Tools for Grassroots Activists – Book Review

Tools for Grassroots Activists Book CoverActivists are businesspeople. Or they should be. That thought kept recurring while I was reading Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement.

Perhaps if a greater number of people understood the business side of activism, we could accomplish more towards ensuring Earth remains habitable for us and other living creatures.

Published by outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia and edited by Nora Gallagher and Lisa Myers, Tools for Grassroots Activists brings the best of Patagonia’s Tools Conference activist training program to the public.

I have read other Patagonia books like Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman and The Responsible Company so I was expecting a thoughtful well-written and interesting book. It delivered.

The Business of Activism

In the introduction to Tools for Grassroots Activists, Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard tells the story of how the first Tools Conference came about in 1994. It was a way of bringing activists together with experts in fields such as campaign strategy, marketing, fundraising, lobbying, and working with business.

“While I am often embarrassed to admit to being a businessman—I’ve been known to call them sleazeballs—I realize that many activists could learn some of the skills businesspeople possess.”

—Yvon Chouinard

The book intertwines short essays written by keynote speakers from past Tools Conferences with case studies demonstrating activists putting the tools to use and achieving their goals. My copy has many colored Post-it™ flags marking ideas and passages I feel are particularly important to my environmental not-for-profit work and me. Here are a few things I found interesting:


Kristen Grimm begins her piece with a hilarious tale about what can happen when you lose sight of what you are trying to achieve. She acknowledges that good communication is difficult and gives readers some concrete suggestions.

While reading Grimm’s essay, I found myself thinking of times when the organization I belong to has jumped ahead to identify tasks before clearly defining the goal. I think I will start taking the book with me to meetings to remind me and the rest of the group to stay focused on strategy first and then tactics.

Changing the Climate of Public Opinion

Lois Gibbs shares the story of how a small group of people living on top of a toxic waste dump changed the climate of public opinion resulting in the United States government relocating hundreds of families. You may know the neighborhood is Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York.

This story resonates with me because it demonstrates how everyday people can not only change public opinion but also overcome governmental inertia and compel agencies to act.

Working with Business

John Sterling points out that many of us work in the businesses that sell the goods and services we all rely on in our daily lives, and that businesses need to make money to stay in business. He offers practical advice on how environmental activists can effectively engage businesses.

As a project manager, I understand the importance of getting all stakeholders to the table and working together ensuring the project stays on track and within budget. It seems to me that businesses are essential stakeholders in the environmental movement, but sometimes (maybe often) activists view them as enemies and treat them as such. I realize it is difficult to view a company that is dumping toxic effluent into a stream as a partner, but they are a stakeholder in the environment, too; it behooves us to engage them.

The Bottom Line

Patagonia is a global enterprise selling outdoor clothing, equipment, books, and food provisions. Patagonia’s mission statement is, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Putting on the biennial Tools Conference and sharing knowledge in Tools for Grassroots Activists is part of how Patagonia is fulfilling its mission.

While the essays and case studies in Tools for Grassroots Activists have an environmental theme, the ideas, advice, and tools are applicable to any type of activism from advocating for an after-school art program to saving a historical building from the wrecking ball. Businesses could learn a thing or two about topics ranging from strategic planning to employee retention.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I’m not an activist so why would I want to read this book?” Interestingly, many of the stories are by people who were not activists either. If you care about something—a person, a place, a cause—then read this book. Somewhere in its 254 pages, you will likely find an idea, a tool, or a story that inspires you.

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Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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