Behind Every Banner

Here’s to the inspired troublemakers and the wild dreamers

by Tom Avila

September 14, 2021

Behind every banner, there are teams of people backstage that deserve their own proper recognition and ovation. Not just this year, but every day.

I was wedged into the window seat of a DC city bus when the news started to circulate. I was as excited as anyone on the H6 the morning of January 25, 2017, when images of the banner started to pop up on our phones.

A yellow and orange banner rising up behind the White House with a single word on it. RESIST

RESIST became a call and the inspiration for one of my favorite Greenpeace videos. A video that gets to the very heart of what Greenpeace is, what we want to be. A place where “inspired troublemakers, tireless visionaries, and wild dreamers” come together because we truly believe we can change the world.

In the years that followed, we saw this idea take shape in all sorts of ways. Ways that made clear that there was room for everyone in the environmental movement and in our collective quest for justice. People who had never thought of themselves as activists took to the streets and raised their voices. People made art and music. They signed petitions and raised banners and demanded that the names of those lost to violence and racism and hollow greed were not just remembered, but raised up.

And then, in early 2020, the world changed.

But that didn’t stop us.

We reached out online, through limited web series like Planeta G, about the intersection between the environmental movement and the Latinx community, and the monthly podcast What We Need Now, where people on the front lines of sacrifice, environmental disaster, and marginalization share their experiences and truths.

We worked with Greenpeace ally Jane Fonda to move the once on-the-street Fire Drill Fridays rallies online, and Fonda opened her home (on camera at least) to political experts and movement leaders and Greenpeace campaigners. Fire Drill Fridays also became a recruitment tool in the lead-up to the 2020 election, building a national network of Greenpeace volunteers for a get out the vote effort that reached 4 million climate voters!

When Greenpeace joined the mass protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many other people victimized by police violence whose names are now lost to all but their friends and families, Executive Director Annie Leonard wrote,  “I…know some folks may be wondering why Greenpeace, the ‘save the whales’ group, is speaking up to say Black Lives Matter.

Greenpeace US Democracy Director Folabi Olagbaju stands in front of a security checkpoint near where a Black Lives Matter message hangs on the side of the Greenpeace building in Washington, D.C. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States. During an arrest, Derek Chauvin, a white American police officer, kept his knee on the side of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down. During the last three minutes, Floyd was motionless. After Floyd’s death, demonstrations and protests against racism and police brutality were held across the US and the world, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the movement and gathering restrictions put in place by governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“[The] unifying thread is this: we must dismantle the systems that exploit people and planet, and a core part of that is the fight for justice every single day. We simply can never create a green and peaceful future if systems of white supremacy, colonialism, and privilege continue to destroy the environment and strip Black communities of their dignity—and too often, their lives.”

We continued to use our expertise in data and research to expose the fallacy that we can recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis, to prove that Reusables are Doable and how the fossil fuel industry contributes to public health harms that kill hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. each year and disproportionately endanger Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities

We put forward a Just Recovery Agenda, a bold and transformational set of policies that must be pursued to address the root causes of racial, environmental and economic injustice, and monitored the Biden administration’s responses to the climate crisis.

And then, on September 9, 2021, just less than a week before the 50th anniversary of the very first Greenpeace voyage, Greenpeace US announced that we would move to a new leadership structure and Ebony Twilley Martin would join Annie Leonard as our first co-executive directors. Even more monumental, Ebony would become the first Black woman executive director of a legacy environmental organization in the United States.

And all of this has happened thanks to Greenpeacers who turned corners of their apartments into places to answer supporter phone calls and juggled homeschooling their kids with planning meetings and friendly pets making regular appearances on ZOOM. It happened thanks to our friends who masked up and headed out to make sure thank you letters were mailed or managed a dozen video calls to be sure Compass magazine and Green Legacy would be finished on time. Thanks to folks who made sure team members had the support they needed and the resources they required and came up with solutions for the unexpected. 

Behind every banner flying high overhead, there are teams and teams of people doing a lot backstage that deserve their own proper recognition and ovation. Not just this year, but every day. They are all Greenpeace. They are all inspired troublemakers and wild dreamers. They are tireless resistors and incredible partners in the fight.

We don’t know what the coming year will bring, but we know we’ll be ready.

Even if we’re on the bus when it happens.

This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.

Tom Avila

By Tom Avila

Tom is a writer and creative with Greenpeace, where he’s had the good fortune to serve as a coach and facilitator for teams across the Greenpeace world.

Prior to joining Greenpeace, his work focused on supporting LGBTQ+ journalists and news media outlets and practitioners covering the community. While he’s lived in a number of places, he is now back in his home state of Maine, on the land of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

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