How does social impact work? Many people doubt that social change is even possible, but those on the front lines of efforts to make the world a better place know otherwise.
In spring 2021, students in my Global Environmental Politics course at Harvey Mudd interviewed renowned changemakers from their hometowns—activists, elected officials, entrepreneurs and others—with the goal of learning tips and tricks of the trade from people with decades of experience working to pass legislation, build coalitions, change minds and reform entire industries.
Over 30 changemakers were interviewed, and students wrote up the results and chose a small number of choice quotes to share on the website of The Social Rules Project. Some of the changemakers then joined the class for a two-day workshop focused on how to bring about social change. We found the discussion to be absolutely inspiring. Here are some highlights from the interviews:
Patty Cronheim is the campaigns director for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. She works to protect New Jersey’s air, water, health and safety by fighting for a clean energy future. In addition, she leads Hopewell Township Citizens Against the PennEast Pipeline, serves on the Climate Advisory Committee for the New Jersey Sustainable Business Council and works with the Mothers Out Front Health Impacts Advisory Committee. She also is a board member of The Watershed Institute.
“There are the people who are already with you, but then there are a lot of people who are on the fence and other people you’ll never convince of anything. The people who are on the fence? Those are the people whose minds you need to change. Most of the time in advocacy, those are the people you’re going for.”
Wendy Chou is the communications and outreach manager for Acterra in Palo Alto, California, and serves on the Citizens Climate Lobby for San Mateo County. She has a PhD in environmental science, policy and management from U.C. Berkeley, a B.A. from Harvard and extensive experience in communications.
“People don’t realize how easy it is to make a difference just by showing up [e.g., to a city council meeting] and being part of that conversation. … It doesn’t take that much effort to show up to that meeting, once a month, once a week, whatever it is, and make an impact.”
Jared Huffman is the U.S. Congressman for California’s 2nd District, which spans from the Golden Gate Bridge north to the Oregon border. Huffman serves on the Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairs the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife. Prior to his legislative service, Huffman worked as a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and earlier served 12 years in local government as a director of the Marin Municipal Water District.
“I’m of the view that you just have to continuously push for the things that you want, but you’ve got to understand that you don’t always control windows. Windows open and close. The best thing you can do is just be in the mix and be ready to go when it does.”
Cary Moon is an urban planning activist in Seattle who co-founded the People’s Waterfront Coalition in 2004 and placed second in the Seattle election for mayor in 2017. She has persistently advocated for green transportation, affordable housing, and prioritizing Seattle’s natural ecosystems. In 2007, she was awarded a Stranger Genius Award for prohibiting an elevated freeway and helping to reopen Seattle’s waterfront.
“What I learned in running for mayor was to always frame arguments as vision, problem, solution—and then end with a call to action, a ‘together we can’ message. That way, you’re three-fourths positive, and you don’t get people wrapped up in the despair that occurs if you lead with a problem.”
Vic Borill is the Director of Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, a not-for-profit organization focused on improving the food system as a whole through surplus food donations from restaurants and local farms, and cookery classes at their community kitchen. They also help by growing food in the community gardens and providing food parcels in emergency situations such as COVID-19.
“I’m always a big fan of getting in a room and talking to people, going to visit people, picking up a phone. I think we can retreat behind emails really easily and then wonder why we don’t know the person.”
Carmen Ramírez is the District 5 Supervisor for Ventura County, California. She spent a decade as a member of the Oxnard City Council. She began her career as a legal aid attorney in Oxnard and Ventura, and has since served on organizations such as the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, the Economic Development Collaborative and the Southern California Association of Governments. She is a board member for Water Education for Latino Leaders and the Center for Civic Education.
“Sometimes I’d be in a closed session, almost in tears, begging people to do the right thing. But after they heard from the community members, it was a very strong motivator. That’s the only way you can do it—you cannot bring about change as one elected official.”