By Danielle Bongiovanni
On Sept. 30, Food & Water Watch hosted a virtual conference and benefit to showcase how anyone can join the fight for safe, healthy food, clean, public water and a livable climate. F&WW is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that supports grassroots efforts for local and systemic changes to improve everyone’s quality of life.
Holding the event online offered unexpected benefits. There were twelve sessions divided into two tracks for the evening, which attendees could switch between at will.
The first track gave organizers a platform to turn their personal experiences into lessons. Matt Smith, the NJ state director of F&WW, and Anthony Diaz, the co-founder of Newark Water Coalition, hosted the track’s second session, ‘Building Coalitions to Fight for Environmental Justice.’ They first met in 2012 during F&WW’s movement to oppose a fracked gas plant supported by then-governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie.
Diaz described how once he became an environmental justice advocate, he began noticing how racial minorities are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution. “If you’re not involved in the work you don’t know these things,” he said. The fracked gas plant he and Smith opposed was set to be built near Newark, where over 70% of residents are people of color. Anyone who is interested in joining the climate movement must know protecting the environment is inseparable from protecting vulnerable communities.
Both speakers emphasized how a coalition’s success depends on lots of planning, ensuring the movement is inclusive, and telling members their time and talents are more valuable than their money. Diaz said, “The only way to get through this… is to organize. Organize your fellow community members, organize the people you know, because that power- that power is untouchable.”
The second track consisted of workshops to help aspiring advocates get started. The track’s fourth session, ‘The Food & Water Volunteer Network: Building Volunteer Leaders and Political Power,’ was hosted by experienced organizers Michelle Allen, Brooke Errett and Sarah Edwards to teach attendees how they could support the nonprofit.
Volunteers are the heart of every movement, and the Food & Water Volunteer Network is accessible to anyone who wants to get involved. Opportunities range based on how much time and effort people can dedicate, from phonebanking to implementing strategic organizing campaigns.
To encourage potential volunteers, Edwards spoke proudly of a recent action she participated in to convince Florida Representative Kathy Castor to end fossil fuel subsidies. Participants brought a large fake check and demanded Castor cut it to prove her dedication to the planet. “It was a great example of us showing our collective power,” Edwards said.
After the workshops and educational sessions ended, the benefit portion of the event began. Famous F&WW supporters toasted to past victories, ongoing battles, and a bright future. Notably, actor Mark Ruffalo thanked the organization for its role in the 2010 campaign to ban fracking in New York and musician Max Frost performed “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell.
The benefit paused for the annual honoree award to be presented to Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now! who works tirelessly to uplift independent media. Her acceptance speech focused on the importance of preventing corporations and those in power from silencing the truth. “We have to provide that forum for people to speak for themselves,” Goodman said.
Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence was the last guest speaker. She spoke on her work as the chief sponsor of the WATER Act, “the guiding star for water investment during congressional infrastructure talks,” which aims to protect the human right to safe, clean water from privatization.
At the end of the evening, Managing Director of Philanthropy Tamara Tripp announced $118,000 had been raised for Food & Water Watch. She thanked everyone who donated and attended the event, concluding with a powerful and hopeful promise, “We’re excited to keep working with you tomorrow.”
Ramapo College students certainly intend to take Tripp up on her offer. On Sept. 24 the college’s Sunrise chapter and 1STEP club partnered with North Jersey F&WW Organizer Sam DiFalco to protest global climate injustices and the East 300 Upgrade Project. The event generated calls, emails and petitions to Governor Murphy and Mahwah Township Council members to oppose additions to a fracked gas pipeline located near Ramapo’s campus. Both the climate action and the conference prove anyone can become an effective grassroots activist as long as organizations like Food & Water Watch continue to provide guidance and resources.