As the Oxfam America staff charged with putting a human face on the climate change crisis, the grassroots organizers have a challenging job. Climate change is a familiar issue for most Americans, but one normally associated with its environmental effects.
So, when it comes to educating the public about how worsening storms, rising sea levels, droughts, and disease hurt poor people, the organizers spend months just laying the foundations, and building understanding among the general public.
This was the goal for Oxfam America's Walk for Climate Justice, a weekend of attention-grabbing events around the country this April. Oxfam field organizers and volunteers organized the walks in 11 cities from Los Angeles to Miami; Lawrence, Kansas to Burlington, Vermont.
Jim French, Oxfam's field organizer in the Midwest, said that amidst a sea of other organizations, Oxfam's efforts got a lot of attention. "There were approximately 30 different NGOs present at the Denver Green Apple event," he said. "Oxfam was both very visible and very well attended."
Holding buckets and walking in a procession, the organizers and volunteers used the walk to symbolize the increasingly long distances poor people must travel to collect water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. At the end of the procession, the volunteers stacked the buckets in pyramids and read stories about how climate change affects people in developing countries like Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Malawi.
They collected about 3,700 petition signatures from onlookers, each asking the US presidential candidates to set aside funding to help poor and vulnerable communities adapt to the realities of a changing climate. These signatures will be submitted to the presidential candidates later this election season along with thousands of other signatures collected by members of the Climate Equity Campaign, a coalition which includes Oxfam America, Friends of the Earth, ActionAid, Climate Action Network, and Oil Change International.
For Oxfam's second group of trained volunteers, known collectively as the Oxfam Action Corps, the event was a good, early foray into on-the-ground organizing. Twenty Oxfam Action Corps volunteers organized around the Farm Bill last year. And the new class of 26 began by visiting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill and then organizing Walks for Climate Justice around the country in April.
Christina Bronsing, an Oxfam Action Corps volunteer from Chicago, organized two walks. She gathered 15 volunteers at a Green Apple Festival in April. And later that month, she led 50 high school students through a procession along Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago's busiest streets.
Bronsing said the walks, like just being a part of the Oxfam Action Corps itself, gave her an opportunity to speak out about climate change and its disproportionate effects on poor people.
"It's something I really care about, so this gives me such a practical way to put it into action," she said.
Dan Coe, an Oxfam supporter and astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, learned about the Walk for Climate Justice through an email from Oxfam. He was intrigued by Oxfam's take on the issue, so he decided to get involved.
"I think global poverty is about the most important issue there is," Coe said. "The fact that Oxfam is coming at it from the climate change angle is interesting. Let's help poor people: It doesn't matter if it's climate change that's behind it."