This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.
Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
In the fall of 2006, Vanessa Rule stepped outside the movie theater after watching An Inconvenient Truth and stood shell-shocked, trying to absorb the scale and speed at which climate change was occurring. At the time, her two kids were aged 3 and 6, and Rule had spent many nights lying next to them while they fell asleep. “I felt life moving from generation to generation. The instinct to fight for your young is unbelievably powerful. If we can tap into that, we’ll be able to do amazing things,” she said.
That’s the premise of Mothers Out Front, an organization of mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers who “can no longer be silent and still about the very real danger that climate change poses to our children’s and grandchildren’s future,” as their website states.
The organization’s concrete goal is to transition society from fossil fuels to renewable energy as swiftly, completely, and justly as possible. “We feel really strongly about the just transition,” Rule explained. “We want communities most affected yet least responsible for burning of fossil fuels and climate change to play a big role in shaping the future we need. And we want people whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels to transition in a way that doesn't sink them economically, and that actually creates more opportunities and stronger, safer communities,” she said.
Rule recalled, “Climate change had been taboo in my friend group of mothers. It was a voice of doom and a bummer.” So Mothers Out Front built its constituency by holding house parties which provided a quick overview of latest climate science, emphasized the situation’s urgency, and concluded with a review of social movements as one of the most effective ways to create change. They referenced abolition, civil rights, marriage equality, women’s suffrage, even the American Revolution. But the real value of the parties was for moms to speak about and listen to how other moms were feeling about the climate crisis.
Because it was such a huge problem to tackle, Rule felt that a lot of moms put their fears about climate change into a box and avoided looking at it. The house parties provided a safe space to open that box and look at its contents together. “We have tapped into something really powerful, which is that there are millions of moms out there who are scared and feel completely powerless and isolated and can’t do anything about the crisis on their own, so they aren’t acting. We’re saying to mothers, ‘Look, you don’t have to do this by yourself. Together we can do things that we can’t do alone,’” Rule said.
Since its inception in 2013, Mothers Out Front has hosted 211 house parties in Massachusetts and New York that have reached 1400 moms; the organization has 360 active volunteers and a 4,500-member mailing list comprising 47 states and 44 countries. “We get emails from all over the world from women writing saying, ‘When are you coming to where I live?’” Rule said. Over the next five years, they plan build to grassroots networks in four to eight additional states.
Mothers are the locomotive for this work. They represent a tangible connection to life—and the symbolism of a group of mothers captures the imagination. But this is not an exclusive club - women who aren’t mothers are involved, and several men have become allies as well. Rule explained, “Mothers join the group hoping that the values and experience of motherhood can trump a lot of the silos we face, and will help us come together across political divides to save the lives of our children.”
There are three levels of action Mothers Out Front asks of their members: The personal, in which those who can afford to switch their households from fossil fuels to renewable electricity. The community level, which asks members to work with their communities to switch to renewable energy. And the state level, to work to get states to switch to clean energy, and lead the way for national and international policies.
“We are building the bottom-up political will that has been lacking for the US delegation to come to international climate talks ready to play ball with the rest of the world to ensure a livable future,” Rule said. She is referring to the Paris Climate Summit that will take place this winter, when 190 nations will gather and try to reach a global agreement aimed at decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2014, six Mothers Out Front moms met with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to ask him to sign an Executive Order that would make Massachusetts the first state in the country to meet all new energy needs with renewable energy and to refuse any new fossil fuel infrastructure. He’d received many calls to action from environmental and student groups but never before from a group of mothers. They sat with him around a long table. One mom held up a photograph of Patrick on the campaign trail holding her daughter as an infant. She said to him, “I worked for your campaign and this is the child I want you to protect.” Rule reflected, “Science and facts are critically important but what brings people to action is empathy and emotional recognition of a human situation. Mothers are very well placed to speak from there.”
Rule told Patrick about the moment she witnessed her daughter understand the impact climate change would have on her. She was driving her daughter home from school when she was in 8th grade and had been studying climate change. Rule recalls, “We had just reached 400 parts per million, and scientists say the safest number is under 350 ppm and she had learned that today’s emissions aren’t going to be felt for another 40 years. I saw her do the math. She sort of had this puzzled look, and then I saw her understand the implications of this for the first time and saw the panic in her face. She asked, ‘Why aren’t they doing anything?’ Seeing my kid feel her future slip though her fingers—it was heartbreaking,” Rule said.
Patrick didn’t sign the Order, but the mothers got themselves on the map in the Massachusetts State House. Armed with careers, resources, networks, and love for their kids, Mothers Out Front members will continue pushing until state decision-makers transition to clean energy, and will work to hold elected leaders and business leaders accountable to the interests of children instead of corporations. “This is about kids,” Rule says, “not just about parts per million, or abstract science… Even though it’s me speaking to you today, this is not about me; it’s about every mom who’s given her time and passion and her love. That’s the only way we’re going to make it: together.”