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Love and Water is a big fan of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for three main reasons.  One, they have a kick-ass, uber-informative super user-friendly website which clearly outlines their incredible campaigns.  Two, when we pulled their financials we felt really moved about what we saw, because they are one of the top charities to use their funds to take major action.  And three, they are one of the friendliest, enthusiastic groups of people who are completely passionate about their work and happy to answer any questions you may have- just call them up and see what we mean!

I sat down with Branden Barber, Development Director of  RAN, for one of the most exciting and enlightening conversations about what they do.  Love and Water will run the interview in four parts, starting now through next Tuesday.  We hope you feel as inspired and educated as we do after reading it.

Love and Water- Hi Branden!

Branden Barber- Hey Alexis, how’s it going?

L&W- Really good!  How are you?

BB- I’m great!  I really love what you’re doing with your company.  Really cool stuff, and we really appreciate your getting the word out about us and all these charities.

L&W- Thanks!  I’m really excited about it too.  It’s a great feeling.  So tell me how Rainforest Action Network came to be.

BB-Well once upon a time, in 1985, a couple of rabble-rousers who care about forests and indigenous rights, Randy Hayes and Michael Roselle, decided that they had had enough of the destruction that was going on in Costa Rica’s rain forest as a result of cattle farming that was serving the Burger King franchise.  You may remember the Burger King campaign from the ’80’s.  Well Randy and Mike, having a lot of experience as activists, decided to call attention to the fact that Burger King’s production of burgers was being directly fed by the destruction of the Costa Rican rain forest.  That brought all kind of rights into play: earth rights, rain forest rights, and indigenous rights, because plenty of indigenous people were being displaced from this demand for very short-lived grazing land for Burger King cattle.  The rain forest only supports grass for up to three years and then it’s no good.  The soil is not designed by nature to support grazing.  So there and then our method of campaigning was born.  Mike and Randy sent a letter to Burger King saying they were aware of what was happening in Costa Rica and that they had some ideas of how to stop it and would like to sit down to discuss other options.  That is how all of our campaigns to this day start: we always start with a polite letter asking for a dialogue.  Burger King ignored them, and after thousands of follow-up letters from us and our growing following didn’t work, Randy and Mike decided the best way to get a corporate environmental “bad actor” to change their behavior was to call attention to what they were doing in a very public way.  RAN started to stage street theater in front of Burger King franchises.  We’re talking very visible street theater, with real concerned people vocally protesting in front of Burger King franchises.  Burger King did not know what to do with this, and it was the beginning of the end of them destroying Costa Rican rain forests.  Shortly thereafter they pulled out and resorted to more sustainably-harvested beef products.

L&W- And that is how all your campaigns begin?

BB- That is how they all begin to this day.  We start with a polite letter, followed by a tidal wave of letters requesting that we talk about the issue at hand, and then we turn to street theater. We’ll even go so far as to perform acts of non-violent civil disobedience, taking our cues from some of the great non-violent social changemakers of the past, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King- we’re really serious about our adherence to non-violence.  RAN never engages in anything even close to violent behavior; in fact we’re all trained in non-violent civil disobedience, and that includes harming property.  We never do that- we take that seriously.  We just want to call attention to these problems, and call out the corporations that are behind it, which falls on the notion of who is making money from it.  We follow the money and ask them to stop, and if they don’t we threaten to turn off their funds.  It’s easier with a corporation that has a product, like Burger King, that we can target very easily to the public versus one like Citibank where it’s about their way of doing banking.  That’s harder to get at.

L&W- So how have you been able to convince such major corporations as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs to balance what you call “profits with principles?”

BB- Everybody in their heart wants to do good in the world.  This is something we believe.  I think one of the things that sets RAN apart in the way that we do these things is that was really do approach it with a sense of compassion.  We understand that there are people behind every corporation and that those people are doing their best.  It’s just a matter of getting to those people and bringing them into the conversation that can make a difference.  And there are different ways of doing it.  One of the ways that we look at it is how can we get into the head of the chief executive officer of this campaign, and our tactics take on various forms.

L&W- Can you give an example of one?

BB- With Citgroup, for example, that campaign lasted three years.  We wanted to see them cease their investments in environmentally destructive projects.  At that time no one had sort of attacked the bank to get them to stop or create a policy moving forward.  So we sent them a letter and we got a response saying that it was very kind of us to write and of course they understood our concerns but that banking is very complicated so when we take some time to educate ourselves about the financial industry then come back and we can talk.  So we did come back instantly, with thousands of letters, and of course heard nothing.  So we staged environmental crime scenes.   We wrapped their buildings with pictures of environmental crime scenes, we staged people with bullhorns in front of their buildings announcing what they were doing to the rain forests, and we created an overlay for all Citibank ATM machines.  So on the choice menu instead of it saying “withdrawal” it would say “destroy the rain forest” and “displace indigenous communities.”  But the one that pushed them over the edge was a high-profile commercial we produced with Ali McGraw, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris, among others, interspersed among images of rain forest destruction, cutting up their Citicards.  The tagline was “not with my money, Citi.”  We ran that once on NY1 and they immediately called us and said pull the ad, we’ll talk.  And eight months later we had hammered out a policy that forever changed Citi’s endeavors that would have environmental impact.  And when something like that happens, the other markets tend to follow suit.  So if you can get a market leader to radically change the way they do business, it’s a pretty sure bet that the other market leaders are going to follow.

L&W- You did the same with Home Depot?

BB- Home depot decided they did want to change.  When we approached the CEO and had a chance to work out a plan with him, they had a new plan and put it into action.  Now you can go into any Home Depot store and ask where any piece of wood came from and they will have the answer, whereas before that wasn’t the case.  So it’s pretty amazing.  Within the next year, home improvement retailers Wickes Lumber, HomeBase, Menard’s, Lowe’s, 84 Lumber and Payless Cashways all committed to phase out wood from endangered forests.

L&W- That’s an amazing story.

BB- I’ve got hundreds of them; it’s funny because we’re such a small office.  But we are committed to creating the kind of change that is amazingly necessary and effective.

L&W- What is the most moving experience you have had so far working for RAN?

BB- There are just so many- I mean, we have four major campaigns running, and another one coming up- and, I mean, gosh, one woman came into our office with an amazing story about how her life was impacted in a good way because of what we do.  I mean in a really good way…her name was Matilda.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II to learn about the campaigns RAN is running and Matilda’s truly amazing story.

And don’t forget to check out RAN’s really rad site: http://www.ran.org
Or follow them on twitter: @ran