30 October 2013

Berry from Columbia, TN  

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Erosion, as it turns out, isn't just affecting our soil and rocks. It's also affecting our motivation to partake in the political process.

For the past several weeks and months, as Americans ask what the future of government might look like, there is one question that has been left largely unanswered (and unasked): What about the future of our environment?

Berry is a sustainability advocate and student at the University of Michigan. She has worked on environmental issues domestically and in Mexico. And she's got her finger on the pulse of an alarming trend.

"Today's young professionals who are environmentally and socially motivated often spurn the political process and turn to the direct, tangible world of business.

For people who claim to embrace systems thinking and complexity, most of the Generation S I know is willfully ignorant of politics as a channel for change. I can't say I blame them. After all, I'm doing the same thing myself. Influencing policy seems messy, slow, and unglamorous. I don't want to wait around for a brief window of opportunity on the political agenda. I want to get out there and do something."

The most recent government shutdown has only exacerbated this reality. When hundreds of thousands of Americans can be forbidden from coming to work by their own government, what incentive is there to put time and effort into the political process?

Advocacy is a skill, and an essential part of the national debate. How can you have honest debate without professionals arguing points for each side? Without them, we're left with the shrill shouting match that we have grown accustomed to. For Berry, the atrophying of this skill is particularly damning.

"My Generation S colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as innovators who push boundaries. We are proud of being change agents who push businesses to think outside the box.

But when few of my sustainability friends can tell me what COP19 is or what the Farm Bill has to do with biofuels production, it might be a sign we've gone too far away from the policy realm. Maybe it is time to return to some of the boxes we've ignored. Being engaged and informed advocates of positive public policy might be one box we want to check."

Being active in the political process does not mean you have to be either a slimy politician or a crooked lobbyist. There is a big difference between an advocate and a politician--namely, education versus campaigning or pandering. In order to be a successful advocate, Berry has a few key traits in mind:

"They take people seriously, even if they disagree with them. They listen without judgment. In my experience, many who think of themselves as advocates are unsuccessful because they think less of or dismiss those who disagree with them. As a result, they speak but don't listen and preclude the possibility of conversation.

I've never seen someone change their mind who felt defensive or attacked. I began to change my own views of certain environmental and social issues in college when I became friends with a couple of people who explained their beliefs while at the same time taking my differing views seriously.

They make it personal. I believe the most influential advocates are those that live out their beliefs, even in small ways. How can I advocate for local food reform if I don't support my local farmer's market?

Finally, they're happy and excited when they talk about what they're advocating for. When I find myself smiling after someone's enthusiastic description of their idea, I admire the passion, and I'm probably at least sympathetic to the idea."

Despite the paralyzing politics of our time, progress still needs to be made on issues such as conservation and the environment, health care, poverty, and housing. While the latest round of partisan brinkmanship has shown that politicians might be incapable of sustaining such progress, Berry makes it clear that a dedicated, growing, and positive band of public advocates are absolutely essential to a healthy, prosperous nation.

(Want more Berry? You can read her work on GreenBiz by following this link.)

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