Earth Charter Grassroots Organizing: Notes from the United States

Editor’s Note: We commissioned Jan Roberts, president of the Earth Charter Community Summits in the United States, to write the first new essay on “The Earth Charter in Action” because her message is an excellent “kick-off” on this topic: how do we build Expanded Awareness of the Earth Charter? Jan has been working with grassroots leaders throughout the US, where political support for the Charter has been weaker than in many other countries. Her story helps us think about how to build awareness and engagement in challenging circumstances.


Jan is now co-director, with Rick Clugston, of Earth Charter USA. As she notes herself, “Until the Earth Charter +5 conference in Amsterdam in 2005, I thought that our grassroots work in the United States was only relevant to us. I was surprised to hear a strong interest in taking a grassroots approach from Earth Charter leaders in at least nine other countries — even though their national governments were more involved in sustainable development.” There are many ideas here that others in the broader Earth Charter movement might like to pursue. Her email address is jan  [@] transformworld [.] org


The grassroots Earth Charter movement in the United State is undergoing changes. Growing a movement is like a marketing campaign. It depends on fresh, new messages and approaches to reach new people in order to build momentum. Rigidity creates stagnation. So five years after launching the Earth Charter in the United States, organizers are pushing the “refresh” button.


In 2001 the Earth Charter was launched in the United States in simultaneous Earth Charter Community Summits held in twelve cities across the country. The cities were connected via satellite connection so that each city could twice during the day come together for a round-robin broadcast to report what was occurring in their summits. The electronic connection turned out to be of primary importance because it gave each city the feeling that they were taking part in a collective national action with the Earth Charter.


Since that time many initiatives have flowed from the summits. They include weaving the Earth Charter into lesson plans for public school schools, university graduate certificates and even a master’s degree program guided by Earth Charter; city endorsements and the launch of a quality of life indicators program using the Earth Charter; adoption and use by religious organizations and interfaith groups; use of the Earth Charter in mission statements for non-governmental organizations; countless initiatives like Earth Scouts for children and youth three to fifteen years of age and individual actions that continue to spread the word about the Earth Charter.


Although Earth Charter Community Summits were never intended to be ends on to themselves, that has been the outcome in many of the 50 cities in which summits have been held since 2001. The purpose of the summit has always been to spawn actions at the community level and in people’s personal lives. Unfortunately, cities have become so focused on the annual summits that when new people arrive to become engaged, they are directed towards summit planning. On the one hand, that is great, as the summits do bring visibility of the Earth Charter to the community and participants can then engage with it through personal actions or even larger initiatives. The problem is not everyone is interested in summit planning. Also there is no tracking or on-going support for self-motivated people after the summits.


Lessons from the Women’s Movement … and from Caterpillars

We are now developing other options, in addition to the Earth Charter Community Summits, for growing the movement. One option is modeled on the women’s movement, which began in the United States with women coming together in small groups, sharing their stories about the oppression of patriarchy, becoming validated as equal human beings and then being supported by one another to go into their spheres of influence to request changes. Some women asked their husbands to do the dishes two nights a week; others went into their workplaces and demanded not only credit for their work but also equal pay; and others launched national initiatives like “Emily’s List” which funded women’s electoral campaigns for public office. Women continued to be encouraged through seminal books written by authors like Betty Friedan and national magazines like “Ms Magazine”.


A more recent metaphor for starting in small groups and linking them for transformational change is supplied by evolution biologist, Elizabeth Sahtouris:


The caterpillar is a voracious consumer that devotes its life to gorging itself on nature’s bounty. When it has had its fill, it fastens itself to a convenient twig and encloses itself in a chrysalis. Once snug inside, crisis strikes as the structures of its cellular tissue begin to dissolve into an organic soup.

Yet guided by some deep inner wisdom, a number of organizer cells begin to rush around gathering other cells to form imaginal buds, new and initially independent multicellular structures that begin to give form to the organs of a new creature. Correctly perceiving a threat to the old order, but misdiagnosing the source, the caterpillar’s still intact immune system attributes the threat to the imaginal buds and attacks them as alien intruders.


The imaginal buds prevail by linking up with one another in a cooperative effort that brings forth a new being of great beauty, wondrous possibilities, and little identifiable resemblance to its progenitor. In its rebirth, the monarch butterfly lives lightly on the earth, serves the regeneration of life as a pollinator, and is capable of migrating for thousands of miles to experience life’s possibilities in ways the earthbound caterpillar could not imagine.



I was struck with the words “organizer cells,” and I began to think about breaking down our approach in communities to smaller units more like the “organizer cells” described by Sahtouris. Thinking again about the Women’s Movement, I considered small groups of people coming together, sharing stories of the disconnection and self-interest that our over-emphasis on individualism has wrought, getting validated as interdependent beings as reflected in the Earth Charter, and being supported as they move out into their circles of connection to educate and engage themselves and others with the Earth Charter.


This idea has struck a positive chord in many of the Summit cities, and we are engaged in developing the “Art of Earth Chartering Guide” to be used for discussions in the home and other community places. Fortunately, we have produced various Earth Charter television shows for our series on community access television that can serve to spark the discussions.


To assure that the small at-home groups feel part of a larger movement, we are using technology and the Earth Charter Community Summits to link the groups together. There is computer software for linking “classes” that we are experimenting with, so groups within each community can connect each quarter to share their progress. The Summits will not only have as a goal to inspire newcomers, but also serve as a networking function for groups already in process. The summit cities will continue to be linked electronically to reinforce the national connection. Naturally, socializing over good food, wine and other beverages will be part of the gatherings. Our experience has been that “breaking bread” together is important to fostering connection.

Of Scouts and Indicators

There are two initiatives that continue to be priorities for funding and actions in order to grow them nationally. Earth Scouts recently developed an Earth Scouts Leadership Guide, and the Earth Charter Community Indicators project continues to build partnerships and funding for an effective launch in early 2006.


The Earth Scouts Guide is based on a cooperative learning environment that empowers children and youth to take active roles in leading Earth Scout activities. It is written in a conversational and helpful style, so both adults and youth will find it easy and enjoyable to use. You are able to download the guide from www.EarthScouts.org


Laying the groundwork for the Earth Charter Community Indicators has taken two years, so we definitely can’t be blamed for rushing the process. One reason for the slow going has been getting funds, but the other even more problematic one has been building political support for the project from “both sides of the aisle” as we say in the US. Tampa is a politically conservative town, and some leaders see the Earth Charter as too progressive. As a result, we have spent time in building partnerships with both “camps” and an advisory council that includes key people from the Harvard School of Public Health landmark study on neighborhoods, from the Institute for American Values, and from diversity networks. The project will involve 10,000 citizens from a cross section of the community in the development of the Indicators, and will provide on-going staff support and training for advocacy and implementation of the Indicators.


Earth Charter Communities USA is the organization that guides and supports the grassroots movement in the United States. We have identified as a priority making the Earth Charter visible beyond the community level. Progress has been made by forming a National Advisory Board to include leaders in technology advancements for movement-building; government and business leaders involved in national and global efforts that reflect Earth Charter; and activist celebrities. To date, we have brought on-board a television actor who served as spokesperson for ONE: The Campaign to Make Poverty History, working with celebrities Bono and George Clooney; as well as the mastermind of the brilliant Internet campaign for Presidential candidate, Howard Dean, who will apply his wizardry to our grassroots Earth Charter movement.


Another key issue is fundraising for the national office and local activities around the country. Recently, we started a new program, Earth Charter Ecological Services, to develop financial resources in alignment with Earth Charter principles. Our first contract is as administrator for recycling laser inkjets and cell phones for the Association of Healthy Hospitals in the US, which has 5100 member hospitals. Other future plans include retrofitting old homes to be “green” for resale.


As ECCUSA looks towards the future, we feel hopeful. The annual invitational retreat for organizers is being expanded into a training conference for Earth Charter volunteers next year. The Board of Directors is dedicating itself to strengthening the infrastructure for our national office. The growth of the grassroots movement is showing great promise with the addition of an active Internet campaign, the use of the Earth Chartering Guide to make it easier for ordinary folks to involve themselves and their friends, the official launch of the Earth Scouts, the creation of a template for Earth Charter Community Indicators and a renewed emphasis on bringing the Earth Charter into the Arts community.