EcoIQ

Activist, Writer & Editor
Dennis Church

I've been a freelance social activist since 1967, now well past the half century mark. That's a long time, and as the TV advertisement says, I've learned a thing or two about a thing or two. I've engaged with more than a hundred projects, but I'll focus below on descriptions of those most important to me. I'll take them up, story-telling style, in the order they happened. One important note, however, before beginning. Many talented and dedicated people were involved, and the accomplishments described owe much to their contributions. And, as is often the case when good things happen, some old-fashioned good luck played a role as well. It may not really be "better to be lucky than good," but it is certainly true that however much "good" you can muster, everything comes out much better if you add a large dollop of luck.

1967-1971: Draft Resistance

I am an extreme empath. One of my most powerful experiences of that unfortunate characteristic came upon me during an evening in early 1967. After reading an article about the Vietnam War, I sank into a dark reverie. Within my waking dream, I visualized a little girl (the image came from a very famous photo), running in terror, her body badly burned by napalm. A mixture of pain and rage swept over me. My dark and terrifyingly vivid reverie lasted maybe 5 minutes, but it changed my entire life. I have thought about that experience hundreds of times since then, and I can recall it vividly today. Just writing these words brings on a wave of recalled emotion. That's the Genesis Story of my life as an activist: In the beginning, I cried.

For five years after that I lived on next to nothing and worked full time to stop the war in Vietnam. I didn't burn my draft card. Nothing actually happened to most of the guys who did that. I did a less symbolic but more dangerous thing. Along with a few thousand others, I mailed my draft card back to my draft board. According to them, that was a punishable offense. They followed the script, drafted me, and I refused the order to "step forward" into the U.S. Army at a military base in Detroit. Then I spent the next several years fully expecting to go to federal prison. That never happened. Somebody brought a technical case, and the government dismissed hundreds of cases, mine included, because of this technicality.

What did happen is that my years in the Draft Resistance movement shaped who I became as an adult. I've spent all the years of my life since pushing, prodding, convincing, cajoling, maneuvering, manipulating, exhorting, and, when necessary, pleading for change. The draft resistance experience made the advocacy of social change my role in life, but vividly experiencing cruelty, injustice, and extreme suffering has always been the real driving force. I am an extreme empath. In the beginning, after I dried my tears, I felt a furiously boiling rage.

1972: Jackson Anti-War Education

My years as a draft resister were turbulent to say the least, and I skated right up to the edge in many ways. I drank deeply of the passions of radical politics, but in the process I learned about the dangers lurking in those passions. What emerged included an emphatic rejection of zealotry, extremism, and dogma. Many anti-war activists thought we should up our game against the War by becoming more militant in our tactics. I felt the opposite: That we should reach out to people not already convinced. So I adopted milder language and a more measured approach. I left my then home, Ann Arbor, a center of 1960s activism, and went back to my hometown, Jackson, Michigan, early in 1972.

From the Ann Arbor perspective, Jackson was enemy territory. Nixon won resoundingly there later in that year, but worse, the Democratic candidate didn't just loose. He had to fight to split the loser vote with George Wallace, the explicitly racist Alabama governor who famously stood in the schoolhouse door. I organized in Jackson for most of 1972. It was certainly not a case of preaching to the choir. The result was the town's first antiwar organization and first ever protest rally. I enlisted local leaders, even a single brave local elected official, in the organizing efforts. We spoke at churches, schools, and community groups. I played by the rules, and even applied for a rally permit. We eventually attracted a few hundred people to our anti-war rally right before the election in November. Nixon won anyway, of course.

1975-1976: David Harris for Congress

I completed my stay in Jackson by working as the night manager of a seedy bar. I needed some way to earn enough money to move to California, which I did at the very end of 1972. I took a two-year time out to get a degree in Journalism, then dove right back into the fray by going to work as the Press Secretary for fellow draft resister David Harris. He was a good friend from Resistance days, and after getting out of federal prison, he was launching an improbable bid for Congress. My role evolved from Press Secretary to Campaign Co-Manager to Campaign Manager for the general election. We ran against Pete McCloskey, the maverick Republican and former U.S. Marine who was the first Republican to break with Nixon over Vietnam.

The campaign flowered in what was the heart of the emerging Silicon Valley, and it gained national media attention for a bunch of reasons. Both candidates were well known media superstars before the campaign, and both were handsome, telegenic, authentic, and extremely articulate. On top of all that, the campaign gained a national media following because of the extraordinary quality of a series of policy debates between the candidates.

While David's campaign mobilized thousands of dedicated volunteers for an incredible ground game, we still lost the election. For me, the campaign served as a bridge from my earlier more radical activities to activist roles within the established order. It was a bridge from what came before to what came next.

1977-1980: Stopping Sprawl in San Jose

After David's campaign, I did a short-term pay-the-bills gig as the publicity director for the 1977 National Wheelchair Games (or national paralympics). The Games were being sponsored by the City of San Jose, and one of the City's senior managers had heard about my role with David's campaign. He suggested to a friend on the City Council staff that I might be a good fit for a Council member who was preparing to run for Mayor and was looking for somebody like me. So thus began a long run in various roles for City of San Jose leaders. I ended up working for four City Council members, a Mayor, and a deputy City Manager. But something very special happened very quickly in the first of these new roles. The incumbent Mayor, who had been elected in 1974 as an anti-sprawl candidate, was being badly beaten up and loosing ground to two Council challengers, including the one I worked for, Jim Self. The Mayor very much looked to heading toward a loss, and with her defeat, the battle against sprawl would be lost as well.

Both the challengers were aiming to get big bucks from developers to defeat the Mayor and open up the City to more sprawling development. The rub, of course, is that while I began clueless, I very quickly understood that the guy I was working for was on the wrong side. I decided on a simple plan. Rather than just quit, I made a big pitch that he was on the wrong side, that he was not being one of the good guys, and that he'd feel like crap if he got elected this way. And I told him that if he persisted, I'd quit. I figured, zero chance he'd come around. Zero. I was well into packing my bags when, to my complete shock, it worked. He dropped out of the race and changed sides to support the Mayor. That produced a compete realignment of the Council, and then Jim Self and I worked to take on the remaining pro-sprawl challenger on behalf of the Mayor's reelection.

The Mayor liked it so much, she hired me as her campaign's policy director for the general election. Our turn around in the general was so successful that we won in a landslide. And we did it in a way that was popularly understood as a referendum on sprawl. The outcome was accepted as representing a mandate for controlled growth. That meant channeling the surging growth San Jose was experiencing to revitalize the City's badly decayed downtown center rather allowing that growth to take the form of outward expansion. A line was drawn in the 1978 campaign, and it has held back the tide of sprawling development for well more than a generation now.

1981-1992: Pushing Sustainability to the Front

I took a short break from the San Jose City Council to work on a statewide ballot initiative to create a beverage bottle and can buy back system in California. Our initiative failed, but it laid the groundwork for later success. Before that success arrived, however, I had gone back to work for the City Council as an assistant to Councilmember and soon to be Vice-Mayor Shirley Lewis. That became an 11-year run, overlapping during that period with several other contracts focused on advancing green programs or policies elsewhere. The City was my cornerstone client, and it kept me and my new family (my wife and I had a son born in 1984) in groceries for a decade.

Shirley Lewis became a good friend, and she genuinely believed in the green initiatives we initiated. Key to our success was the Council's approval of a report I had prepared during the last phase of my post-election work for Councilmember Self (1979). It had been approved unanimously by the City Council in 1980, and it had established Council support for a broad suite of sustainability programs and policies. In the decade that followed, Shirley and I used the Council's budget approval and program oversight powers fully. My job was to understand the flow of City decisions and then suggest inserting our initiatives at the most opportune times. I prepared literally hundreds of (usually) short memoranda, which Shirley would introduce at the right moment in the flow of City Council deliberations. She'd typically move to approve the recommendations made in the memos (to study something, to launch a pilot program, or to change the way something was being done). Almost all of these recommendations were approved, usually by unanimous votes. Using this long, slow but continuous process, we nudged the City step-by-step, both the Council and very importantly the City's top managers, to a robust and I believe genuine embrace of sustainability as a fundamental policy goal of the City. This story is well told in a book published at the time, Saving Cities, Saving Money.

1982-1985: Taking Recycling Mainstream

Between 1982-1985, Shirley Lewis and I initiated and then guided a program development process that made San Jose the first large city in the U.S. to implement curbside recycling. We were very lucky. We attracted two very talented program managers, and we had an opportunity to break a monopoly and thereby deliver major cost savings in our contracts for solid waste services. Through a smart multi-year regulatory and contracting strategy, San Jose was able to hit the sweetest of all sweet spots: We cut the cost charged residents, we added major new recycling programs for no additional charge, and we improved "garbage" services broadly. City residents loved their new recycling programs, and repeatedly described them to their City Council representatives as one of the best things the City had done in years. Needless to say, the politicians were very glad they had supported this effort. But it hadn't been easy, and that's the story.

The City of San Jose was at the time the largest single solid waste collection and disposal contract offered to private companies in the U.S., and the two biggest national corporations in this business wanted our contract badly. One, the incumbent contractor, had a huge amount of community support. They had their hundreds of employees all convinced they'd loose their jobs (untrue) if their company lost the contract. At the same time, the company refused to offer the recycling program we had specified as required in all contract proposals. The other giant company, in stark contrast, was very responsive, and agreed to provide the major pathbreaking curbside recycling program we had specified.

In the face of an angry crowd of more than 1000 people demanding the Council stick with the incumbent contractor who was refusing to recycle, the Mayor and Council voted unanimously to award the contract to the company offering recycling. With that act of political courage, unity and resolve, San Jose became the first large city in the United States to offer curbside recycling as a standard citywide service.

Because San Jose's program proposals had overcome huge political obstacles but then turned out to be spectacularly popular, the effect of our success went far beyond the local. Both the winner and the loser in our process had heretofore refused to offer recycling services. In our process, one saw an opening to displace their competitor for a high profile prestigious $100+ million dollar contract, and the company went for it. The results were game changing. Both corporations learned that elected officials of a "normal" city with a typical demographic (not a small elite college town) could demand large-scale recycling programs and really mean it. And they learned that traditional industry tactics - mobilizing employees and residents to defend an incumbent contractor - would not protect their contract if a city wanted recycling and they refused to offer it. On the other side, they learned that offering recycling could be both a competitive advantage in winning a contract and a profit center once a contract had been won.

These two companies were contract providers of garbage and landfill services to hundreds of communities throughout the United States. Within two years of San Jose's victory, both companies (as well as most of the rest of the industry nationally) were proactively offering robust curbside recycling services as part of their standard solid waste service proposals. Curbside recycling rapidly spread nationwide as a result. This was truly incredible leverage, made possible by strategic vision, political courage, sound practical planning, talented staff, and - to tell the truth - amazingly good luck.

1989-1990: Persuading U.S. City Leaders To Embrace Sustainability

In 1989 I approached Denis Hayes, the leader of the Earth Day events over decades, and proposed that he allow me to develop a program enrolling cities around the U.S. to support and participate in Earth Day 1990. He bought the idea. I had pitched it to Denis as The Global Cities Project, and that's what we called it. It worked, as is so often the case, because of a fortuitous confluence of circumstances. It happened that San Jose's elected leaders, who by this time were solidly in the sustainability camp, held important leadership positions in both the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. After the City of San Jose formally endorsed the project, our elected leaders took resolutions of support to the boards of these two key organizations, and both endorsed the Project.

To bring the project to life, I wrote a 300-page Project Planning Guide to be distributed to all project-enrolled cities. The Guide laid out a menu of Earth Day city projects, and suggested that each member City pick something new, from the Planning Guide or from their own ideas, to do for Earth Day 1990. To make it "real," Cities were solicited to formally join and pay a fee to become a member of The Global Cities Project. More than 100 cities paid and joined, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The culmination of the project was the publication of The Historic Imperative For Change. As the cover lead and center spread feature article in the flagship weekly of the National League of Cities, it was distributed to the tens of thousands of local elected and appointed officials in thousands of cities across America. For many of them, this was their first positive and in-depth exposure to the concept of sustainability. The Global Cities Project made the embrace of sustainability safe for cautious local officials. It helped sustainability go mainstream 30 years ago in cities across the country.

1992-1994: Director of Policy & Planning, San Jose Environmental Services Department

After Shirley Lewis left office, I went to work for the City's Environmental Services Department as its Director of Policy & Planning. The Department had evolved into a $200 million a year operation that managed garbage and recycling services, a sewage treatment plant, a water utility, and an array of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and pollution prevention programs. Through my roughly two years in this role, my most significant assignment was to help guide a process directed by the Department head, Lou Garcia, to negotiate an agreement settling a major clean water lawsuit against the City by environmental groups.

The formal agreement to resolve the suit involved the city building a $100 million water recycling plant as well as imposing major new pollution prevention and pretreatment program requirements on mostly electronics related manufacturers in the heart of the Silicon Valley's explosively growing economy. My job, after the agreement was concluded, was to direct the rollout of very ambitious new pretreatment and pollution prevention requirements to these businesses, explaining to them the what and the why of the new requirements imposed as a result of the lawsuit settlement. I guess the environmental groups liked it, because they gave Lou and me one of those laser cut wood plaques afterward. From the affected industries, no plaques were forthcoming. They did, however, comply.

1980-2003: Green "Side" Projects

Throughout this period, I also completed many smaller projects focused on initiating green policies and programs. These included contracts for the Cities of Los Gatos, Hayward, and Redondo Beach, the Counties of Santa Clara and Monterey, regional agencies including the Valley Transportation Authority and the Valley Water District, and nonprofits including the Resource Renewal Institute, the Global Action Plan, the Mineta Transportation Institute, and the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center.

The focus of these many side projects spanned a broad range - energy and water conservation, recycling, land use policy, transportation alternatives, green design, sustainable lifestyles, and even earthquake preparedness. Along the way, I also completed contracts for 10 political campaigns for more-or-less green local candidates as well as one for a previously mentioned statewide "returnable beverage bottle and can" ballot initiative.

1996-2019: Founder & Publisher EcoIQ Websites

To be honest, over time I just slowly ran out of patience with equivocating politicians and self-serving bureaucrats. To be sure, I was privileged to work with many very fine people who were politicians or appointed officials. Most of the above-described projects would never have had a chance, never have had an opportunity, if that were not the case. That said, absent inspired leadership, public policies and programs tend to devolve away from ambitious missions and toward small thinking that serves the short-term interests of politicians and bureaucrats. Sooner or later, they usually manage to screw things up.

Toward the end of my consulting work, and partly as a result of a couple of truly unpleasant contracts, I resolved to transition entirely to EcoIQ.com as a sustainability-focused media business. That transition was completed in 2003, and for the next 15 years I focused on building websites offering communication products - documentaries, books, an online magazine, a huge directory of online resources, a stock footage service, and a speakers bureau - all focused on sustainability-related issues. These products were marketed through a network of a dozen websites, and tracking records showed tens of millions of visitors from more than 100 countries. Detailed descriptions and examples of this work are still online. See EcoIQ.com's History & Projects, The EcoIQ Archive, and Navigating EcoIQ's Green Resoures.

Still, to be honest once again, I was not a very good businessperson because I never did really want to follow the money. Now that I'm old and (economically) retired, I've transitioned my core site, EcoIQ.com, from being a business to serving as a platform for what comes next.

2020-To My Expiration Date: The Last Chapter

Since this chapter has not been written, there isn't much to say yet. Except that I'm pretty sure this will be my last chapter. As stated at the top, I've learned a thing or two about a thing or two. My last hope is to share what I've learned and contribute a little bit more to a struggle that will continue long after I've been forgotten. What comes next is for that struggle. I hope it helps.

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