Occupy Wall Street Shifts Focus Of One Environmental Activist

02/06/2012 01:21 pm ET

Lisa Renstrom has been both a member of the one percent and an activist for much of her life, but Occupy Wall Street put a new frame on a decades-long passion.

Renstrom, a businesswoman and former president of environmental advocacy group The Sierra Club, said that when she first heard about the Occupy movement from a friend it began to stoke her concern about the influence that corporations and money wield in policy decisions. She's one of the many members of the so-called one percent, whose values have led them to lend their advocacy chops, time and sometimes money to the cause of the 99 percent.

"If the U.S. is moving towards a kleptocracy, what is that going to do to our nation and civilization and economy and climate?" Renstrom asked during an interview earlier this month. "We won't solve so many of the issues that face our nation and the world today until we separate the very large money impact on policy."

Renstrom said she was first inspired to come to Zuccotti Park by a friend who saw photos of Renstrom participating in an August protest against the Keystone XL pipeline on Facebook. The friend told Renstrom that her son was holding sessions with protesters in Zuccotti, for months a key campsite and staging area for the OWS movement in New York. Renstrom said she watched her friend's son -- who is trained as a life coach -- and his colleagues talk with demonstrators about how they could make the most out of their time protesting.

"He became kind of an HR department for Zuccotti Park," she said.

Watching the protesters discuss their plans, Renstrom said she saw how they were creating a space for discussion around an issue she already felt strongly about -- money in politics.

"It's opened a conversation for Americans to more easily see and talk about the inordinate influence of money on our politics," she said. "It influences our policy, it makes us unable to enact policy in this country that's for the best of individuals, of citizens, and I don't mean corporations."

Renstrom said she first began to understand the danger of allowing money into politics during the decade she operated businesses in Mexico, where she saw systemic corruption force many to pay people off in order to get what they want.

"When I moved back to the United States, I just felt such a deep appreciation for the laws and American systems and now I'm realizing that we're losing what the nation stands for," she said. "Influence isn't purchased like it is in Mexico -- where it's pretty straightforward -- here it's far more subtle, but you don't have to dig very deep to connect the dots."

Besides showing up at Zuccotti Park, Renstrom has found other ways to make headway in weakening the influence of corporations that don't act in line with her ethics. For about a year, Renstrom has been involved in organizations that promote socially-responsible, mission-related investing -- or directing money to businesses that share the investors' values.

"What you invest your time, your energy, and your money [in] makes a difference in the world," Renstrom said. "Maintaining an America with the opportunity to do better, to become the millionaire, to have upward mobility is really important."

And what's one of the best ways to make sure Americans have the chance to become millionaires? If millionaires themselves commit to the cause, Renstrom said. She added that though it's useful for the one percent to define themselves mathematically, what's more important is that members of her group self-identify as such and leverage that classification.

"One has to be for the 100 percent," she said. "And when the one percent are no longer for the 99 percent, then we are degrading everything that we that America stands for."


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