Some people living on New Zealand’s coast who are passionate about the impact of deep-sea oil drilling considered putting signs up around the community but were concerned and nervous about their neighbors’ reactions. A few weeks later, the same people were organizing the Banners on the Beach day in their community including sign-painting, providing a sound system, facilitating a community soccer game and building a giant replica of an oil rig.
“It was a really awesome indication of building relationships with some of those people . . . (who) took real ownership and real pride in the issue,” says Jo McVeagh, Greenpeace New Zealand volunteer coordinator and one of the three members of the core planning team.
Banners on the Beach took place Nov. 23. With only two weeks of planning on a relatively new issue, more than 45 events took place on different beaches with more than 5,000 participants.
It was a decentralized, citizen and community-led action spurred by Greenpeace New Zealand. How did they do it, and what did they learn? MobLab recently Skyped with the team to find out.
Exploring the issue: a ‘flash point’
Greenpeace New Zealand has been working on deep-sea oil drilling for three years. The government has been subsidizing the expansion of the industry and there are a range of issues Greenpeace is concerned about, including the climate implications and fear of damage to the coasts and beaches which are key to the country’s tourism industry.
The process the government has been using is also a concern, notes Jo, as big, offshore companies are being allowed to drill without the consent — and at times, knowledge — of the community who live near the drilling sites.
When Texan oil giant Anadarko’s drillship arrived to its intended drill site, located 100 nautical miles off the coast of Raglan, in November it was confronted by the Oil Free Seas flotilla making a stand against the unnecessary risks. Among the flotilla boats is the Vega with Greenpeace executive director Bunny McDiarmid on board.
Greenpeace New Zealand has been ramping up its work on oil and the drill ship’s arrival, with the Vega remaining inside the 500-meter inclusion zone, was a “flash point” for the campaign, says campaign project assistant Robin Wilson-Whiting.
“A lot of people only then realized what was going on or paid attention and started getting concerned about the deep-sea oil, it was big in the national debate,” says Robin.
As sailing into the Tasman Sea is not something everyone can do, Greenpeace New Zealand encouraged people to stand together in protest of the deep-sea oil by coming out to their favorite North Island west coast beach at midday Nov. 23 and show their support for the flotilla.
“The ‘banners on the beaches’ activity was a way for people to show support for the flotilla and the work that they were doing at sea, for people to show their opposition to deep-sea oil, and also a way to connect with those places that we feel so strongly about – the beaches that we go and take our holidays and places that we are concerned about if anything goes wrong,” says Jo. “It was a way to bring all those things together.”
Unorganized organizing: a new event planning approach
Instead of using a typical way to run an event, Greenpeace New Zealand decided to approach the Banners on the Beach day differently – by not having Greenpeace organize it at all, says Genevieve Toop, public engagement coordinator.
Greenpeace was trying to figure out its role during the planning process, she notes. The organization was learning along the way and provided the basic parameters, such as the time and day, for people to convene for the same issue.
Greenpeace put a call out for people to get involved in the action, but intentionally created spaces for people to self-organize and plan to be part of an event at their local beach.
“We wanted to design something that gave them the opportunity to stand up and organize on these beaches, but we also wanted to have an opportunity for the people who weren’t quite ready to do that to come along,” Genevieve says.
Some of the resources Greenpeace set up include:
• A website: A Banners on the Beach webpage explained the reason for the event and encouraged people to attend or organize an event in their area. The page includes a downloadable poster and ways to engage such as where to submit photos and what hashtag to use (#oilfreeseas)
• An interactive map: People were encouraged to place a flag on the beach closest to them.
• A Facebook event page: People could sign up to attend the event and share it with their friends via Facebook. Some of the larger locations created their own Facebook event.
People could contact Greenpeace via an e-mail address, which proved helpful as some people who were organizing the community events reached out. The Greenpeace team contacted the organizers, sharing what’s going on in other areas and asking how their planning was going, Genevieve says.
“We sort of provided this national netting together-type role,” she adds.
For example, on a popular beach outside of Auckland a few people put up their hands to organize an activity, so the team put those people in touch with one another to organize one big event.
“That decentralized model worked particularly well because there were really charged and fresh energy going into the issue, people were all really riled up about it and had their energy to put into their own events,” says Robin.
Letting go: advantages and potential pitfalls
Trying out a new model of organizing can be challenging, especially when it comes to letting go of the reins and trusting it will be OK, the team notes.
Greenpeace events usually have a sense of who will come, what will happen, that people will feel good for participating and will take a flyer for the next thing to do, says Jo.
“We have a real history or a way of doing things that has a quite predetermined way of making sure that people leave and they feel like they’ve made a valuable contribution and they know what to do next,” she says.
“Those kind of things we didn’t get to manage . . . people went to the beach with their banners, then we kind of freaked out a little bit – what will they do with the beach with their banners – are they going to stand in a line? Are they going to shout and chant? What? We don’t know. But it seemed to work out.”
There was the knowledge that something could go wrong, and in one location there was a community organizer who brought in different issues not related to the simple messaging approach that Greenpeace would use. But having given over the control, it worked out fine, says Jo.
People who participated were creative and resourceful with some pulling in great audio systems, deejays, and speakers. Making it a community-led event resonated more with people than having someone from Greenpeace sharing facts, says Jo.
With little time put into planning, it was a cost-effective way to organize, notes Genevieve.
She adds she was struck by the creativity people brought to the events and the banners and signs made.
In the days leading up to the event, the planning team would get questions from colleagues about whether they needed more volunteers, or what beach to go to. Genevieve says this was a challenge as she got the sense people wondered whether they were doing their jobs properly.
Some people also found the idea that they could go to any beach intimidating, as they are used to the other style of campaigning where there is a time and place to be and do a particular activity, says Robin. Through finding an event near where people live and connecting people via the Facebook event page the team was able to connect people to others and help them overcome that challenge.
Impact and takeaways
With more than 5,000 people attending the Banners on the Beach day, the event successfully mobilised people for the cause — many of whom were new to Greenpeace.
Greenpeace connected the event with many other organizations who are working on the same issue, such as an oil free group out of Auckland and a campaigning group on seabed mining, as well as to the flotilla. This may have helped attract people who are new to Greenpeace, says Robin.
The day was also not promoted as a Greenpeace event. Local and student radio stations aired funny ads, and the website was not a branded page.
Tapping into the existing networks is a way to avoid reinventing the wheel and use their communication channels, says Jo.
“We realized that this issue is really relevant to them so rather than convening a whole new group we’ve gone and talked to groups of friends or family groups or surf clubs or more tribal-based groups . . . (and) we’re learning how to talk to those people,” says Jo.
She notes it was “also the right issue at the right time.”
The day raised the deep-sea oil drilling profile in terms of political issue. Although the minister in charge of the portfolio of energy and resources wasn’t speaking on it, notes Jo, Prime Minister John Key has labelled those who participated a Greenpeace “rent-a-crowd”.
The day also brought the campaign from the traditional centers out to the country’s regions. Through localizing a national issue, smaller regional newspapers were calling up the Greenpeace team for interviews and may have been prompted to run the story because of their ties to local organizations. As the flotilla had already been in the waters for a week, the Banners on the Beach day kept the story in the news.
It is difficult to separate the impact from the event compared to the other activities surrounding the issue, such as the flotilla and a judicial review filed by Greenpeace the following week, says Jo.
The team will work to build the relationships with the community organizers who had no previous connection with Greenpeace, as many aren’t on the supporter database so may not have signed a petition or donated to the organization, says Robin.
“Trying to convert their energy into a long-term commitment will take a bit of time for those people who are new to it,” says Robin.
Robin says a lesson they will take forward is working to find existing networks and build relationships with them, noting a key was having existing relationships with networks. The team plans to go to the South Island in 2014 where the drill ship is moving and will look to seek out those networks and work with them.
Having the event across the country demonstrated the “widespread opposition,” which is something Robin says they will want to be able to recreate in the future and let flourish.
“I think it was a really good model and something that we will hopefully try again at the end of summer when the ships leave to the Gulf of Mexico,” she says.
Providing the room for local control and creativity were reasons for success, but it also may have had to do with the beautiful day and beaches, notes Robin.
“It was a really positive vibe in the air. Even though we were concerned about deep-sea oil, we have probably a lot of animosity towards these Texans that have come to drill on our coast, there was a real energy of love and excitement about being there and being able to connect with the local beach and connect with the flotilla,” says Robin.
Since the Banners on the Beach day, Greenpeace is running a Summer of Signs event encouraging people to put up their signs in their neighborhoods.
Stay Connected: @GreenpeaceNZ
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