12/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

To cure green fatigue: Overcome green muscle memory

Breaking a sweat

I love the gym. My mind clears, my body detoxes, my brain gets a shot of endorphins, and I'm far more productive after a workout. I joined up for some group training classes. Sure I could work out alone, but I wouldn't work as hard as I do with a group of strangers; and it's more fun.

The coolest class -- 'total body conditioning' - is headed by an incredibly toned woman named Mary who offers up a ton of mantras and muscle facts throughout the sweat fest. It's a bear of a workout. I even invited one of my guy friends, who is in relatively decent shape to join and he could barely keep up.

"Many of the events I see are successful in building followers, but not necessarily leaders and that is precisely what we need to nurture."

"58, 57, 56... Focus on quality not quantity," she'll say. "I'd rather see one real push-up through the entire range of motion than 10 shoddy ones. You can take twenty years to get in shape or you can embrace the burn and get results quicker."

Embrace the burn. I like it. It gets results.

Create leaders, not followers

I can't help but apply lessons from my workout to what's happening in the environmental movement. And one thing that's been on my mind for a while is how we can make green conferences and events more effective; how we can truly empower participants to act on what they learn.

Like an exercise group, conferences and events are engaging places to gather energy, network, and breed action. Yet, that rarely seems to happen in a clear, intentional way. Many of the events I see are successful in building followers, but not necessarily leaders and that is precisely what we need to nurture.

Before I continue, let me say I think any green event is a good start. But is it good enough? The fact that you rolled out of bed and got to the gym may be an achievement, but how effective is it if your trainer balances you every time you're in tree pose?

Quality v. Quantity

The number of green-themed events has skyrocketed, which is great-but we must not forgo quality for quantity or action for awareness. It's no longer enough to say, "We got a bazillion attendees." Success should be measured by the number of people who carry out tangible actions to promote change as result of their attendance--not by the attendance numbers alone.

Look at Live Earth. The concerts spearheaded to "combat the climate crisis" reached 2 billion people. But a US study by Yale University, Gallup, and ClearVision Institute took a look at how effective Live Earth was at getting the message out and spurring individuals into action. And though it had limitations, the study was the only one I know that researched and quantified event efficacy outside of ticket sales.

The results were shocking: "Live Earth had no measured impact on the American public as a whole."

(Green) Muscle Memory

Another tidbit I picked up from highly toned Mary is about muscle memory, which is what happens when you go through the same motions again and again. The brain adapts, our muscles expect the next movement, and they're no longer challenged to actually get stronger.

I'm afraid that's exactly what's happened in the environmental movement.

Now, to evolve, grow and gain results--we need to get out of our rut... we need to challenge explore new motions... to switch it up a bit... and to embrace the burn.

We can't wait twenty years for results. The green conferences, media and events of yesterday cannot resemble the conferences, media and events of tomorrow. A good green conference may be able to bring a bazillion people to its doors and a bazillion media hits, but a truly successful one will empower those bazillion people to make change happen once they get out the doors.

Here are some thoughts on how to create truly successful, effective, movement-building conferences and events.


  • Build events around direct action

Action may follow awareness, but it's often an organic process, requiring many additional triggers before it actually starts.

It's not enough any longer to stage a fancy fashion show or event to say you are "democratizing green," when it's clear there is no charitable benefit and the one-of-a-kind pieces will never be bought-or-sold on market. That doesn't inspire action.

I'd like to see more green events centered on a clear action-oriented goal. Attendees should be immediately anointed "participants," asked to be leaders and expected to take action.

In November 2007, Power Shift trained six thousand of us how to lobby our representatives. We were given pep talks, opportunities to meet with voters in our state and Congressional districts, and ultimately let loose in the halls of Capitol Hill. The organizers expected us to step up and be leaders, and I assure you our activation into the political process did not end on the final day of the conference and a new action date on Capitol Hill is already in place.

  • Disinvite the press

This may seem counterintuitive but hear me out... My friends came back from the Fortune Brainstorm: Green conference last April and mentioned the press was left out of panel discussions; a tactic that actually led to more interesting, effective debate--debate that may otherwise have been colored with a patina of marketing language to placate journalists.

Press coverage was largely carried out by bloggers and Fortune's own representatives, and though this may not be an effective strategy for all conferences, it was an effective means to achieve their goal: Getting leaders to talk about real answers.

  • Better speakers = better results

I used to sit up front at most conferences, but now I sit in back, by the exit, so I can duck out if the speech is too predictable.

I want to feel engaged by a speech, like I'm a participant, even if there is no Q&A. And I want someone who moves me, someone who forces me to think, or imparts knowledge I would have never known.

Instead, all too often I feel like they're speaking "at" or "down" to me, or worse, they simply echo exactly what I already think. I know what I think--or at least I think I do. Reinforcement can be great, but it can also stunt your growth.

  • Diversify

Unfortunately, there is too little participation at most green conferences for the traditionally underrepresented. At Power Shift--a conference run by TTTs (Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings)--I was thrilled to see a real focus on minority affinity groups. And at the Dream Reborn Conference in Memphis last April, nearly 60% of the participants were people of color. And at the Udall Scholarship conference this month, I was heartened to see a rise in young tribal leaders. It's crucial that we open new doors to expand our horizons. That is what is going to push this movement forward.

  • The "Not-so-Usual Suspects"

San Francisco and Portland can have fun, but they shouldn't have all the fun. Memphis and Pittsburgh may not be the traditional places for green events, but why shouldn't they be? Both cities held effective "green jobs" conferences, summoning new audiences to the dialogue. When Van Jones, the inimitable social justice activist from Green for All, who helped organize the Dream Reborn conference in Memphis said people told him it would be impossible to find people who cared about green in Memphis. Guess what? The show sold-out.

Conferences and events are integral to the green movement. They are core tactics that--when done effectively--enlighten, recharge, and energize their participants. They can augment actions that start online and bring people together far more effectively that virtual movements or conference calls. We need to begin to focus on this and realize the opportunities we are missing to truly push the movement ahead. Today's green events need a workout, and by embracing the burn, I'm confident we can flex our muscles--challenge ourselves--to truly activate real change.

Weigh in on your thoughts here. Let me know what conferences and events you thought were useful in catapulting the movement ahead and what great ideas you have for strengthening events. - Summer Rayne Oakes