. So, right now most decision makers really aren't working to put the interest of children first, and if they were, they would be making really different decisions. So, our job is to represent those kids who don't have a voice and to make sure that their interests are represented as we make ... yeah.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:13:46] What's an example of, right now, 2018, the Mothers Out Front is doing in that regard to bringing children's perspectives or future generations perspectives to the table?

Vanessa Rule: [00:13:58] I mean, every campaign we [00:14:00] run has that perspective. I mean, it's pretty wonky stuff honestly, which is the other incredible thing about Mothers Out Front is that we've gotten people really interested in things like fossil fuel infrastructure and things like community choice energy, which are these sophisticated mechanisms to try to reduce emissions.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:14:20] So, any campaign that Mothers Out Front is doing reflects that, I guess is what you're saying?

Vanessa Rule: [00:14:24] Yeah. I mean, we're acting with our voices as mothers and bringing that voice into the decision making room, which it really hasn't been. In terms of the overall climate movement, we found that when people talk about climate change, first of all the connect it to the environment, they don't talk about people much, or it's really not children, and that that really changes the dynamic. So, having mothers show up as opposed to "environmentalists", quote-on-quote, or students, is a really different experience for a lot of politicians.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:14:58] Is there a recent [00:15:00] hearing or something that you were involved with, or others of Mothers Out Front, or where that perspective came to the floor?

Vanessa Rule: [00:15:06] Yeah. So, our mothers are really, really good at telling their stories. We coach them and train them in telling their stories and really speaking. So, one of the things we've learned is that facts are a lot less compelling than stories, and people relating to each other as human beings. So, mothers talking about what this is going to mean for their children and why they're involved and making it really granular, and making it real basically, is definitely a tactic that we use a lot. Just having moms show up at hearings, and there are hearings every day. I mean, there was one in Boston last week. Honestly, I can't remember ...

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:15:42] It could be the city level, could be town level, could be state level, could be federal. Any level really.

Vanessa Rule: [00:15:47] Not federal at this point, but yeah-

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:15:48] Not federal. Okay.

Vanessa Rule: [00:15:49] Yeah, city and state.

Dave Lishansky: [00:15:50] So, you talked about this mindset shift from power over into power with.

Vanessa Rule: [00:15:56] Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dave Lishansky: [00:15:57] I'm wondering what that shift was like for [00:16:00] you. Was that hard? Do you remember when that clicked for you? Or, was that something that you came to the table with and are trying to talk about more?

Vanessa Rule: [00:16:09] I mean, I think it was always intuitive at some level, but it wasn't articulated. We talk about organizing, about making the implicit explicit, and that's what a lot of what we do in terms of learning ... All this stuff is something that human beings do naturally, but becoming very aware of how you use those approaches explicitly and being strategic about it is what we do. So, I remember, I think it was the policy director from 350.org, I was having coffee with at one point, and I was saying, "What do we need to do in Massachusetts to really step it up?" He said, "We need more of you. You need to go find other people and develop their leadership instead of trying to be the leader or holding on to power." That's, I think, a [00:17:00] real transformation that people go through when they get involved, is ...

 Everything from sitting at a house party and seeing peoples light bulbs go off when we say, "You don't have to solve this problem by yourself and we're gonna figure it out together." The palpable relief in the room is one of the things that allows people to get involved, because that's one of the reasons people are so paralyzed. Our biggest enemy, honestly, is fear and the sense of not feeling like you connect. Once you get people to actually realize that it actually doesn't take that much to get those decision makers to move, I mean, that's been one of the biggest surprises for me. I remember the first time I walked into the state house after sleeping out on the Boston Common with the students, and they taught me how to lobby my legislature and it's the people's house. There's that division there.

Dave Lishansky: [00:17:58] How do you lobby your legislature?

Vanessa Rule: [00:18:00] [00:18:00] Well, you need to be really clear, you need to have an ask. A lot of the times they don't know anything about the issue. So, shifting from these people, again, are the power holders and the experts, to realizing they actually need you. The number of legislatures and municipal officials who have said to us, "We have been waiting for you. We've been wanting to do this, but we are not empowered to, literally." There's no way they can know the things they need to know, to know what to do. So, we're not necessarily the experts, but it really helps for them to be able to turn, during a hearing, to the 100 mothers that have packed the room, to say, "It's not me that's pushing this, it's them."

Curt Newton: [00:18:39] "The mothers made me do it."

Vanessa Rule: [00:18:40] They did, right. Listen to your mother.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:18:43] What politician can be against mothers, right?

Vanessa Rule: [00:18:46] Right. I think the other thing we've seen going back to how we're leveraging ... I mean, I don't know if it's the interest, but somebody last night at a dinner of mothers, actually, was talking about the cockroach effect, that if [00:19:00] you see two cockroaches, you know there are a whole bunch more somewhere in your kitchen, and it's sort of the same thing with the mothers. You have five mothers who show up at a hearing, you know there are about 100 who couldn't make it, because they're at work or they're carpooling or whatever they're doing.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:19:16] Childcare duties, or something.

Vanessa Rule: [00:19:18] Yeah. I think when legislatures and elected officials see mothers show up, they take notice, because they understand that we actually do have the power to decide whether or not they're gonna stay in office down the road. So, the fossil fuel industry has a lot of money, but we have votes, we also have some money, and then we have our voices, and that's really powerful in changing people's consciousness.

Curt Newton: [00:19:46] You've talked a bunch about this awakening of empowerment in people. I think that's a theme that's gonna be touching on a lot of our episodes across this season. I wonder if you could think of a moment in your life where [00:20:00] you woke up to that potential or watched somebody else wake up to it and just kind of talk us through a story about that. Anything come to mind there?

Vanessa Rule: [00:20:10] Well, there's a mother, who lives in Cambridge actually, and she tells this story about she came to a house party I facilitated within the first three months, then we held a house party facilitation training, 'cause we wanted mothers to be able to facilitate house parties. She thought she was coming to training just to learn how to host a house party, and she found herself in this training learning to be a house party facilitator, and ...

Curt Newton: [00:20:36] What's the difference between hosting and facilitating?

Vanessa Rule: [00:20:38] Well, opening your home and just basically saying, "Hey, feel free to be in my living room," and using the space, providing snacks, but letting somebody else actually do the talking.

Curt Newton: [00:20:48] Got it.

Vanessa Rule: [00:20:49] What we were teaching her was how to do the talking and being in front of the room. She said that she was terrified, but her instinct was just to say 'yes' [00:21:00] and that's been her experience over and over and over again. The organizer would come to her and say, "Would you speak at this rally? Would you lead a team? Would you do this?" and just keeps saying 'yes' and taking those baby steps, and realizing that there are other mothers who've done this and that you don't need to be an expert, all you need to do is be a mom. Not that all you need to so is be a mom, but there's a lot that comes with that. It's just about putting one step in front of the other and just following in other people's tracks. She's now coaching moms in California and other parts of the country, and one of the things she says to them is, "I'm just one step ahead of you." Just that connection and that reassurance. A lot of people just need courage, they know what to do once they believe they can do it. But, it's shifting from, again, that place powerlessness and other people have the [00:22:00] answers that are experts out there, to realizing that we're the leaders we've been waiting for.

Curt Newton: [00:22:05] I can't think of anything more necessary in this situation.

Vanessa Rule: [00:22:09] Right. I think a lot of people are giving up, given the state of the world, and, to me, that's what keeps me up at night. How do you convince people that it actually doesn't take that much? They don't need to drop their whole lives, they don't need to do anything heroic, but what's heroic is actually choosing to do something, and it really doesn't take that much. I mean, just in the city of Cambridge ... I don't know if whether Zeyneb told you the story.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:22:39] Zeyneb Magavi?

Vanessa Rule: [00:22:40] Yeah.

Curt Newton: [00:22:40] Yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:22:40] Who you spoke to. So, they started by asking households to switch to clean energy on their utility bill to say, "We're gonna choose renewables," 'cause you have that options. Then, they got 100 households to do that. They went to, I think, most Cambridge city councilors and said, "We are [00:23:00] doing this for our kids. This really matters to us. We're gonna ask you to do the same thing, this is the right thing for you to do as a leader. We don't want you to stop at your own household, we want you to switch the city of Cambridge to clean energy." They learned that the city of Cambridge had a municipal electricity contract with TransCanada, which is a company that exploits the tar sands and was behind building the Keystone XL pipeline, so they found one city councilor who became a champion and said, "This is great. I'd love to support you on this," and who showed them the ropes and they put forth a resolution at city council to ask the mayor to break the contract for the TransCanada, and build a whole campaign around that, were successful, and now they're ...

 I think the mayor committed to transitioning the city ... They did break the contract, and they were gonna transition to 100% renewable generated within the city of Cambridge in two years. So, that's a micro example, then you think, "Okay, how is this gonna affect climate change?" But, if you're doing that in communities all [00:24:00] over the country, all the sudden you have a movement that's able to shift things at the state level, and then at the national level.

Curt Newton: [00:24:06] Yeah. Can you break down what happened in Cambridge just a little bit more for me? How long did it take from this original idea to ... ?

Vanessa Rule: [00:24:15] Frankly, I don't know the details, but I think it was pretty quick. I mean, in terms of ... I mean, it took them awhile to get traction, they were one of our first teams. So again, going back to learning, the San Jose, California team did something similar where they were the tipping point on a campaign around this thing called Community Choice Energy, that basically gets a municipality to put in a certain amount of renewable energy that customers get in the city in its portfolio. This fight, that divided city council, had been going on for six years and the moms showed up in their t-shirts with their kids, they had the kids testify, they [00:25:00] testified, and within the span of a few months they was done. They had unanimous vote, 'cause the city councilors didn't wanna come out against the mothers and the kids. So, it's pretty magical.

Curt Newton: [00:25:11] Yeah. Yeah. It's unlike a lot of the experiences I've had trying to push these things along, so I'm so inspired by hearing some of the things that your group's done.

Vanessa Rule: [00:25:23] What do you think the difference is?

Curt Newton: [00:25:25] That's a fascinating question. It's one that kind of keeps me awake at night, what the difference? I try to go in and tell my story, why this is important to me.

Vanessa Rule: [00:25:36] Do you do it by yourself?

Curt Newton: [00:25:38] I don't think I'm nearly as organized as you all. I mean, I'm part of 350 Mass, so I've usually got a few colleagues in there with me, but I'm just thinking about, "The city of Cambridge has this contract, and you want us to rip that whole thing out and completely change? Oh, that's gonna take a long time." You know?

Vanessa Rule: [00:25:58] Well, I think ... I mean, if I [00:26:00] think about 350 Mass, I think one of the things that Mothers Out Front does, is it acts very locally, which is counterintuitive. So, there's this sweet spot where individual actions are important, but we know that we're not gonna solve things that way, because the problem is we need to change the rules of the game. We need decision makers to make different rules. So, it's not gonna be enough for us to just change our behavior. Then, if you go too high too fast, you just don't have the power.

 So, in Massachusetts, our first campaign, we were helping moms get households to switch as an expression of our political will, just like Cesar Chavez got people to boycott grapes, that was our equivalent. But, what we did is we went to Governor Patrick to ask him to sign an executive order that would've banned any new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state, and we had two meetings with him. Both times he said, "I'm behind you, but you don't have the numbers. Show me the numbers." So, we didn't win that first [00:27:00] campaign, and what we learned from that is we just hadn't built enough power. Where you build the power is very much in your community, because winning is contagious, or it's addictive. So, that Cambridge team ... doing that emboldened other teams, and there's stories like that all over Massachusetts and beyond. So, it's sort of counterintuitive, but you actually have to start small to grow big.

Curt Newton: [00:27:25] Yeah. You're getting into another thing I wanted to touch on which is, how do you share the successes in one of your local groups more broadly? It feels like that's a key part of solving the bigger challenge here, we've got groups doing great things and innovative things, how do we scale that up? By developing a movement, I think is what you were talking about.

Vanessa Rule: [00:27:46] Yeah, so sharing the stories, I think, is really critical. So, increasingly ... One of the things that I've been doing on expansion, has been to bring mothers from different states together to talk about those stories and [00:28:00] having this vision of, "Oh, they did this in this place, and that's very inspiring and emboldening to mothers who are starting to do it somewhere else. So, definitely, again, bringing people together and creating that cross realization. I mean, we have a lot of group meetings where team leaders come together every couple of weeks, or once a month, to share their stories, and when a team locks into something and figures something out, it's like, "What did you do there?" and then other people start replicating it. So, self-organizing, every team is sort of an incubator, and they all have different strengths. So, every Mothers Out Front team innovates in some way and in a way that other teams can just pick up on.

Curt Newton: [00:28:47] I'm getting a sense that this was almost all volunteer driven, right?

Vanessa Rule: [00:28:51] It is.

Curt Newton: [00:28:52] People must be putting-

Vanessa Rule: [00:28:53] We say volunteer led.

Curt Newton: [00:28:54] Yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:28:55] Yeah.

Curt Newton: [00:28:55] Must be a lot of time going into this though. Do you have a [00:29:00] sense that you get more time per week out of people than your typical advocacy group?

Vanessa Rule: [00:29:06] Yeah, I think we have the equivalent of 42 staff, in full-time equivalent staff in volunteer hours a year. So, the average ... I actually don't know the numbers off the top of my head, but something between one and twenty hours a week. Now, there's some really equity issues with that, because a lot of the people who can afford to give time are often wealthier folk, so we're really compensating on that front to make sure that we're investing staff resources into marginalized communities or communities that don't have the same resources.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:29:42] What's an example of that?

Vanessa Rule: [00:29:44] Right now we're working in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which is really ground zero, first sea level rise.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:29:50] Sure. Every 70 days it floods and things like that.

Vanessa Rule: [00:29:54] Yes. A place where they don't talk about climate change, they talk about [inaudible 00:29:58], they talk about recurrent [00:30:00] flooding. Where there's just been systematic oppression of communities and relatively little civic engagement. I mean, New England is really ... Massachusetts is very privileged in that way, that people are not ... It's not that big a lift to get people to walk into city hall and tell their stories. In communities that have traditionally been oppressed, it's a whole different thing. So, I think one of the things that's amazing about what we're doing is we're working on climate change, but really we're rebuilding democracy and getting people to change their relationship to power and realize that they should have a voice, and they have a voice if they come together and organize. Moving from being alone and vulnerable, to coming together and realizing you can take on Goliath that way.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:30:51] It sounds also like you're customizing it to each local situation.

Vanessa Rule: [00:30:55] Yeah.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:30:55] Hampton Roads is different than Boston.

Vanessa Rule: [00:30:57] Yeah. So, that's the other interesting thing about [00:31:00] Mothers Out Front. When I worked at the very local level, when I started doing climate work, we had some national organizations that would come in and have an agenda, and say, "Well, this is really interesting, what you're doing, but really, if you want to do something meaningful, work on my national campaign." That made me crazy, I hated that so much, because I felt like we were having a great time. We were innovating, we were doing some really interesting work, and I think one of the things I love about Mothers Out Front is that we're going to scale, but in a way that truly honors local decision making and trusting that people have the resources and the knowledge that they need to get there. So, the way we work is we set ... there's a goal, which is we want to transition off of fossil fuels as swiftly, justly, and completely as possible. Then, within that, how you get there is gonna really look different based on the local conditions.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:31:54] What's the near future look like? In terms of expansion, getting the learnings from one [00:32:00] place to another, that sort of thing.

Vanessa Rule: [00:32:02] So, a lot of our work is based on the 2008 Obama campaign, and there's a great book called Groundbreakers-

Curt Newton: [00:32:09] That's the way it was organized.

Vanessa Rule: [00:32:11] Yes.

Curt Newton: [00:32:12] The campaign, yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:32:13] Well, really the model that we're using, which is about building local teams and a lot of the organizing skills teaching people to do one-to-one meetings to recruit each other and set up teams, develop goals, and do all the work that they need to do to win. An electoral organizing is really different from issue organizing, 'cause electoral, it's really clear what the goal is. With us, it's like what is it gonna take? We're not totally sure. But, one of the things about that story is every state, they would learn something. So, the next state would be that much more sophisticated. I don't mean to say that they first ... but, it's like every state we go into we've learned that much more, so we're starting just a little further ahead.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:32:57] Building on the shoulders of the folks that have [00:33:00] already tried it.

Vanessa Rule: [00:33:00] Yes.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:33:01] Yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:33:01] So, that's really exciting. So, I'm super excited about California, because we're benefiting from five years of trial and error. Hopefully, its exponential growth because of that, so it's very exciting.

Dave Lishansky: [00:33:17] What is it that makes mothers, in particular, so good at this?

Vanessa Rule: [00:33:22] Love and commitment. This truly is ... You feel it in your gut. I mean, you can't go to sleep at night thinking about your children. So, there's a level of commitment and that sense of ... A number of mothers say to me that they got to a point where they realized that nobody else was gonna fix this and that they had to do it. Who else is gonna do it? Nobody's gonna do it. So, they just have to go in there, and there's a fearlessness when you're fighting for somebody else, that I think allows you to take some incredible risks. Then, there's a whole modeling. This involves going out of your comfort [00:34:00] zone, to some extent, which is incredibly rewarding, because you find out you can do these things and you learn and it's a transformational experience. But, what gives people the courage is the love they have for their kids.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:34:12] Courage and motivation to stay with it.

Vanessa Rule: [00:34:16] Right. So, the number of times that I have felt overwhelmed, and my daughter has actually said to me, "You can't give up." I mean-

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:34:23] Wow.

Vanessa Rule: [00:34:24] She says that to me on a regular basis.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:34:27] Wow.

Vanessa Rule: [00:34:28] Not that I think about giving up, but ... I do ... I mean, this is hard.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:34:31] It's discouraging sometimes, yeah.

Vanessa Rule: [00:34:32] It is. I mean, it feels ... When you see what's happening with the US point of the Paris Climate Agreement ... I mean, I've been at this for 10 years and the numbers are going the wrong way. So, at the same time, I've seen how much the movement has grown, but they don't have the choice, and I think that's one of the things I loved about working with students was they have clarity. We can, I think, [00:35:00] as older people afford to second guess ourselves, but when this is your future and there's no alternative, it's a whole different thing.

Curt Newton: [00:35:10] I hope you get a chance to write that organizing manual.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:35:12] I'm looking forward to it.

Curt Newton: [00:35:13] It's gonna be a bestseller.

Dave Damm-Luhr: [00:35:15] 'Cause it could be used by lots of organizations, too, not just Mothers Out Front.

Vanessa Rule: [00:35:19] We do have it, and it's a constant work in progress, but it's actually on our website at mothersoutfront.org. You need to be signed up to our email list to have access to it, but it is there. It's completely built around the Massachusetts gas leaks case study. So, it basically tells the story of how they went from two moms to having an impact in the state legislature, to get the utilities to consider gas leaks as environmental threat for the first time, and then sort of all of the organizing practices that are attached going from zero to sixty.

Curt Newton: [00:35:58] We [00:36:00] hope you've enjoyed this extended interview cut. Please be sure to check it out in context in the prior episode three, Learning in Community with Mothers Out Front.

Mothers Out Front Website

Climate Conversations S3E1: The Psychology of Learning to Change, a Conversation with Renee Lertzman - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e1-psychology-learning-change-conversation-renee-lertzman

Climate Conversations S3E2: Free Choice Learning in Universities with MIT Terrascope - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e2-free-choice-learning-universities-mit-terrascope

Climate Conversations S3E3: Learning in Community with Mothers Out Front - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e3-learning-community-mothers-out-front

Climate Conversations S3E4: NextGen Learning to Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e4-nextgen-learning-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan

Climate Conversations S3E5: More with MIT Terrascope Lecturer Dr. Ari Epstein - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e5-more-mit-terrascope-lecturer-dr-ari-epstein

Climate Conversations S3E6: The Making of a Climate Scientist with MIT Terrascope Alumna Lauren Kuntz - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e6-making-climate-scientist-mit-terrascope-alumna-lauren-kuntz

Climate Conversations S3E7: Building a Community with Mothers Out Front Co-Founder Vanessa Rule - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e7-building-community-mothers-out-front-co-founder-vanessa-rule

Climate Conversations S3E8: Moving into Action with Mothers Out Front Chapter Leader Stacy Levy - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e8-moving-action-mothers-out-front-chapter-leader-stacy-levy

Climate Conversations S3E9: Teaching Climate Change with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Teacher Cate Arnold - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e9-teaching-climate-change-boston-latin-school-youthcan-teacher

Climate Conversations S3E10: From Learning to Teaching with Boston Latin School & YouthCAN Alumna Rebecca Park - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e10-learning-teaching-boston-latin-school-youthcan-alumna-rebecca

Climate Conversations S3E11: Learning to Lead with Boston Latin School YouthCAN Co-President Susan Tang - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e11-learning-lead-boston-latin-school-youthcan-co-president-susan

Climate Conversations S3E12: Turning Learning into Habits with Quinton Zondervan, City Counselor - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e12-turning-learning-habits-quinton-zondervan-city-counselor

Climate Conversations S3E13: Season 3 Wrap-up: What Have We Learned About Learning To Change? - https://climate.mit.edu/podcasts/climate-conversations-s3e13-season-3-wrap-what-have-we-learned-about-learning-change