By Sarah Byrnes
Jennifer Robinson describes herself as an introvert. “I’m not really the kind of person who likes doing presentations,” she says. But on January 23, Jennifer found herself in front of the Greenbelt, MD city council and dozens of community members, proposing a resolution in support of an amendment to overturn the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court decision.
“I really had to work myself up to do it,” she says. “But seeing all the other people there supporting this cause was so exciting. And the city council passed the resolution unanimously! They sent a letter to our state legislature supporting a Constitutional amendment.”
Jennifer is part of a “Resilience Circle” in Greenbelt that meets to learn about the economy and the environment, engage in mutual aid, and take social action. Like many others meeting across the country, her circle used a free seven-session curriculum as a guide for its initial meetings. Jennifer’s circle is sponsored by Greenbelt Climate Action Network (a project of CHEARS.org) in partnership with Simplicity Matters Earth Institute.
“It’s amazing how a Resilience Circle can bring out the social action ‘fever’ in a person,” reflects Lore Rosenthal, a member of another circle in Greenbelt. “It’s partly from learning about how corporations control our democracy – that makes people mad. But the support of the circle is what keeps them engaged in the long term. I think it’s that sustained energy that has caught on in our community. Lots of others have caught the fever – and it’s great!”
In December and January, Lore and Eugenia Kalnay, a climate scientist from Greenbelt, helped organize house parties in Greenbelt as part of a national campaign focused on overturning Citizens United. The parties drew in members of the Resilience Circles as well as the wider community. Folks talked about local, state, and federal strategies to overturn the decision.
Jennifer attended two of the parties. “A man from the Sierra Club talked about how he can’t accomplish any of his goals because of Citizens United and abusive corporate power,” she says. “I was really moved by that, because protecting and caring for the environment is near and dear to me.”
Jennifer teamed up with Eugenia to approach their city council about Citizens United. “Neither of us had any experience doing that kind of thing,” Jennifer says. “But we supported each other and figured it out. It was amazing to have success so quickly.”
The day after the Greenbelt city council agreed to send their letter to state officials, nearby College Park approved a similar letter, due to the efforts of another Resilience Circle member from that area. Greenbelt and College Park join about a dozen other municipalities that have passed measures opposing Citizens United, including the biggest American cities – New York and LA – as well as small cities like Athens, OH, and Portland, ME. States like New Mexico and Montana have also taken steps to show their opposition.
“I think what we’re doing is creating momentum,” says Jennifer. “I believe in the concept of tipping points, and that these local actions are contributing to a larger movement.” Jennifer and others in her group may work their way up to lobbying state or even federal officials about overturning Citizens United, but for the moment, “It feels really good to have done something, even if it’s a small thing.”
Jennifer says her Resilience Circle played a critical role in helping her get there. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to the house party in the first place without other members of my circle,” she says. “And it’s been so great to have my group to come back to and debrief about what happened at the city council. They’re like a safe haven. I know that they support me, and I support them too.”
Lore agrees that the small group dynamic in a circle complements the experience of being part of a movement and attending large rallies or meetings. “It’s an important balance, to be part of both kinds of groups; one where people know you more intimately and support you, and the other where you get to meet new people and encounter new ideas.”
The small group or “affinity group” has been a crucial part of many social movements, and people are increasingly realizing its relevance for today. Organizers at Occupy Boston, for example, have been working to form affinity groups.
“It can sometimes be hard to get a group of activists to pull away from a political or social agenda,” says Lore. “But I always promise people that if you take 5 or 6 sessions focused on getting to know each other, you won’t be sorry. You’ll become much more effective activists. And – you’ll also have fun in the process.”