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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Against The Tide: How Small Environmental Groups Can Bring About Big Change

Small environmental groups may seem like they can’t achieve much, but through the fostering of a great team ethic and deep personal relationships with the communities they work in, they can be effective agents for change.

I was determined to make my summer meaningful. The summer after my first year in college had been alright, but after kicking around with my relatives and some mates, and working casually for cash under the table at the local cafe, I began to get itchy feet. At the same time, I was hesitant to dive headfirst into the jaws of the corporate world that awaits a good portion of us after life at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Instead of going corporate right away, I first wanted to have an impact on the ground. So, I rolled up my sleeves and cold-called around fifty charity organizations around New Zealand.
Despite the fact that it was the off-season for internships — it being the winter in the Southern Hemisphere — I did come across some interesting opportunities. The role that caught my eye most was with a small charity organization which focuses on beach cleanups, riparian planting to clean up waterways, and educating people about our whenua and moana — our land and sea.
Such small institutions with lofty goals can seem like underdogs, struggling against the grain in opposition to enormous corporate and industrial forces. Surely, we will have the greatest individual impact if we galvanise ourselves to change these multinational giants from the inside, rather than sweating the small stuff in the field?
Nevertheless I took them up on the offer and spent the next two months in their offices and out in the field, digging, planting, packing in and getting to know all kinds of people. I ended up discovering how such small groups can actually be incredibly effective because they create infectious team spirit, connect with the community they are working in on a deeper level and foster a level of commitment that actually has an impact on such complicated issues as the environment.
For starters, small organizations can create a much deeper relationship between the leadership and the employees. I experienced this firsthand, as I got to know one of the chiefs of our little team. With a good sense of humour, he greeted all staff every morning without fail, washed the dishes, took us all out to lunch, fixed the sink and kept everyone in high spirits. Despite only being an intern, I was treated with the same respect and care as any other staff member as he kept track of my work with interest. In short, he led by example and his infectious personality motivated us to work harder.
Smaller organizations can also build a great team spirit and foster deeper relationships between the employees themselves. They gave me lifts in their personal vehicles to planting or cleanup sites, took me out to eat and walk around the city and even cooked me a delicious barbeque just to say farewell to me when I headed back to Abu Dhabi. Although they had every right to give me the boring jobs, or treat me as temporary and disposable, they valued my input like any other team member. When I took a quick break in Rarotonga, they welcomed me back, and said that they missed me over the week. Such group solidarity is imperative in any struggle.
Connections are the bread and butter of small charities: connections with each other, connections to institutions, community groups and people in all fields. I witnessed this constantly, seeing how highly they were valued. The team always took the time to hug and greet people, even in the midst of logistical chaos, and have a chat. Even when strangers wandered into the offices, lost or looking for a cup of coffee — the office does look a bit like a coffee shop — someone would always get up from their work and inform them about the purpose of the building and the charity. Get the whole community on board and take time to talk to everyone about your mission at their own pace, and you are far more likely to find allies to your cause.
The group’s versatility and ease of communication was also extraordinary. Despite pouring rain, the ground rapidly turning into slush and a young person accidentally falling into the bog, we carried on planting. In fact, we even met the planting goal earlier than expected. Our organiser saw this extra time as a prime opportunity for environmental education. After wrapping up, the sun came out, and we set up a projector on the side of one of the gazebos. School kids, bankers, tourists, community leaders and farmers alike gathered round to listen, sitting on trailers and tarps. Even in such a makeshift setting, our leader gave a presentation explaining the impact of planting these trees and the importance of supporting the environment, for its own sake, and for our Kiwi lifestyles. This kind of flexibility is only possible in a small organization, where new ideas and projects don’t require extensive paperwork to be enacted.
And one final thing: my colleagues were clearly on board with the kaupapa, or the mission of the organization, incorporating it in every aspect of their lives. Even going out for a casual lunch, my colleagues would discuss eco-friendly packaging with shopkeepers, often segueing into their line of work and environmental ethos. From a mere numbers perspective, this kind of work is clearly not enough to change the whole country, let alone the whole world. However, these micro connections, holding each other accountable, inspiring people to get involved in any capacity and gradually gathering momentum, will hopefully shift a society’s collective values for the better.
From the outside, these kinds of charitable organizations seem to be working against the tide, constantly fighting for funding and support in a harsh corporate world. Unlike your average company, their entire purpose is daunting: to tackle enormously nuanced and complex issues, the environment being one of the most challenging of these. How could they possibly have any impact? My inside look into the inner machinations of this charity changed my perception. This organization plays to its strengths: a strong, close knit core team, incredible adaptability and an ability to connect with anyone, anywhere. This ethos has got them far, allowing them to work with the Department of Statistics, make submissions to the government and even gain recognition within the United Nations. If there is one thing I learned over summer, it is to never underestimate the power of the “little” people.
Katie Glasgow-Palmer is a contributing writer. Email her at
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