I’ve spent much of my professional life working in environmental and social justice coalitions, bringing organisations together to achieve a common goal. Working in tandem with like minded partners and allies is a highly effective way to achieve public policy change. While such collaborations often bring challenges, maintaining effective coalitions in the midst of a global pandemic has been especially demanding.
The past few weeks have brought worry and change for all of us. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed at times by the devastation coronavirus is causing. We are in our second period of lockdown, with no certainty on when or how this will end. Of course it’s far too early to draw hard and fast conclusions but some common themes are starting to emerge from discussions Greener UK and other NGO coalitions are having.
Challenges are mirrored across the sector
Coalitions depend on people for capacity, ideas, energy and verve. When we were all instructed to work from home until further notice, there was an immediate shockwave. While working at home used to be an occasional luxury and a chance to buckle down to some serious thinking, or even multi task with household chores, confinement to a world of virtual working for weeks on end feels altogether different. The challenges are enormous, from a lack of equipment and space, unreliable broadband, juggling home schooling responsibilities to coping with isolation and mental well-being.
Several of our Greener UK partners have had to furlough large numbers of staff as they face severe financial losses. This, along with redeployment, illness and care giving responsibilities, has significantly reduced our capacity. With the virus dominating our lives, key contacts in government redeployed and parliamentary processes paused, it’s inevitable that some focus and momentum has been lost.
Our response has focused on three key areas:
1. Striking the right tone
The focus of the world’s governments is on tackling the pandemic. Pursuing an environmental policy agenda must be done in the right way and at the right time. But, while we are treading a sensitive path, we must remain watchful and ready to act as other voices push agendas counter to our ethos. Calls for deregulation and weakening standards are already starting to bubble up. With heightened vulnerability for environmental defenders, we should not be so naïve as to think that those who wish to harm or exploit the environment will not see the pandemic as a window of opportunity to do just that.
On a more positive note, the importance of ensuring that recovery from coronavirus is inspired and driven by environmental goals is now gaining momentum across the globe, with the UN Secretary General, Green 20 finance ministers and Pope Francis leading calls for a green recovery. Meanwhile, closer to home, Business Secretary Alok Sharma, the head of the Committee on Climate Change and a leader comment in The Times have expressed what we have all been feeling in lockdown: that we depend on nature for our well-being, our livelihoods and many essential services, such as clean air and energy, and that this is a chance for falling emissions, less pollution, restored ecosystems and a kinder society to set a new path for humanity.
2. Finding new ways to stay in touch
Coalitions thrive on constant interaction. We have numerous groups developing policy and tactics and our interpersonal relationships are at the heart of much of our work. Communications often happen by osmosis as we gather intelligence and energy from our interactions and time spent together.
We have had to rapidly adapt to using new communications tools. On some days we use Zoom so much that the split screen feels imprinted in my mind at the end of the working day. Such tools, while a temporary lifeline, are better suited to transactional rather than discursive communications. It’s harder to inject personality into a multi-windowed call or to build rapport.
But virtual engagement can be a powerful route to mass engagement with new audiences. Last week, Green Alliance held an online event on climate action, attended by well over 600 people, from all over the country and abroad, showing there is a huge interest in staying in touch and policy development.
During this health crisis, we look to our leaders more than ever. Everyone I’ve spoken to has a similar message: leaders must be visible, combine decisiveness with consultation and, above all else, be caring and empathetic. The word ‘leader’ comes from the Old English word ‘lædan’ meaning ‘to go before as a guide’ and, in these trying times, we all have a responsibility to help guide the way for each other. I’ve seen many examples of inspiring leadership over the past few weeks from the thought leadership of Chris Stark at the Committee on Climate Change, to Chris Venables at Green Alliance writing about how we need each other more than ever in a socially distanced world.
I’m amazed and inspired by my colleagues at the best of times and their response to this pandemic has been a testimony to human resilience and adaptability. When norms are challenged, we need initiative and drive to move forward and my team mates have this in spades: from hiring a van to deliver office equipment to homeworkers, to remotely recording podcasts and setting up support and social networks. These apparently small things keep organisations functioning, coalitions connected and remind us all that we are part of a movement working together for the common good.