Utilizing Unique Communications Strategies: Inviting New Members into the Environmental Community

Utilizing Unique Communications Strategies: Inviting New Members into the Environmental Community

By Craig Minowa, Earthology and the Organic Consumers Association – Focus on Lake Erie Basin

I believe one of the most essential elements of a successful community is diversity. In an environmental context, without diverse segments of the population demonstrating an active role in preserving and protecting the planet, the movement is doomed to fail. The environmental community has become adept at networking with its core members. Those that are already active with environmental advocacy are relatively easily brought into larger ecologically-minded networks. This is obviously an important aspect of a truly functional Great Lakes environmental community, but there must also be methods implemented that bring those people that may not consider themselves to be environmentalists into the overall Great Lakes ecological community.

This was the goal of Waterfest, a Great Lakes environmental outreach project funded in part by the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund.Waterfest employed a host of very nontraditional methods of bringing new members into the environmental community, namely, college-aged adults.

Factors including 1) recent surveys showing the popularity of environmentalism waning among college-aged adults, 2) poor messaging on the part of environmental organizations, and 3) rampant “environmentalist” stereotypes, have created feelings of powerlessness, pessimism and denial. At the same time, the concept of “nature” for college-aged adults is something that is increasingly known as an abstract from a text book more than an actual concrete everyday living experience. In short, there is little about the environmental movement that is attractive to this segment of the population.

Bands with an Environmental Message

A variety of methods have been used to bring environmental concepts to this demographic, including school curricula, workshops, and conferences.These have all served as important methods of environmental education, but have not truly pervaded this population. Waterfest’s goal was to reach out to this group and begin to dispel stigmas of the environmental movement by arranging events that attract college-aged adults and create new psychological paradigms regarding their concepts of environmentalism.

Waterfest created events around the Great Lakes region that brought this audience out to see their favorite bands, and, in the process, exposed them to local environmental issues and organizations. Instead of being held in a classroom, these events were held at the most popular music clubs. The festivals were a holistic approach to environmental education. In doing so, the image of these organizations morphed from appearing to be a “stuffy” unattainable organization, into a cool local group with which to get involved.

Unique Methods of Communication

While sipping on a locally brewed beer and listening to live music, concert goers were able to sign petitions and read information about what is happening to their local waterways. In addition to music and tabling organizations, the venues included live painters, an environmental art gallery, a whole venue light show, performance artists working the crowd, and environmental video streaming on the walls.The purpose of the events was to create an unforgettable experience that, in a matter of a few hours, could show a new face of the environmental movement, thereby inspiring attendees to become active members of the Great Lakes environmental community.

The key to this program’s success was in lining up bands for the bill that had a heavy crowd pull. It was also necessary to make sure these bands had an environmental message (or at least incorporated that message into these performances). One aspect of this project’s overall success was the involvement of Cloud Cult, a band that played a major role in organizing these events, as well as performing at them. One of their songs receiving the most radio play was “State of the Union,” a song addressing the band’s viewpoints of policies as they relate to the environment. Integrating this kind of music popularity and messaging with these events guaranteed a large crowd draw, along with the expectation within the audience of some type of activism (as a note, Cloud Cult continues to purvey Great Lakes environmental information at all of its shows and will continue to do so for its 2005 US, UK, Australia, Iceland, and European tours). In short, the audience was made up of an assortment of individuals that would likely not be drawn to a standard environmental conference.

In event exit surveys, one of the most common opinions expressed was that concert-goers expected the environmental aspects of the show would make the events, overall, more “lame,” but were surprised at how entertaining the messaging proved to be. This was reflected in the high number of donations and petition signatures of participating tabling organizations.

Attracting Listeners and Media

Advertised via press releases, posters and college radio, media interest in the events was extraordinary given the fact that the premier venues where the shows were held had never offered concerts like this before. Media from National Public Radio to Audubon Magazine praised the events, saying such things as “You go for the music, but you come out wanting to save the world.” The concept of Waterfest was a great success and is now an established, financially self-sustaining template that will continue to be implemented in a wide assortment of cities around the world for the next few years. A book is being written about the events by contemporary author Kevin Anthony Kautzman, as he travels with the festival over the next two years.

In the process of organizing these events, a large national network of environmental artists, musicians, and nonprofit organizations has been (and continues to be) established by Earthology Records, the organizer of these events. As the network grows, the events and their outreach expands. Each event brings Great Lakes environmental issues to a segment of the population that has proven to carry stigmas about the environmental movement.With each concert, anywhere from 500-1,000 participants are welcomed into the Great Lakes environmental community and taught ways of improving the well-being of what constitutes nearly 20% of the world’s surface fresh water, be it simply changing the manner in which they approach their everyday decisions or connecting with local Great Lakes-focused environmental organizations on a volunteer or donor level.

By Craig Minowa
Earthology and the Organic Consumers Association
RR1 Box 61B, Hinckley, MN 55037
877.264.4440 • craig@organicconsumers.org

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.