Where Are Our Non-Profit Leaders?

Staff Writer Shanti Escalante discusses the problems of how non-governmental organizations use social media — especially when discussing climate change.

Where Are Our Non-Profit Leaders?

By Shanti Escalante, Contributing Writer

More people in the U.S. are concerned with climate change than ever. In one survey, about 69 percent of Americans expressed worry about the issue. What the climate change movement seems to be lacking, however, is role models. The majority of public knowledge on climate change comes from two different sources: a mix of non-governmental organizations and governmental organizations — often international — as well as the AJ+ variety of videos one encounters on social media. A lot of this content is top-down communication that lacks the fervor and sincerity of an individual voice. While the efforts of both camps are admirable and necessary, there is a vital role missing: the small-scale leader.

I’ve had two experiences recently which have helped me understand what is lacking from the social movements surrounding climate change. First, I started working for an NGO that hopes to further discussion on climate change. Second, I attended a social justice training with a doctor of psychology at NYU.

The NGO I work for supports climate change-centric journalism in some African countries. Part of my job is assisting social media production, and the process has been somewhat disheartening. Our work is mostly directed at wealthy donors in the West, so the content is a kind of obligatory performance. Hashtags are formulated. The online interaction is woefully low. The copy for these posts goes through multiple people, aiming for a coherent voice but often resulting in an inauthentic message.

Of course, this makes sense. Social media must represent the work the organization is doing — no single voice encapsulates that, and so it is hard to include a personal perspective. But in the end, what you get is somewhat bland content.

What I wanted to see and hear instead were the voices of those affected — climate change refugees, people who have seen their homes destroyed and are directly suffering from the decline of the environment. Those were the people we were supposedly uplifting through the NGO’s work. I was curious, and remain curious, about the nature of their thoughts and how this program has impacted them. But some logistical divide remains, it seems. Namely, that the social media exists as a continuing document of legitimacy for donors. The aim is not generating movements, or understanding, but checks. Why listen for the voices of those directly affected that are potentially difficult to understand, not relatable and perhaps disheartening? Why not be satiated by the simple assurances that things are running along and that the donors are doing their part?

On the other hand, there is an example of how activism can be done correctly: the social justice training that I went through to participate in an NYU study. The doctor who runs the project had us go through some readings prior to the training, and afterwards we met to discuss. The doctor was uncompromising in her beliefs, and better yet, she lived the ethics she was communicating to us. It was inspiring to see an adult (and not just a college-aged person) who was dedicated to making the world a more just place and actually creating change. I was inspired. This contrasts the social media content of the NGO I work for — which could never engage me personally without the weight lent by the voices of the people directly affected by these issues, who are also trying to address climate change. Wouldn’t we learn much more from each other without interference from intermediaries who don’t believe in the power of the ordinary person?

The work the NGOs, organizations and social media content producers do can be quite vital, but we need role models online. These people and organizations too often offer tips and challenges instead of showing us what living ethically actually looks like — what are the daily choices involved, what are the struggles and what is being done to change the world? We need people out there showing us that ethical lives are possible to live — online and in person.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Shanti Escalante at [email protected]