Outreach work and environmental justice

June 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

Outreach work is frequently a ‘must do’ for 3rd sector organisations and campaign groups. Attention moves inevitably from people who are easy to engage to those who don’t automatically take up your service or join your group. The aim is admirable but the idea is not value free. Why, one might ask, do we always start with those who are ‘easy to reach’? What effect does this have on the way our activities develop and who finds us approachable?

Social justice and empowerment

In the UK outreach work had its origins in youth and community work and was underpinned by an ethic of social justice and empowerment. The target audience were likely to be marginalized and the goal was to build relationships, consult and develop services that felt more appropriate and accessible to the people concerned. For the workers it meant being out on the street, contacting people wherever they could be found and responding to issues they raised. From this standpoint outreach work spills over into ideas of community organising and the radical vision of people like Saul Alinsky. In his famous book Rules for Radicals Alinsky defines the purpose as:

“… to create mass organisations to seize power and give it to the people; to realise the democratic dream of equality, justice, peace, co-operation, equal and full opportunities for education, full and useful employment, health and the creation of those circumstances in which man (sic) can have the chance to live by values that give meaning to life.”

Realising the democratic dream in relation to the environment is critical.

Who’s at the centre?

In much current talk about outreach it is not always clear what is meant. Some government bodies term their publicity leaflets outreach and some community groups view outreach as no more than pitching up at a public event with a stall and a message. The term outreach is perhaps part of the problem. It does not in itself embody the ideas of justice and equality that shaped it originally. ‘Outreach’ presupposes a centre and a periphery. At the centre are those who know, who have power or see themselves as having something to give. At the periphery are those who don’t, usually conceptualised as a problem and ‘hard to reach’. They are seen as ‘other’ and different. At worst they are the objects of a mission, at best the targets of a service which they may or may not want.  As one ‘target’ from a minority group said “I’m not hard to reach from my point of view. I’m just here, in my life, at its centre. It’s a patronising term.” She was highlighting the inappropriate approach of a group who wanted her to help them access her community with their project.


For me, good outreach involves self-questioning and curiosity. It means decentring oneself, placing the other person at the heart of one’s enquiry and recognising the unconscious practices of power. The picture is complicated in environmental work however because it is not simply a question of working with those who have been excluded, whose voices have not been heard and who – as ever – may be asked to bear a bigger burden than is fair of society’s response. Outreach is also aimed at all those who think that environmental issues are nothing to do with them and who ignore their impact on the rest of the natural world. Some of these people are not marginalized at all. Some are just part of the mainstream. Others are powerful and privileged and their voices are already loud.

Power and environmental justice

Perhaps it would help to reframe outreach under an agenda of environmental justice instead. This might allow us to think more clearly about who we were trying to relate to, the rights and responsibilities of different groups we approach and the dilemmas and conflicts they might experience in facing the environmental crisis. We might be clearer about when to make a demand and when to offer a service, when to listen and when to challenge, who to support and who to confront. Environmental justice does not mean that we should lose sympathy with some of those we speak to – it just means that we take seriously the full meaning of the power relationships we live within and what it means to have a democratic dream in a time of climate change.


§ 2 Responses to Outreach work and environmental justice

  • Shilpa says:

    “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

  • TinyCO2 says:

    I have to say I admire your attitude to environmentalism and global warming. You’re one of the few believers in CAGW who has actually attempted to cut your CO2 significantly. It always comes as a surprise to me how few of them mention techniques for cutting CO2 and none of them publish their carbon footprint. I’ve seen more green behaviour in sceptics (eg Anthony Watts’ electric car and Steven Goddard’s cycling). You write “good outreach involves self-questioning and curiosity” and that is the key. So few have looked into their own lives and asked “is it possible?” Too many assume that the big cuts must come from industry and/or government.

    Like you I’ve tried cutting CO2 and had some success. Unlike you I’m more of an agnostic or sceptic when it comes to CAGW theory. I have a small CO2 footprint because it suits me, not because I feel the need to have one. I consider energy saving and moderate consumption to be honourable pursuits but I’m aware that they don’t suit everyone. I’m also aware of how hard it is to cut more than small amounts of CO2 from a total output without changing your lifestyle considerably.

    Do I support environmentalism? Well it depends what you mean by it. Leo Hickman of the Guardian has recently asked if there were areas were sceptics and believers might come to some agreements and gave a list of suggested areas.


    They were all reasonable goals at first glance but if you see my reply (post 12) there is more than one way to look at these issues. One item “halting biodiversity loss” seems to be a no brainer. If asked “do you want to save the tiger?” my answer would have to be “yes” but if you asked me “if there was a tiger preying on your only food supply and your children would you save the tiger?” I might ask if you were mad.

    Environmentalism means different things to different people and the way you would act on it depends upon your circumstances. Would you care that you were destroying your grandchildren’s future if your children were dying today? Global warming alarm has forgotten to self question, it is too abstract. Many can see the value of reducing genuinely poisonous substances (SO2, NO, soot, lead), they can experience the immediate effects of reduction but cutting CO2 requires a different understanding, one based in part on gambling (is CO2 a major threat and are current solutions effective). When the public also sees the main proponents of AGW living lives that are counterintuitive to the cause, they become cynical and dismissive. Too few AGW believers ask themselves what is the most they would be prepared to do without to ‘save the planet’. Even fewer start making sacrifices. What are they waiting for, permission?

    You talk about moving on from those who are easy to engage. I’d say the AGW movement hasn’t even nailed the home team yet. How can they understand and modify the behaviour of others when they’ve yet to motivate themselves?

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