Sustainable Waterloo Region has historically been a non-profit focused on service delivery as a means of achieving our mission. Our mission, though it has evolved over the past three years, has always had the word ‘collaborative’ in it. And collaboration has been a core value since the beginning, while continuing to define the organization. Personally, this approach has always motivated me. While I recognize the need for many types of eNGOs, including more confrontational groups like the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, one of Sustainable Waterloo Region’s strengths has been our acute focus on a collaborative approach, across all of our work.
To-date, our collaborative approach has led to a clear distinction between our work and any type of advocacy. Our non-codified policy has always been that we are a non-partisan organization with no advocacy activity. Given our commitment to an inclusive, collaborative model, we have never put ourselves in a situation that might compromise the success of this approach. So when I’ve been pushed to comment by the media on a particular policy or political event such as COP 15, I have done my best to stick to the clear need for our political leaders to show leadership with respect to the business case for sustainability – both for ecological and economical reasons – without any reference to what specific policy options might accomplish this.
Several recent events have tested our definition of this approach however. First, we had a municipal election and several volunteers felt we should have a voice of some kind. As a result, I wrote an op-ed in The Record urging voters to ask meaningful questions with respect to sustainability if they would like to really engage political candidates on the issue.
Next, the Canadian Senate recently voted against Bill C-311 without any debate, after it had been passed in the House of Commons this past spring. This bill was the only federal legislation on climate change and would have bound the federal government to set regulations to establish targets to bring GHG emissions 25% below a 1990 baseline by 2020 and set a long-term target to bring emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
I, like many others (including many on our team), was deeply disappointed by this result. As an organization though, there was nothing we could do. This bill has many supporters but also many detractors, some of which we risk alienating if we took a position on the bill as an organization. Worse yet, there could be elements of the bill which we’re unaware of and which might show our Senate to have made a wise decision. Truthfully, no one at Sustainable Waterloo Region has read the bill in full, and we have limited internal expertise to compile a thorough critique of the failed legislation. And so, Jenn – our Social Media Manager – and I had to discuss whether the term ‘strike down’ was too charged when we tweeted about the bill getting put to an end. We decided to use the wording, and I felt like we were pushing the envelope!
Most recently, this past weekend a rally was held for light rail transit (LRT). Sustainable Waterloo Region does not have a public stance on LRT. The organization has never had any stance on policy at this level – rather, if I was pushed by the media, I would likely comment on our support for more active transit options and making it easier for people to leave their cars at home – again because there are environmental and economic benefits to doing so (just ask John Hill at the Region how much a parking space costs them every year to maintain!). To have an opinion on LRT though would be challenging –who are we to assess the urban planning decision of regional staff & Council? How can Sustainable Waterloo Region assess whether our region can afford the project? In short, with current resources, we can’t. Again, in doing so we risk potentially alienating many of our supporters. But all that said, again as an individual, I am supportive of LRT. I think it’s worth the investment, particularly when compared to the cost of business as usual. So, I went to the rally. On a weekend. On my own time. And I deftly stood behind a sign when I saw media taking pictures!
In light of these events, many of our volunteers and staff have begun to question Sustainable Waterloo Region’s lack of a codified advocacy policy, myself included. Some of our members have even asked us what we’re doing to help bring about local policy change, given the changes they’re making in their operations. And I’ve also been reading Forces for Good – on the recommendation of a good friend from Pathways to Education – where I’ve been learning about several high-impact not-for-profits that have benefitted tremendously from their abilities to balance advocacy and service.
So we discussed it at a team meeting in late November, and this resulted in a team of 5 staff & volunteers interested in championing the creation of a clear direction for Sustainable Waterloo Region with respect to political advocacy.
We have also discussed how and if any advocacy work could fit within the strategic direction that our Board approved earlier this year, namely our three Strategic Approaches: Facilitating Collaborative Dialogue, Measuring Action, and Celebrating Impact. As a team, we agreed that some forms of advocacy or lobbying could meet these.
And so, these discussions as a team then led me to put advocacy on the agenda at our most recent Board meeting in early December – to first of all discuss as a Board, but also with a recommendation that these interested staff & volunteers put together a framework that will guide future decision-making when it comes to advocacy. This framework would prepare Sustainable Waterloo Region to respond to future federal and local policy, in whatever way we agree on as a group.
Truthfully, we might decide to stay silent as an organization and focus on service delivery programs, like the Regional Carbon Initiative. Or it might be that we provide a communication medium for our members to voice their concerns to policy makers. Or that we do take a stance on certain policy issues – maybe local ones, or maybe stick with a focus on policy related to GHG emission reductions for now?
Of course I don’t have these answers yet. And that’s a good thing – the framework we come up with will come from discussions across the organization and with many of our key stakeholders, be it Regional Carbon Initiative members, event sponsors, previous event attendees, etc… Our decision will be well-founded in research and best practices from other leading, high-impact non-profits. And it will hopefully unify the shared vision of our volunteers, staff and Board.
I’m excited to begin this project – it’s another opportunity for us to define the type of organization and impact that Sustainable Waterloo Region will have in the future. And I hope to report back here with an update once progress is made over the next few months.
In the meantime, let me know if you would like to help at all. Does your organization have a template for the type of framework I’m describing above that you would be willing to share? Do you have any government relations or advocacy experience that you could lend to this project, maybe even just for a 30min phone call with the project team? Or do you know someone that does? Maybe you have a suggestion for the process, or critique of our approach to advocacy to-date?
Feel free to email me or leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!
5 thoughts on “Grappling with an Intimidating Possibility: Advocacy”
It’s an interesting question. I would suggest that you have the chance to advocate for change specifically on policies that may be hindering the environmental sustainability of your member organizations. Your members are operating in a particular context, so their environmental footprint is partially dictated by that.
Do their employees have the opportunity to live within walking distance of their work? Are there nearby shops that allow people to get what they need on their way home instead of making a separate trip? You could be advocating for mixed-use zoning, for removing the strict separations between land uses, and for removing the incentives for sprawl.
Each property is required (again, by zoning) to have a large amount of parking. There’s large real and opportunity costs to providing it, but the amount required is so large that it only makes sense to provide it for free. You could be advocating for reduced or eliminated parking requirements for property. That would allow member organizations to make their own judgements about the benefits and costs of parking, allowing them to implement more balanced incentives to using other modes of transportation.
Those are just a couple of examples; there’s a whole world of government policy out there that makes it difficult to live and work sustainably. Sustainable Waterloo Region could — and I would say, should — be advocating for policy at various levels of government that make it easier for its members to become more sustainable and productive. Particularly if you emphasize your member base, I think that your voice would be given a fair amount of attention.
Thanks for your comments Michael – well said.
Advocating for policy change that would help Regional Carbon Initiative members achieve their GHG commitments gets at the heart of what can be very powerful about a primarily service-based NGO getting into advocacy: one can nicely complement the other, and as you argue, might even be required to achieve some of the ambitious commitments made by members to-date.
In the post above, I mention in passing that some of our members have asked about what we’re doing with respect to local policy, and this is exactly what I meant – outside of changing location for example, it’s difficult for a member organization to reduce their emissions from employee commuting if they aren’t well served by public transit and/or accessible cycling infrastructure.
This will definitely be part of the discussion over the next few months.
Mike, I’ve always appreciated how you and Sustainable Waterloo Region seek to bring positive change and economic & environmental responsibility to Waterloo and elsewhere from within the confines of a community, including businesses and governments, instead of against and outside of said institutions. I really believe you’ll see a greater openness to change that way.
However, I see the situation you find yourselves in now, and it’s a tricky one! Interested in seeing which direction you end up taking. Keep us all posted!
I think it’s important for groups to advocate for policies that will enable us to address the issues of Climate Change. We all live within a political framework, and to be silent is to actually take a position. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Perhaps we tend to think of Climate Change as an environmental issue, but it is also a justice issue. In the preface to the paper, “Managing the health effects of Climate Change, the authors state, “The inequality of climate change – with the rich causing most of the problem and the poor initially suffering most of the consequences – will prove to be a source of historical shame to our generation if nothing is done to address it.”(1)
Indeed, one might speculate that the Regional Carbon Initiative might not even exist if the Government of Canada had put in place policies to enable Canada to meet it’s commitment to the Kyoto accord reductions of 6% below 1990 levels for greenhouse gas emissions for the 2008-2012 period. Instead, Canada is above the 1990 emission levels, and we seem intent on exploiting the tar sands, which is a very greenhouse-gas intensive endeavor.
1. Costello,A., Abbas, M., Allen,A., Ball, S., Bell, S., Bellamy, R., Friel, S. Grace, N. Johnson, A., Kett, M. Lee, M. Levy, C., Maslin, M., McCoy, D., McGuire, B., Montgomery, H., Napier, D., Pagel, C., Patel, J., Puppim de Oliveira, J.A., Redclift, N., Rees, H., Rogger, D., Scott, J., Stephenson, J., Twigg, J., Wolff, J. and Patterson, C. (2009). Managing the health effects of climate change. The Lancet, Vol 373, 16 May 2009.
Caterina, thank you for your comment. Your quote from Archbishop Tutu is one that will certainly serve as inspiration for our team of staff & volunteers that look at creating an advocacy framework for Sustainable Waterloo Region over the next few months.
And to your second point, I definitely agree that our work at the community level is strongly shaped by the policies of the Federal government. This point was really the overarching take-away from our most recent Educational Forum – communities across Canada continue to have the opportunity to show leadership nationally. And in Waterloo Region I think we have some meaningful progress to share with other communities in this regard. In fact, one example of this will be the topic of my next blog post, which should be posted over the next few days!
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