Volunteers act up while time ticks down

By Anna Kramer
Winnie Lee (right) and fellow New York volunteers march against climate change in the 2009 Bronx Day Parade. Photo: Anna Kramer

By day, Charmagne Coston is an easygoing bank teller from Austin, Texas. But in her free time, she possesses another identity: Oxfam volunteer leader in the fight for climate justice.

Coston admits that co-leading a group of local volunteers takes time and effort. But it’s worth it, she says, because of the great people she’s met—and the feeling of shaping world events as they happen.

“I believe so strongly in the fact that people en masse can make a change, so why not let it be us?” she says. “That’s what keeps me going every day.”

Meet the Oxfam Action Corps: grassroots activists, based in 13 US cities, who play an increasingly crucial role in Oxfam’s climate change campaign. With climate legislation in Congress and the Copenhagen UN talks fast approaching, these volunteers are calling on leaders to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help vulnerable communities here and abroad respond to the catastrophic effects of climate change.

“Democracy in action”

I first met New York Oxfam Action Corps co-leader Winnie Lee, a Manhattan-based legal clerk, during the Human Countdown event in Central Park.  “It’s amazing that over 1,000 people were willing to give up their Sunday to be here,” says Lee of that day’s turnout. “We proved that there are a lot of people out there who actually care about this issue and want to learn more about it.” 

Lee says that many New Yorkers already feel connected to the human side of the climate crisis. “We have lots of immigrant communities here, so people can tie the effects back to Bangladesh or the Dominican Republic, to rising sea levels or hurricanes. They realize it’s their family, or other people they know, who are living in affected communities.”

To get people mobilized, the Oxfam Action Corps taps into the city’s vibrant music scene, organizing benefit concerts and setting up tables at events like the All Points West music festival.

“If a band [supporting Oxfam] plays four shows in a week, we can get 500 signatures for a petition,” says Lee, who first encountered Oxfam at a concert by the band Bell X1. “Or we have people at the tables call or write their member of Congress. That’s democracy in action … empowering people to contact their elected officials, who are supposed to represent them.”

The volunteers also reach out to elected officials in person at legislative meetings. Thanks to their efforts, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand recently signed on as the first US senator to become a Sisters on the Planet ambassador.

Next up? An Oxfam America Hunger Banquet® on the New York University campus, which they hope will bring in 150 to 200 participants.

A climate wake-up call

The day after the Human Countdown, the Austin Oxfam Action Corps organized a “Climate Wake-up Call” on the local University of Texas (UT) campus. For the attention-grabbing stunt—which coincided with similar events worldwide—25 volunteers, students, and residents set their cell phone alarms to go off simultaneously. Amid the din, participants formed the shape of ticking clocks with their arms, symbolizing that time is running out to negotiate a global climate deal at Copenhagen.

“We held the Wake-Up Call in between classes in the middle of campus, so we got a lot of traffic,” explains Coston, who coordinated the event with the UT-Austin Oxfam Club and Oxfam CHANGE Leaders. The high-profile location led to dialogue with students and an article in the daily campus paper.

Meanwhile, the Oxfam Action Corps is working with environmental groups to organize a climate change rally in Austin later this month, where over 200 people will walk a half-mile from the UT-Austin campus to the state capitol building.

“We definitely want our negotiators [at Copenhagen] and President Obama to know that there are a lot of people in Texas supporting a global deal. It’s important for them to know that people in our state have gathered together for this purpose,” says Coston.

She adds that in an eco-conscious community like Austin, people respond to Oxfam’s message about the human cost of the crisis.

“We’re trying to help people adapt to climate change: something that is really necessary. We’re getting [poor communities] the resources they need,” she says. “People grasp that fact—instead of going in after a disaster and spending millions of dollars, you can go in before.”

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