Earth Day Activism: Tips From the Pros

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Want to start your own Earth Day movement? Whether you’re planning an educational event, a local cleanup or a community celebration, Earth911’s experts are here to help! We sat down with Marchant Wentworth and Martin Jennings, two activists who participated in the first Earth Day in 1970, to get the low-down on what it takes to start an eco revolution and compiled these practical tips just for you.

1. Make It Unified

While 20-somethings weren’t the only ones clamoring for environmental change in the 1970s, the original Earth Day movement was characterized by the young. Wentworth was a recent college graduate when he became an Earth Day organizer, and Jennings was a 17-year-old high school senior.

But Jennings says if he could relive the occasion, he would make more of an effort to unify the movement – calling environmental issues a “common goal.”

“It was not something that was specifically a political issue,” Jennings says of the movement. “It wasn’t old and young. It wasn’t black and white. It wasn’t male and female. It was a people issue. And it concerned all of us.”

To bring commonality to your Earth Day movement, start by identifying basic environmental impacts that concern you, such as air and water quality, recycling or fuel and energy efficiency.

Once you’ve selected an issue close to your heart, think about simple ways your neighbors can get involved. For example: If you’re concerned about litter in a local park, hang a few well-placed signs or talk to your city about adding additional receptacles rather than bashing your neighbors for improper disposal.

Choosing a viable solution that is both concrete and constructive will help stamp out negative perceptions surrounding your cause, Jennings says.

2. When in Doubt, Wing It!

Good organization is key to any successful retro-style revolution. But activists preparing for the first Earth Day were often forced to wing it to get by, recalls Wentworth, who worked in the Earth Day Headquarters on P Street in Washington, D.C. in 1970.

The organizers quickly ran out of money, and employees like Wentworth worked for free, the activist recalls. Unprepared for the sudden outpouring of interest in the movement, the group was also without fact sheets and information packets.

Such misfortunes could have derailed Earth Day organizers, but a bit of resourcefulness got the job done against all odds. After rallying volunteers and borrowing computer time from nearby George Washington University, the group was ready to usher in the first Earth Day.

To keep setbacks from hindering your eco efforts, channel the laid-back attitude of the 1970s and “go with the flow.” The gritty, grassroots nature of the first Earth Day is part of what makes it so memorable. So, don’t worry if your own Earth Day celebration isn’t perfect.

3. Work with the Media

What’s the No. 1 thing Jennings would change about the Earth Day rallies held in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla.? The way he and his fellow activists approached the media.

“If I could go back and do it again, knowing what I know now, I think I would have worked the media in a different way,” he says. “If there was something lacking, it’s because we didn’t impress the people who could have truly helped us grow faster and that was the media.”

Local news sources will likely already be covering Earth Day celebrations in your area. To attract public attention to your own eco soiree, reach out to each news provider individually, including newspapers, television stations and Web-based publications serving your community. Designated tip lines are usually your best bet for your media inquiry.

4. Embrace “The Man”

For years, the corporate world and the environmental sector were at odds. But not anymore, according to our Earth Day experts.

“A lot of folks in the corporate world see that there’s a way forward here in terms of sustainability – that it’s not only good for the Earth, but it can also save them on their bottom line,” Wentworth says.

A growing number of big-name companies are embracing sustainability initiatives, including WhiteWave Foods’ zero-waste goals, Sprint’s packaging reduction plan and Coca-Cola’s pledge to make 80 million new bottles from waste recovered at the London Olympics.

While asking top companies for support may not be the best place to start, working with local small businesses can easily bolster Earth Day activities in your neighborhood. Participating in sustainable community events helps small businesses gain recognition and eco cred in the neighborhood, making a partnership a win-win for all involved.

Take a walk through your neighborhood, and talk to local business owners about assisting with or sponsoring your Earth Day extravaganza. You may find that many will be excited to provide equipment for a cleanup, sponsor a local event or provide support for an eco improvement in your community.

Once you have an “in” with a few local business owners, try giving them a few green tips that will help them cut their footprint and their bottom line. Stuck for ideas? Check out these six ways recycling can boost small business, which makes the chasing arrows seem undeniably sensible, as well as sustainable.

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Mary Mazzoni

Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.
Mary Mazzoni