Remembering Marshall Saunders
By Joanne Carter
We lost a giant in our movement at the end of 2019 with the death of Marshall Saunders. Marshall was a fierce advocate and a remarkable leader, but he was also a deeply compassionate friend and mentor to so many of us. It’s hard to overstate the remarkable influence Marshall had in the world, often quietly, supporting and spurring others into action alongside him. He leaves a remarkable legacy.
He used his voice, compassion, and commitment to move his members of Congress and countless others into action on microfinance and other global poverty issues. When he went on to found Citizens’ Climate Lobby, he used the power of deep constituent advocacy to build a new movement on climate, bringing thousands more people into the work toward a more just and sustainable world.
We join our friends at Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Marshall’s family, and the network of people around the world who celebrate his memory and carry forward his legacy today.
How one man, cornered by two elderly ladies in a rest home, empowered citizens on climate change
Originally published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel
By Sam Daley-Harris, RESULTS Founder
Marshall Saunders, who died December 27, founded the most potent climate lobby in the country after talking to two elderly ladies in a rest home.
It happened after one of his many climate talks using slides from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The first questioner described her difficulty reading when using the new energy-efficient light bulbs. She asked if she could use two of the new light bulbs instead of one of the old ones. Saunders didn’t know what to say.
Then another elderly woman asked the most basic question, “What should we do?”
“What’s needed,” Saunders replied, “is thousands of ordinary people organized, lobbying their members of Congress with one voice, one message, and lobbying in a relentless, unstoppable, yet friendly and respectful way.”
“Why don’t you do that?” the woman asked.
Feeling cornered, Saunders replied, “I haven’t done that, because nobody would come to a meeting like that.”
“I’ll help you,” the woman responded.
Feeling trapped, Saunders said, “Okay, let’s do it.” He invited people to a meeting, but found the initial response lacking. He called the elderly lady three or four times, but she never answered. Saunders thought about cancelling, but kept inviting anyway. Twenty-nine people wound up attending. Saunders felt he needed at least four of them to say yes in order to have a group. “To my great surprise,” he said, “all 29 said yes to joining me.”
Since that day, Citizens’ Climate Lobby has grown to more than 400 chapters around the U.S. In 2018, its members had more than 1,400 meetings with members of Congress or their staff, and more than 3,100 speaking and outreach events.
I saw the depth of Saunders’ contribution to climate activism when I spoke to the head of organizing for a large, well-known nonprofit organization. “We can’t let our volunteers write letters to the editor or op-eds,” the organizer told me five years ago, “because they’ll get it wrong and misrepresent the organization.” That institutional commitment to “protecting the brand” was also a death sentence to citizen empowerment.
Contrast that to the more than 4,200 letters to the editor and op-eds that Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteers had published in 2018. The number includes newspaper editorials in support of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which the volunteers encouraged by having developed relationships with an editorial writer or editorial board.
While the large nonprofit was afraid their members would “get it wrong,” Saunders asked what was needed to help volunteers get it right. He then gave that to them, and set them free to speak and write with authority and confidence. That is just a glimpse of Saunders’ gift. Here are two more.
Elli Sparks, a volunteer turned staff member, said she joined CCL suffering from “climate trauma.” She read Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth and wept. But 18 months after joining CCL, she met with 20 Congressional offices and called the experience, “sacred and profound.”
Another CCL volunteer, Cheryl McNamara, was also prompted by a book, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. Wright shows how civilizations like the Mayans rose and fell because they gobbled up the environment that sustained them. Years earlier, McNamara had been alarmed by the toll climate change was taking, but put it to the back of her mind. But not this time.
“When I laid down Ronald Wright’s book,” McNamara recalled, “I envisioned myself as an elderly woman on her deathbed, ashamed that I could have done something about this problem but did nothing and now that I lay dying, I was powerless to do anything. But it was not too late. I was in my prime, perfectly capable of helping to solve this gargantuan and dangerous problem.”
Marshall Saunders died recently, but it’s not too late for us. He has left a profound legacy, an organization empowering citizens across the country and around the world to make a difference in the fight against climate change
You could join them. Citizens’ Climate Lobby may have started when Saunders was trapped by two elderly women at a rest home, but it could release you from feeling trapped by the enormity of the climate crisis. You can thank Marshall Saunders for that.
Sam Daley-Harris founded the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS in 1980, founded Civic Courage in 2012 and is author of Reclaiming Our Democracy.