This week's Solutionary Woman is Ilyse Hogue, the Global Finance Campaign Director for the Rainforest Action Network and one of the founders of SmartMeme, a nonprofit collective of long term organizers, strategists, trainers and communications professionals.
What does Rainforest Action Network do?
Rainforest Action Network was formed 20 years ago around the mission of preserving the world's remaining old growth forests and securing the rights of their traditional inhabitants, the way that that's kind of unfolded over the years is that we act through what we call marketplace democracy, which means that we go out and we try and educate everyday consumers about the corporate participants in the destruction of the rainforest, and during the last ten years we've really understood the interconnectedness between rainforest destruction and climate change, so now we say, hey, we're all participants in this market system, and you need to make your voice heard when you go to Ford motor company and say, "Why aren't you instituting fuel efficiency standards? Why are you still churning out some of the largest vehicles known on the face of the Earth," and similarly we've gained a lot of traction in what we call the global financial sector which is... our supporters really resonanted with the idea that large multi-national banks were making decisions every day that impacted the fate of our global eco-systems, and so we have been able to successfully funnel those voices towards the world's largest banks and pressure them into instituting some comprehensive environmental policies into how they're investing our money.
What do you do as the Global Finance Campaign Director?
I was brought on board seven years ago to start up what we call the global finance campaign, which is to look at the role the big banks play in environmental destruction and how we view the economy as either a tool for destruction or restoration, and as that program grew I became the Director of it and now I do that as well as offer some overall strategic guidance for the organization on how we tackle new projects and what kinds of messages we're sending out to the broader world.
How did you come to this work?
Well I came to this work and I came to this job, very differently, maybe I could start from the beginning.
After college, after some wanderings and living out in nature doing a lot of backpacking, I decided I didn't want to, actually, well, actually let me start, I was a science major in college because I knew that I wanted to study eco-systems and help to preserve them that way. Shortly after college I did some field work, where I was gathering data in an effort to try and clean up some mine tailings in Montana, and after months and months of doing that I had kind of an epiphany that it wasn't for lack of evidence that we weren't changing our behaviour, that the evidence actually existed, that data I was gathering was going towards who was responsible for paying for the clean-up, but at the same time I knew that I could look at this river system and say, "I don't want to swim in this, I don't need to spend tens of thousands of dollars and reams of paper and all this time to prove that it's toxic." And so I thought well, it seems like if we're going to actually change the human patterns that are so severely impacting our environment and communities around the world, maybe there are some other ways to do it.
So I actually moved home to Texas and started to work on a local initiative to do some water resource protection and did everything right. Went through the democractic system, went door-to-door. Got the citizens of Austin to sign their names enough times to get it on the ballot. At the polling place it passed by 75%, that we wanted to protect this watershed, which 75% in an issue-based election is a huge margin. So we went out and celebrated, and then in the subsequent weeks, it became very clear that the developer who wanted to build on the watershed had no intention of abiding by the citizens' rule. He basically went to the state legislature and poured money into state senator and congresspeople's pockets to undercut the local ordinance, and he tied the city up in court to put an injunction on the local initiative.
When I did a little digging into who this guy was, he was one of three leaders of one of the world's largest companies called Freeport-McMoRan, which is engaged in mining and chemical production all around the world. I sort of saw his participation and undercutting the democracy in my hometown as indicative of what Freeport-McMoRan was doing in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, which I later went and visited and saw their impact there, and in Papua New Guinea, where they have some of the worst mines and human rights abuses that we have documented on file, and I started to think about the power balance between our democratic systems and the multi-national corporations that were increasingly governing federal policy and state policy.
And so I started to focus on corporate actors, and through a series of events and working at different organizaitions I was approached by RAN. I had looked at logging companies and looked at ways to pressure them. I had looked at chemical companies and oil refineries and ways to pressure them, and when RAN came to me in 1999 and said "Hey, we're thinking about actually launching a campaign against the global financial sector, starting with CitiGroup who was the largest bank in the world, what do you think?", you know, I thought, "Wow! That's totally brilliant," because until that time I was really concerned about our movement's ability to do more than shift the harm. So, if we close this mine here, how are they not going to open it over here? And one thing that attracted me about the global financial campaign was that it was actually redirecting the economic flow so that we could create standards around which there would be no capital investment available for those bottom-of-the-barrel projects any more.
So, I thought it was brilliant and I thought, what a crazy organization to believe that 30 people in an office in San Francisco can take on the world's largest bank, and wow, I wanted to be a part of that, because for me activism is kind of about dreaming crazy dreams and believing the impossible, and so that's how I came to be where I am now.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I enjoy, wow, that's a great question. I mean there are so many things I enjoy on a day-to-day basis, from getting to work with all sorts of creative people all over the world who have just a vast array of experience that I learn from all the time. But I think the thing that I enjoy the most is actually living in a world where people are not only encouraged, but congratulated for stepping into their power and speaking what is true to them, because I don't think the world at large encourages that. So the more that we can create institutions and structures and organizations that do just that. . . . I think successful activism is activism where the individual is coming from a place of true inspiration, and that's really different for everyone, but that when we create the systems that reward the behavior of getting inspired, acting on that inspiration in a way that's collaborative and co-operative with other people, then we're actually not only living in a world that's probably healthier in the long-term, for future generations, but happier in the short-term, day-to-day.
What is one of your favorite success stories?
One of my favorite success stories--wow, that's a great question, there are so many. One of my favorite success stories was just the opportunity that through our activism and our pressure on CitiGroup--most of what we as US citizens have to offer to the world is access, to points of power that actually affect what happens on a global basis, and yet a lot of the time the people on the front lines of the consequences of those decisions don't have that access to tell that story to the decision-maker--so, we were able to bring some incredible Peruvian activists, who were really trying to save their community from a lot of the suffering that was occurring because a pipeline was going through their land, up to the US, which was even more of a struggle 'cause it was post 9/11 and getting the visas was made much more difficult, and so that was a mini-struggle in itself, and we thought it was all going to fall through and then we were able to get over that hurdle and bring them up and get them into the CitiGroup Annual General Meeting, which is the gathering of all the shareholders.
They are varying degrees of important events at different corporations, but CitiGroup's is actually quite a celebrated event. It's at Carnegie Hall, and the place fills up, and it's very dramatic, and there's actually quite a lot of press attention as well as shareholder attention, and to hear this woman, this mother, from the forests of Peru, be able to tell her story in such an impassioned way, and to hear the hush fall over the room, and watch people's minds open for just one minute, to grapple with their participation in a global system that does actually result in injustice, whether they mean for it to or not, and it was just such a wonderful moment, because to me that's the success.
I think the struggle is ongoing, I don't think there's ever an ending, I don't think we get to win and all "kick it" for the rest of our lives, I think there's a dynamic balance that we will always work to maintain around issues of justice and environmental integrity, but I think that what we can take a lot of joy in, or at least what I take a lot of joy in, is being able to cut through all the chaotic busy-ness and single-minded focus that, particularly people in the US have, and particularly people in positions of power, I should say, have in the US, and force them to view their role in a system from a different perspective. You can see the lightbulbs go off and you can see people have little epiphanies, and then the door will start to shut, but I think that's our job is to keep that door open while we can discuss real solutions, and that was one real opportunity where it seemed to work.
How do you keep motivated and inspired and not get burned out?
You know it's funny because, I get tired and I definitely get grumpy, and there are times where I feel like "oh, we're losing" and "oh, we're going to lose" and then I think, I actually make myself go there, and I'm like, OK, if we're going to lose, what would I do differently?", and the answer is nothing, and I think that that's what keeps me inspired.
I certainly get inspired by getting to touch and be a part of some of the vast wilderness left on the planet, so the job has allowed me the privilege, which not everyone has, of going to Indonesia, and going to the Amazon in Brazil, and certainly that is fuel that will fill my engine for a very long time. At the same time, I get inspired by the fact that there are people with far more that they stand to lose on a daily basis, who don't walk away, and not only do they not walk away, because many of them can't walk away, but they struggle and they resist with a joy, and that's what inspires me. When we stand in the face of what feel like overwhelming odds sometimes, and are still able to celebrate our own power, then that inspires me and I think what inspires me is I can't imagine what level of economic reward could replace the value of going home knowing that I am getting to participate in building a different way, and it's a joyous way, and it feels like a right way. I know that sounds kind of cheesy but it's true.
If someone wanted to give up their corporate job and do the kind of work that you do, what should they do?
I think it's really amazing when people want to make that transition and I think, I actually talk to people who want to do that all the time, and the first bit of advice that I give them is unless you have another income stream, don't give up your job until you have another plan. That's because progressive movements are always strapped for resources and so those of us who have been able to actually get paid to do this work are very, very privileged, and what I hate to think is that we're creating sort of professionalism around social change. Social change is about what you choose to do every day, how you interact with your neighbors, where you buy your groceries, who you're voting for, where you keep your money in the bank, what kind of car you're driving, are you taking mass transportation, and I know that there are people who want to do more than that, and I believe anyone who wants to can do more than that, but I think that's where it starts, and I think that if you want to do more than that, really the most successful advocates for social change who are able to make a living at it are the people who are inspired by either an issue that really speaks to them, or bring a skill set that they really want to plug in, so the best way I've found to figure out where you fit in the existing network of social change organizations is to get out there and experiment and volunteer, and do that when you're not desperate for cashflow, because sometimes it can take a little while to figure out where you fit, but by living your life as close to your own values as you can, getting out there and experiencing what models of social change exist and how you can participate in them, and staying focused on what inspires you, through those things, many and most people that I've found who are really committed to it, find their role.
Are there any books or movies that inspire you?
There are so many it's really hard to say. I love V for Vendetta, most recently, and that's just top of my head because it's so recent, relevant, and the thing about V for Vendetta is it's actually chock full of quotations and theory that's not referenced. A friend of mine, David Solnit, put together a book called Globalize Liberation, which is a really good primer for people understanding different mechanisms of social change. There are organizations that I think really, really inspire me. I think a very, very big part of social change is storytelling, and I know that's why you do what you do. Third World Majority, who really works to empower different communities to tell their stories, not just to shape the stories, but actually to get the stories out to the world, that inspires me. And so there's not a single book or a single movie, but it's really the stories of people's experience wherever you find them, is what I seek out.
For people who are listening, if there was one action you would want them to take to make the world a better place, what would it be?
To pick what action they feel that they can stay true to and then educate ten people about it, because I don't think there's one action that we should all take, I think it's about figuring out what resonates with you as an individual and then going out, because that resonates with you, and inspiring those close to you to take action. I think it's not what action you take, but it's taking action that makes the difference.
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