How effective?

Recent reactions to posts about actions related to social and environmental justice have made me reflect again on their effectiveness. My very good friend Alvin Sangsuwangul at the Kheprw Institute (KI) frequently asks, “what actually changed as a result?”

My earliest experiences were related to the Vietnam War. One thing we did at Scattergood Friends School was hold a draft conference, where the various alternatives available to young men at the time they were required to register for the Selective Service System were presented. The option to register as a conscientious objector to war was not widely known. Perhaps someone who attended the conference did that, instead of going into the armed forces. Education about justice is always a good goal.


Draft conference, Scattergood 1969

The effectiveness of the Peace Walk during the National Moratorium Against the Vietnam War on October 15, 1969, when the entire student body and most of the faculty walked in silence from the School into Iowa City, about 12 miles away, to participate in activities that day at the University of Iowa, might be more difficult to measure. This may be one of those things some deride as only making those who participate feel better. That was definitely one effect. We were traumatized by the relentless news of the war, which was perhaps more difficult for those who believed in peace. This was a time we were called to say NO, to witness against war. For me, I store things like that internally, to draw from in the future in difficult times.

That walk was just one of many things done across the country that day, and other Moratorium days. I don’t think there is much doubt that these demonstrations hastened the end of our involvement in the Vietnam War.

The next national campaign I was involved with was the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, which was launched in 2013. The permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline was thought to be a foregone conclusion.  But environmental groups trained over 4,000 people across the United States, and had plans for civil disobedience actions in many cities if it looked like the recommendation of approval was eminent. Eventually President Obama refused the pipeline permit. Although it is true the Trump administration has approved the permit, it is questionable whether it will be built. Nebraska finally gave approval, but for an alternate route through the state. The delay, the depressed oil market, and the lower quality of the tar sands product don’t bode well for the pipeline.

The Keystone campaign in Indianapolis created a network of activists who went on to become involved in a number of other social justice efforts, such as Indiana Moral Mondays, homelessness, Black Lives Matter, kids and the environment, and the Dakota Access pipeline.

The Rainforest Action Network (RAN)’s analysis was that financial institutions and their shareholders are very susceptible to bad publicity. RAN became a leader in the global fossil fuel divestment campaign. Student pressure on college campuses have been effective in getting universities to divest.

Just before a major Morgan Stanley shareholder meeting, Rainforest activists simultaneously delivered petitions to Morgan Stanley offices in cities across the country, asking Morgan Stanley to stop investing in coal projects. We had a very nice conversation with the Morgan Stanley manager in Indianapolis. At the shareholder meeting, the decision was made to stop investing in coal.

Morgan Stanley stops

Most recently was the amazing coming together of the tribes at Standing Rock to try to protect the water from the Dakota Access pipeline, and a global movement to support them and protect water all over the world. I’ve written before about how much the spiritual approach of water protectors has meant to me. Our gatherings always included prayers.

Pressuring financial institutions and individuals to divest from the pipeline was one part of this. During one gathering in Indianapolis, after prayers a group of several hundred walked to two of the banks involved with the pipeline, Chase and PNC, and stood outside in silence as those who had accounts withdrew their money. $110,000 was withdrawn that day. I had my own positive experiences when I closed my Chase account. North Meadow Circle of Friends closed their Chase account.

It is true that oil is now flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline. But there is still a case in court involving Iowa landowners against the way eminent domain was used to allow the pipeline to be built on their property. Pressure supporting that case continues. If the landowners win, the pipeline will have to be removed from their property.  There was at least one similar case in another state that resulted in a natural gas pipeline being removed from Native land.

And pressure on financial institutions to divest or not approve new loans for Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) continues. That was the purpose of the trip to Minneapolis recently, at the US Bank headquarters. The main reason I wanted to go on that trip was to network with other water protectors I was sure would be going along, though I didn’t know who they would be ahead of time. I got to know Ed Fallon, Donnielle Wanatee, who had spoken at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), a couple of people from Standing Rock, and others. It was also inspiring to witness the organization and passion of so many people at the Minnesota branch of This kind of networking and mutual support means a lot to those involved in what are lonely and difficult struggles. The reason for choosing Minneapolis the day before the Super Bowl was played there was because of the large crowds. With the consolidation of mainstream news, the story of water protectors and other social justice actions is rarely seen on television or in newspapers. I believe that sometimes grassroots raising of awareness eventually has more effect than efforts to change laws.

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