06/26/2014 12:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Does GenX Finally Have a Movement?

GenX Mothers Take on Climate Change


Portrait by Sam Thompson

Mothers Out Front is a new movement for climate change gaining energy in Cambridge and Boston with mothers and grandmas. As a GenXer, the thing that intrigues me most is that someone in my generation finally has a movement. During the Iraq War, nothing. Lean In was something, but the boardrooms are still full of men and the editor of The New York Times was fired for wanting to be paid the same as a man and Wall Street Protests were the missive of the set behind us, the Millenials. Gloria and Betty burned bras, MLK changed civil rights, and the Suffragettes took on the vote. But GenX? Not much controversy from the cool kids that Canadian Douglas Coupland baptized in his namesake book, GenX: Tales for An Accelerated Culture, in 1991. Acceleration? Yes, we invented Google and Instagram, all full of awesomeness, innovation and eternal optimism, but what about movements, something grander than farm to table? Nada.

Happiness, hopefulness and Halcyon days are how the history books will remember GenX in generations to come. But is there more to our legacy? Many of us are the children of the last great generation so we know how to work hard, to keep our heads down and forge onward as we sit behind the air vacuum and wreckage of that enormous mass called the Baby Boom. But perhaps we are getting tired of their constant need to be the center of attention? They gulp up our environment, hold on to their senior positions, amass winner-takes-all wealth, and all the decent real estate. I sometimes think of them as hoarders.

So when I saw Kelsey Wirth, bullhorn in hand rallying her peers and grandmothers on the Boston Common last weekend, I was intrigued. Not only because she is focusing her efforts on climate change and mobilizing educated women, both burning topics of our times, but because she is making noise.

Her family life has many ties to climate change. Former US Senator Tim Wirth, who held some of the earliest congressional hearings on climate, is her father and her mother, Wren Winslow, runs a foundation that gives $1.2 million annually in small grants, some of which go to green groups. Samuel Myers, her husband, researches the impact of global environmental change on human health for Harvard's Department of Environmental Health. I sat down with Kelsey to learn more about building movements and what she hopes to accomplish with Mothers Out Front.

What's Mothers Out Front doing next?

We're about to file for independent C3 status. We started as a program of another small Massachusetts-based organization and now we are launching out on our own. However, the nature of being involved at the startup stage and a movement building effort is that there's never simply one burning issue. We've been around for fifteen months and I have been the sole fundraiser for Mothers Out Front to date, and still need to raise about another $200,000 to meet our 2014 budget.

You could get fiscal sponsorship from any number of organizations out there. For a long time, (Bill McKibben's group) was fiscally sponsored by another agent, and then about two years ago they became their own C3. In our case, Better Future Project was our sponsor. It's a Massachusetts-based climate-organizing group that is very activist-oriented.

What are you trying to do?

We recently kicked off our campaign for Massachusetts with community teams across the state focused on the priority of having people switch to clean, renewable energy. We have another level of that campaign that is focused on Governor Patrick. So, right now we're trying to schedule a meeting with Governor Patrick to talk to him about our platform and campaign. There are probably, at any given time, about eleven priorities.

We're really engaging people who otherwise would not be involved in addressing climate change. We're mothers coming together to protect our children's future. We share those fundamental values about taking care of our children, and we're reaching them not because they've got this natural environmental bent or that they're particularly inclined to be politically active. Although, we have some that have been quite politically engaged, but a lot of the people we're reaching have never been particularly active, have never really thought that much about climate change, and the reason they're coming is that they've been invited to a house party by another parent in their kid's school or a neighbor. It's all about reaching people through existing relationships and creating a safe space in which we explore the issues and challenges of climate change. We share stories. We talk about how we feel about climate change as mothers and as it relates to our children and their future. What could we actually do about it if we came together?

Did you see a Gen X void in terms of movements?

Absolutely. Not only did I see the void, but also we feel it on a regular basis in terms of the messages we hear back from women who are our age. We are the Reagan Generation. I'm speaking as someone who grew up with a father who was in elective politics, but it was still the Reagan era and it was all about 'how much can we shrink government? How do we minimize the role of government in our lives? Government is fundamentally bad.' And there was a certain amount of apathy, and there was a fair amount of wealth, and there wasn't a lot of political engagement.

What happened during the Iraq War?

Not very much, in part because there's no draft anymore. The people who go to war are a tiny sliver of our population. It doesn't affect most of us. Wall Street protests were the group younger than us.

How did you study movements?

It started with Marshall Ganz. Having grown up knowing about the issue by virtue of my father's involvement in addressing it, I never felt a driving desire to do anything until I became a mother. There was this 'aha' moment that I have described before. I was sitting on my daughter Sophie's bed when she was about two years old and we were looking through a book from the aquarium with all these beautiful pictures of coral reefs, and I started to cry. I'm looking at this thinking, 'she's never going to see this in her lifetime.' What are we doing to the world? And what does this mean for my children's future? I felt a level of anxiety that I had never felt before, and felt completely powerless to do anything. My model for playing an important role in the world was running for public office because my father had done that. It's a path I didn't take. I'm not a scientist. I'm not an engineer. What am I going to do about this enormous challenge facing our world? Totally powerless.

I had read about Marshall's involvement in the Obama campaign of 2008, he was the mastermind behind a lot of the Obama field strategy that was so effective opposed to parachuting organizers in from outside, which is the traditional political organizing model. Marshall Ganz brought a community-organizing model to politics and to the Obama campaign, and it was incredibly successful.

Here he is at the Kennedy School, right around the corner from where I live, and I thought, 'I've got to meet this guy.' What he said was fairly simple: Transformational change in our society has always been driven at some level by social movements.

There is something fundamentally wrong here. It's not about facts and figures. So much of the earlier work around climate change was about these dreary facts and figures and not giving people any sense of agency. Al Gore's movie is a perfect example. It was incredibly cerebral. It was a starting point, but sort of Psychology 101 is that human beings don't act based on a bunch of facts in their head. Human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures and it's our emotions that drive our decision-making.

You actually engage people through story telling and then develop structure and strategy. We need a movement. There isn't really much going on out there in the climate change space when it comes to movement building.

What public opinion do you want to change?

One of the first questions we wanted to answer is, 'is it possible to engage mothers around this issue?' They might worry about it from time to time but mostly they kind of block it out, right? They think it's too big and not necessarily directly relevant to my life. But that's starting to change. Is it actually possible to engage people? Will they come to a house party? Will they get interested enough to take the next step and actually want to get more involved? What's this whole process going to be like?

What do you consider as concrete wins?

At the individual level, we're trying to have thousands of people across Massachusetts make that switch to clean, renewable energy for their electricity which is an easy thing to do for most residents. Our volunteer-led and volunteer-driven teams are working with local businesses to have them make that same switch. And at the statewide level, we're making very ambitious 'asks' of the governor. We want the governor to commit to Massachusetts meeting all new energy needs with energy efficiency and renewable energy and draw the line against new fossil fuel development.

We are shutting down coal plants in Massachusetts and the question is 'what will we use to replace that coal-fired energy?' Are we going to build natural gas plants and continue to import increasing amounts of natural gas into the state? We already send $22 billion a year outside of Massachusetts to pay for our energy because we're so dependent upon imported fossil fuel. Are we going to invest in more natural gas or are we going to invest in smarter ways in the deployment of more clean, renewable energy, which includes developing more offshore wind? Offshore wind is the biggest opportunity, not just for Massachusetts, but also for the country. There are also hydro, solar, and other smaller sources like biomass. There is a real opportunity with hydro, if developed carefully, solar, off-shore wind and geothermal.

Are you thinking about the 2016 election?

We will be. Right now our near-term focus is on learning how to do this work here in Massachusetts, in developing a model that can be adopted and adapted in other states across the country. Massachusetts is our Petri dish where we're trying lots of different stuff, learning how to do it. We're going to learn a lot about structure and process and a lot of lessons that will be applicable in the next states where we start organizing. Our goal is to be organizing in one or two more states by the end of this year; New York will likely be one of them.

Are solar, wind and hydro companies excited to see you moving the needle towards them?

We haven't worked hard to develop those relationships yet but it's a good question: how do we work with the renewable energy industry? I think that will come. Remember, we've been doing this for just over a year. I think as we prove ourselves, we're going to have a lot more people knocking on our door.

This is an exclusive excerpt from where you can read the full interview