Fundraiser, Interview, Michigan — April 3, 2015 at 10:01 am

INTERVIEW: Nic Clark talks about the amazing work of Clean Water Action and next week’s awards ceremony & fundraiser


As I went to compose this post, I didn’t have to create a new “Clean Water Action” tag because I have written about Clean Water Action and their incredible work many times in the past and have quoted their state Director Nic Clark on numerous occasions. That’s because I have a special place in my activist’s heart for CWA.

Immediately following the 2008 presidential election, after spending the previous year knocking doors and making calls and organizing others, I found myself unable to quit. So I joined up with the Ann Arbor CWA operation and what I found there was nothing short of amazing. They had canvassers out five days a week. They had activist nights every week. They even had auto-dialers for phonebanking that wouldn’t connect you until someone answered the call and then allowed you to patch them through directly to the phone line of a particular legislator that they wanted constituents to reach out to so that the caller could leave them a message.

That level of sophistication combined with a well-defined set of values and priorities and a committed staff of organizers sets CWA apart from nearly every other group doing environmental advocacy. They are, at least in my mind, the model of how to organize both nationally and locally outside of a political campaign.

But none of that action happens without resources and funding. Next Wednesday, April 8th, 2015, Clean Water Action’s Michigan affiliate is having their annual Great Lakes Award Celebration and fundraiser. As you will see from the interview below, the evening they have planned is outstanding and, in addition to helping them raise the funds they need to do their critical work, it’s going to be a truly fun event. It will be held at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in downtown Lansing and begins at 5:30. It only costs $60 to attend and there will be food from around Michigan as well as all the Short’s Brewing Co. beer you can drink from a commemorative pint glass that you can take home afterwards. For more information and to order tickets, click HERE. Also, be sure to stop by their Facebook event page to keep up on announcements regarding the celebration. I highly recommend attending. You’ll have a great time and will be helping a terrific organization while you’re at it.

A key aspect of the event is the presentation of awards to a number of people CWA is honoring for their work to support the goals of their organization. This year, I am honored and humbled to be the recipient of CWA’s “Great Lakes Guardian Award”.

I sat down with CWA State Director Nic Clark to talk about the work that CWA does and what’s in store for attendees of the Great Lakes Award Ceremony next Wednesday.


Tell me about Clean Water Action. I know you’re a national organization. Are there groups in every state?

Clean Water Action nationally is a 501(c)(4) organization so we do electoral endorsements and policy advocacy at the national level. We also have our sister organization Clean Water Fund which is a 501(c)(3) organization which does issue organizing and civic engagement sort of work. We’re in 16 states across the country including Washington, D.C. In total, we are a 1.1 million member strong organization.

One of the hallmarks of our Clean Water Action is that we are one of the first groups nationally to implement a professional, full-time field canvass and that’s really the bread and butter and the dogma of our organizing model; cutting through the 24-hour news cycle and going straight to people and having conversations at the door about our issues.

The organization was founded in 1972 after the passage of the Clean Water Act which was an historic landmark piece of legislation that allowed the federal government to regulate drinking water sources in a way that it hadn’t been able to do prior to that.

One of the stories I like to tell is that we were actually founded with a $100 contribution from a group of charter boat fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. The original name of the group was The Fishermen’s Clean Water Action Project. So our mission statement is very much in line with the Clean Water Act which is to protect all of nation’s waters to ensure that they’re swimmable, fishable, and drinkable. All three of those facets guide our work.

Your field operation has been really quite amazing to me. You had people knocking doors in the heart of winter this past year, right? What are they doing when they knock on doors? When the canvasser says, “Hello, I’m from Clean Water Action”, what are they talking to that person about? What are they asking for?

Each state has a lot of freedom in terms of which issue is most important. We really try to localize the issues as much as we can. People at the doors care most about local issues that are in their backyard. Sometimes more so than a big federal issue. Or we can localize that big federal issue so they understand the impact it has on their backyard. But when our canvassers are out knocking on doors, they are asking people to join Clean Water Action and become part of our 1.1 million member organization.

Also, a major facet is taking action. So, you’re not just signing up and contributing to support our group. Also, right there and right now, we have at least one if not two actions you can take right away to make an impact on the issue we’re working on. A lot of times that’s through a petition or a letter, a postcard, some sort of physical thing that someone can take action with.

Right now in Michigan we’re focused primarily on renewable energy and energy efficiency policies. Pollution from coal-fired power plants tends to be the largest source of pollution for our drinking water in Michigan and elsewhere across the country. Actually, coal-fired power plants are the largest source for all of our nation’s water.

I don’t think people realize that. They think of it as contributing more to air pollution. They don’t see is as polluting our water.

Right, that’s true. Our major federal program right now that all of the states are working on is what we call the “PPP Campaign” – Power Plant Pollution. That’s all about discharge from power plants. One thing that people don’t necessarily realize is that all coal plants need water to operate. That’s why they are always on bodies of water like the Great Lakes. It’s a very dirty process and it’s very heat intensive. You need water to clean their machinery and you also need water to cool down the machinery and to generate steam. Steam is the primarily what turns turbines to generate electricity. With that, because they are sitting on these waterways, there’s actually a lot of discharge that comes out of these power plants. That includes a lot of heavy metals that are carcinogens and neurotoxins like mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium – the list goes on.

So it’s not just air pollutants falling into the water sources…

Right, it’s not just what comes out of the smokestacks. There’s actually direct discharges from the plants. It’s legal for them to do this – it’s permitted through state agencies and the federal government also has some oversight over it – but a lot of those permits haven’t been updated in over 30 years. In Michigan in particular we have some permits that were last updated in the late 80s, for example.

In our state we have two of the worst offenders. They’re actually ranked in the top ten nationally. That’s the River Rouge plant and the Trenton Channel plant. One of those plants alone can discharge up to 356 million gallons of water contaminated with toxins a day. So, it’s pretty startling.

And these plants are almost all on the Great Lakes, correct?

The Great Lakes or tributaries and waters that eventually make it to the Great Lakes.

How many are we talking about in Michigan?

In Michigan we have about a dozen plants or so. Our goal across the state is to have a no-coal state. We have been taking very proactive steps, plant by plant, working toward that, and working with local communities to implement transition plans about what’s next for the future of energy generation in Michigan.

Why a “transition plan?

In some communities, the utility plant is the major employer and contributor to the local tax base. If we shut down that plant, that town is devastated. So there have to be plans in place about how to mitigate that impact so that local residents don’t face a catastrophe.

That probably helps to keep them from fighting your efforts, if they know that you’re thinking about “life after the coal plant.

Right. Exactly.

I’m on the mailing list for “Energy Citizens” which is the corporate front group for pro-coal, anti-regulation crowd. Their alarmist message is that our bills are going to skyrocket and we’ll have to ration energy because we won’t have enough energy if we phase out coal. Is that an accurate portrayal of the situation? If coal goes away are there enough renewable and clean energy sources to provide enough energy for Michigan?

Yeah, there certainly are. We have a variety of resources at our disposal and many of them don’t even come close to the amount of pollution that coal generates. What we’ve been advocating for for many years is let’s exhaust our potential with renewable energy first before we turn to fossil fuel-oriented energy production. The conversation is then around implementing robust wind programs, solar programs, and also what we can do to reduce energy waste. Conservation is a huge concept.

You’re saying the amount of energy we can save through conservation is much bigger than people realize?

Absolutely. This is something that Gov. Snyder’s administration has been talking about quite recently. Potentially up to 30 or 40 percent of our energy portfolio could be thought of in terms of a reduction in the amount of energy waste. That would be a huge savings for us.

Did you say 30 percent?! I don’t think people realize that either, that energy conservation can have that big of an impact.

Yeah, and that’s an important concept to think of because right now in the legislature Republicans like Aric Nesbitt want to implement a plan that would actually eliminate the energy efficiency standard that we have in place right now in the state of Michigan.

Who does the current energy standard apply to?

Mostly toward utility companies and what programs and policies they can implement that will reduce waste from rate payers, for example. So it’s designed to encourage energy efficiency programs in our homes, making sure that our appliances are the most energy efficient possible, that our homes are heated well with the right sort of equipment, the right insulation, that sort of thing. It also involves how we’re protecting from the loss of energy in transferring power across the state. We lose a lot in transmission and the distribution of it. That’s one of things about having these large coal plants. When you have a huge coal plant sitting on a river somewhere, it’s going to power homes and businesses many miles away. So you’ve got power lines running across the state and county lines.

Energy efficiency is a program that almost everyone in the state agrees has been a tremendous success story for Michigan.

If you take away that mandate, is there any incentive for energy companies to encourage their customers to conserve energy or is that mandate the driving force for doing it?

The Michigan Public Service Commission is charged with the task of releasing an annual report showing our progress toward our goals and also analyzing the economic impact of our energy policy. What the MPSC has said time and time again since they started doing these reports is that energy efficiency programs are the most cost effective form of producing energy. The utility companies are actually making money by investing in these projects. But what we’ve learned from past practice is that, without a strong mandate in place, utility companies left to their own devices aren’t going to take advantage of these programs. That’s why we need to ensure that there’s some accountability there.

What is Clean Water Action doing specifically in Michigan?

Out of the national project, Michigan is the largest of the 16 states in terms of membership. We have over 300,000 people in the state of Michigan who are members and who are registered to vote. That’s an important distinction. One thing we’ve done in the past year is some analysis of our membership that shows that our members vote over 70% of the time. So, they’re highly engaged, very active people. It’s important that the decision makers in Lansing understand that, as well.

Our membership is diverse both geographically and demographically. There are over 30 House districts in the state of Michigan that have 5,000 or more Clean Water Action members in them. That’s very considerable, especially when you start looking at the map in terms of what we would consider marginal districts that are close to being represented by either a Democrat or a Republican in any given electoral year. In many of those districts we have 5,000 or more members there and they are voting. So, they can be a decisive force.

So is this a bunch of tree-hugging Democratic liberals we’re talking about here?

It’s actually very different than what you might think. When we look at the demographic distribution of our membership along party ideology, what we see is basically a bimodal distribution. We have a huge pocket of people on one end that identify as very conservative. Then we have about 20 percent or so that identify as moderate and then we have almost the same shape on the other side that identify as extremely liberal.

So you truly are a bipartisan group. Or maybe non-partisan is more accurate.

It really is. In terms of our membership we truly are. The struggle we have is translating the values of our members to votes in the legislature because when you look at our scorecard… as part of our service to our members we issue a report card every two years before the election on how the state House and Senate members vote on our priorities. The last two we’ve issued have shown that it’s hard to find a Republican in Lansing that will score above a zero percent.

So how do you convert your more conservative membership, the one mode of the bimodal distribution, into taking action against the people they would normally support? How do you try to activate them to take steps to change things?

What we’ve really put a focus on now is volunteer recruitment in those districts to mobilize accountability actions. We realize that when we work in our offices in Lansing and Ann Arbor and Clinton Township, we may not be in that district where that person is voting that way but our members are. So we’ve really put a focus on distributed organizing and putting together local volunteer teams in those communities. That way, in the summer or a recess or a break when the legislators are back in the district and holding coffee hours and walking in parades, that our members are there and they are hounding them and saying, “I’m a Clean Water Action member, I vote, and why do you have a zero percent score on environmental issues?”

How many people do you have out doing active canvassing and organizing?

In terms of our professional canvass program, these are people who come into our organization who are employed by us and have a salary and benefits, it’s a full-time job, in the summertime – what we call “Summer Rush” which is basically May through September – we have upwards of 70 or 80 people, at times, knocking on doors five days a week. On top of that we also employ a professional phone canvass. Those canvasses are based in Minneapolis and in Pittsburgh and they call our members each night with the same message about accountability and making democracy work for the environment.

I have found Clean Water Action to be very sophisticated in terms of the techniques that you use. For example, I did some phonebanking for you in the Ann Arbor office right after the 2008 election. You guys had automatic dialers and a very organized approach to making sure volunteers showed up every night. You clearly have resources that allow you to be way more effective than some other groups. But that stuff costs money. That’s expensive. I assume that’s a big part of the reason you have this upcoming fundraiser to be able to keep all of that going.

This fundraiser along with a variety of our events throughout the year are all designed around keeping this organization and the work we do in place but also growing. We have so many new ideas and pilot projects that we want to launch in order to be more effective and to pioneer new technologies in the field. But all of that comes with a cost. So being able to have the resources to engage in these sorts of activities is extremely important to us and the work that we do really differentiates us from some of the other groups who are engaged in environmental advocacy.

Tell me about the fundraiser. I know you’re honoring some folks and and giving out some awards, that sort of thing.

We’re extremely excited about this year’s fundraiser. I think this is going to be the best on we’ve ever had. We started transitioning some years ago to having the Great Lakes Awards Celebration become an annual event and each year it builds on itself. This year we’re fortunate to have a really cool venue. We’re going to be at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in downtown Lansing. One of the things we’re really looking to do is to put into perspective the history and progress that the environmental movement has made over time. So, as you’re walking through the museum and you see a car that looks like a horse-drawn buggy, there will be a placard next to it talking about what the main environmental issue of that year in 1904.

Then as you look at the cars and how they involved, say, in the 60s and they’re all cool and sleek, what was going on in the environmental world in 1960? So, really putting that all into perspective because when you see the car, you can tell that time has passed but sometimes it’s hard to articulate all the progress that has been made over the past 100 years of the environmental movement in the U.S. and specifically in Michigan, as well. In a lot of regards, Michigan has been a pioneer for the nation in a lot of environmental areas, particularly in drinking water protection and standing up for the Great Lakes.

With that, I think we have a very eclectic slate of people who we really want to recognize this year and tell their story of what they’ve been doing to advocate on behalf of making Michigan a better place to live and protecting our Great Lakes legacy.

The theme this year is “Made in Michigan”. Each one of our award recipients embodies some aspect of what we’re dubbing our “Made in Michigan” legacy. The highest honor that we’ve come up with over the past three years is our “Lifetime Achievement Award” which is given to someone who has really been a steward of the Great Lakes and environmental issues throughout their career and a lifetime of work. This year we’re fortunate to have former U.S. Senator Carl Levin join us.

Hard to chose a better person than him.

I agree! He comes just off of last year’s Award recipient former Congressman John Dingell. And prior to that it was given to Cindy Roper who worked for Clean Water Action for over two decades. We feel we’re building a great cabinet in terms the number of people who have been awardees over the past three years for the “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

We also want to recognize people in the business community. Oftentimes it feels like environmentalists and the business community are at odds with each other. So, finding those people who know it’s about jobs AND the environment and not OR the environment is really important to us. We found two great places where we found folks who live up to our “Made in Michigan” legacy. One of those people is Richard Vander Veen. Mr. Vander Veen is a wind industry pioneer. He is responsible for financing and pulling together the state’s largest renewable energy project, the Gratiot County Wind Farm. As you head up north on vacation and you go up I-127 up by Genessee County, you can see what he accomplished.

Wasn’t that done in conjunction with all of the neighbors?

What Mr. Vander Veen calls it is the “Thousand Cups of Coffee Project”. Because for almost 10 years he was in this community himself having conversations, over coffee, at kitchen tables, talking about how we need to bring this to Michigan and we’re going to bring it here in our community and we want you to be a part of it, not some developer who is just going to stick ’em in your backyard. He got true buy-in from everyone. And it’s been a great success story. Everyone who bought into the project is making money and they are also doing something positive for the environment. Plus it’s just a tremendous showcase for the potential that we have for everyone who is on vacation and is driving up I-127 throughout the year. So, we’re excited to have him this year.

Additionally, you can’t make good beer without clean water and craft beer has become such a big part of our culture here in Michigan and something we’re all pretty proud of, too. This year we’re found a great partner in Short’s Brewing Co. in northern Michigan who will be receiving our “Clean Water Innovator Award”. Also, all of the beer we’ll be serving at the event will be Short’s beer.

Earlier I talked about our electoral work and it’s worth pointing out that it’s not all bad! There are stories of legislators who are tireless advocates for our work. Oftentimes they are in the minority so it’s even more important for them to be a strong voice. So, each year we choose a legislator who we feel embodies Clean Water Action’s values and principles and this year we’ve selected one of our dear friends, Rashida Tlaib. Rashida is a former state House member and really a community advocate as well as an environmental one.

Last year we had the enormous petcoke piles sitting on the shore of the Detroit River and seemingly no one cared and they were just going to be there. The community didn’t have a voice about whether they were going to be there or not and they were sitting on the river, feet away! Rashida was the one who really led the charge to be a community advocate and organize the decision makers to get those piles off the river where they didn’t belong. And for that and all sorts of other reasons, Rashida is someone who we really support and are really looking forward to hosting her.

We talk every year about the composition of our awards and one thing we wanted to do last year was to come up with someone in the communications area who is a good story teller. That’s why we chose Eclectablog.

With this whole thing we’re talking about someone who has been a lifetime advocate, we’re talking about businesses, we’re talking about lawmakers, and then someone who is in the community doing community organizing and telling the stories of why we’re doing all of this.

It’s the whole package.

It really is. And, finally, we have one last award called the “Cindy Roper Organizer of the Year Award”. She was with Clean Water Action for two decades and so much of who we are in Michigan is due to her work. This is an opportunity for us to recognize a staff member, someone from the field canvass who is going out and knocking doors in the middle of winter when it’s below zero. In the past two years it’s been particularly challenging because of the extreme cold but we only called the canvass off one day this past winter if you can believe it. Those people are how we build this movement so it’s really important for us to recognize them. I can’t tell you who will be receiving it this year, however, because we only reveal it at the ceremony as a surprise.

How can people who are not currently involved with Clean Water Action get involved and support what you’re doing? Obviously fundraising is a big part of it and becoming a member and so forth. But if people see what you do as valuable, how can they become involved and support you?

One of the first things I would recommend is getting in touch with us and setting up a one-on-one meeting with one of our organizers. We have organizers that are based in Lansing, Ann Arbor, and Clinton Township in Macomb County. All of them are doing the work of building volunteer teams and implementing winning issue and electoral campaigns each and every day. But they can’t do it by themselves. So, a big part of recruiting new volunteers is just sitting down with people over a cup of coffee and talking about their aspirations and motivations and why they want to do this work and getting them involved in the leadership pipeline in Clean Water Action. You can be a member of Clean Water Action, you’ve signed up at the door, you’ve contributed, but what’s the next step for you?

That’s really what the job of our organizers is, to find a unique path for you to be able to continue to be involved in the organization. That could look like a variety of things. I like to say, “Whether you’ve got 40 minutes a week or 40 hours a week, we have something for you to do that’s important and meaningful and not just busy work.” We host regular activist nights at our offices where you can come in and make phone calls to your legislator, write letters to the editor, traditional activist sorts of activities.

But we also pride ourselves as a leading earned media organization. What that means is that we do stand-up press events routinely to get our story out to a much broader audience than our general membership. So you can join us at a media event and stand up and speak out on an issue. We’ll train you and give you the skills and tools that you need to really make your voice heard from your own mouth. I think that’s something that really important. It’s one thing for me to talk about these issues. I talk about them every day. But someone who lives and breathes the impacts of the environment from the local community standpoint also carries a lot of weight when telling that story.

What about the awards event next week? Can people come and join this and how can they support that?

Yes, definitely. At the event all of our staff will be there and everyone will be walking around the event and talking with everyone. They’ll have badges on with their names and I would recommend striking up a conversation with them and booking that meeting. We’ll also have sign-in sheets right there and, it wouldn’t be a Clean Water Action event with an action taking place so we’ll also have letters and petitions and other actions you can sign up for right there at an activist table as you walk in the door. We’ll walk out of this event making sure that everyone has contributed that was, as well.

It’s no accident that “Action” is part of your name, clearly!

Absolutely not!

How about tickets and stuff to the event?

Tickets are available online. You can go to and we’ve got a page right there at the top where you can donate and become a sponsor. Sponsorship levels start at $250, there’s still time to do that. Or you can just reserve your tickets. You can also just show up at the event. It’s next Wednesday, April 8th and it starts at 5:30 and the awards celebration ceremony kicks off at 7:30. Any time during that time frame you can just show up at the door and purchase a ticket which is only $60. Each ticket comes with a commemorative pint glass which is a bottomless glass for all of the Short’s beer that you can drink.

We’ll also be serving all “Made in Michigan” cuisine and food from across the entire state. We’ll have traditional northern Michigan pasties, we’ll have coney dogs, we’ll have Great Lakes salmon, and other Michigan products. One of the cool things we’re doing this year is showcasing Michigan distilleries.

Some of our friends in the labor movement will be bringing display trailers about how their industry and the jobs that they are creating are going green. We’ll also be showcasing advanced vehicle technology – which I really shouldn’t say that anymore because they’re here, like the Chevy Volt. You’ll be able to take a spin around the block in a Chevy Volt if you haven’t been in one. And we’re also going to have a few rides in the old-timey cars, as well.

The music of the night, we spent a really long time researching Michigan music and there’s going to be some historical folk music, stuff you’re not going to hear on the radio all the way down to traditional rock and roll like Bob Seger and what have you. It really will be an all-encompassing, action-packet “Made in Michigan” event and it’s going to be a lot of fun!

Do you have a financial goal?

Yes. This year’s goal is $20,000. We’re well on our way to meet that goal and I’m sure in the next week we’re going to meet and then exceed that goal.

One last thing we’ll have at the event is a silent auction of Michigan-made products and services from across the state. People and businesses have donated really cool items that you’ll be able to bid on and walk away with, as well.

Every detail, from the flowers that will be on the tables by my mother – my mom is putting together Michigan bouquets and arrangements – to all the desserts and cookies and pies that are made by my grandma, it’s really a family and Michigan-oriented event.