Media Release: Trapped by two elderly ladies in a rest home by Sam Daley-Harris

Trapped by two elderly ladies in a rest home

A tribute to Marshall Saunders – the founder and president of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

For Immediate Release: January 13, 2020
Media Contact: Cathy Orlando, cathy@citizensclimatelobby.org , 705-929-4043

by Sam Daley-Harris

Coronado CA: Marshall Saunders, who died on December 27th, founded the most potent climate lobby in the country after talking to two elderly ladies in a rest home. 

It happened after one of his many climate talks using slides from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The first questioner described her difficulty reading when using the new energy efficient light bulbs. She asked if she could use two of the new light bulbs instead of one of the old ones. Saunders didn’t know what to say.

Then another elderly woman asked the most basic question, “What should we do?”

“What’s needed,” Saunders replied, “is thousands of ordinary people organized, lobbying their members of Congress with one voice, one message, and lobbying in a relentless, unstoppable, yet friendly and respectful way.”

“Why don’t you do that?” the woman asked.

Feeling cornered, Saunders replied, “I haven’t done that, because nobody would come to a meeting like that.”

“I’ll help you,” the woman responded.

Feeling trapped, Saunders said, “Okay, let’s do it.”  He started inviting people to an initial meeting, but the inviting wasn’t going well.  He called the elderly lady in the nursing home three or four times, but she never answered.  Saunders feared an empty room and thought about cancelling the meeting, but kept inviting anyway.  Twenty-nine people showed up.  Saunders felt he needed at least four of the 29 to sign up in order to have a group.  “To my great surprise,” he said, “all 29 signed up.”

Since that day, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) has grown to more than 466 chapters in the U.S and over 100 chapters outside the USA including 36 active chapters in Canada.

I saw the depth of Saunders’ contribution to climate activism when I spoke to the head of organizing for a large, well-known nonprofit organization.  “We can’t let our volunteers write letters to the editor or op-eds,” the organizer told me five years ago, “because they’ll get it wrong and misrepresent the organization.”  That institutional commitment to “protecting the brand” was also a death sentence to citizen empowerment. 

Contrast that to over 1700 meetings with politicians (162 in Canada) and more than 4,700 mainstream media hits (over 700 in Canada) Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers had published in 2019.  The large nonprofit was afraid their members would “get it wrong” and make the organization look bad. Saunders, on the other hand, asked what was needed to help CCL volunteers get it right, gave that to them, and set them free to speak and write with authority and confidence. That is just a glimpse of Saunders’ gift.  Here are two more.

Elli Sparks, a CCL volunteer turned staff member, said she joined CCL suffering from “climate trauma.”  She read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth and wept at home and at work.  But 18 months after joining CCL, she met with 20 Congressional offices and called the experience, “sacred and profound….”

CCL Canada signing with Marshall Saunders

Marshall Saunders, the tall man on the far left, with CCL Canada, including Cheryl McNamara in the striped shirt, singing O’Canada. June 2013, Washington DC.

A Canadian CCL volunteer, Cheryl McNamara, who joined in October 2010 was also prompted by a book, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.  Wright shows how civilizations like the Mayans rose and fell because they gobbled up the environment that sustained them.  Years earlier, McNamara had been alarmed by the toll climate change was taking but she had quickly put it to the back of her mind—but not this time.

“When I lay down Ronald Wright’s book,” McNamara recalled, “I envisioned myself as an elderly woman on her deathbed, ashamed that I could have done something about this problem but did nothing and now that I lay dying, I was powerless to do anything.  But it was not too late. I was in my prime, perfectly capable of helping to solve this gargantuan and dangerous problem.”

Marshall Saunders died recently, but it’s not too late for us.  He has left a profound legacy, an organization empowering citizens across the country and around the world to make a difference in the fight against climate change–and you could join them.  Citizens’ Climate Lobby may have started when Saunders was trapped by two elderly women at a rest home, but it could release you from feeling trapped by the enormity of the climate crisis.  You can thank Marshall Saunders for that.

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Sam Daley-Harris founded the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS in 1980, founded Civic Courage in 2012 and is author of Reclaiming Our Democracy.