How's this for a David-vs.-Goliath scenario? On the stage this day in Tampa, Fla., sat the board of directors of one of America's most powerful financial institutions, PNC Bank. In the audience, surrounded by bank shareholders, was one lone dissenter, Eileen Flanagan, who'd come down from Philadelphia and — despite strict laws in the Sunshine State against verbal protests at public company meetings — had made it inside the room.
Despite those laws and despite PNC fleeing its Pittsburgh headquarters to meet 1,000 miles south of where Quaker environmental activists had disrupted the prior year's meeting, the Philadelphia-based protesters had connected with local students in the Tampa area to conduct a noisy protest outside. Now, Flanagan watched in amazement as the serious men in suits onstage raced through their meeting, reeking of fear that someone inside the room might do something disruptive.
Some 16 minutes in, Flanagan stood up to remove her jacket and reveal her T-shirt calling on PNC to stop its financing of earth-scarring mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, and to pray in silence. The bank board moved to shut down the meeting immediately.
"They were so worried about what we were going to do," recalled Flanagan, a lifelong activist who was then board chairman of the Earth Quaker Action Team, or EQAT (pronounced "equate"). When she stood up and PNC board members cut short the meeting, she knew the protesters had all but won. Sure enough, PNC announced in early 2015 that, in essence, it would no longer fund the controversial coal-mining practice, and not long after that, a major firm involved in mountaintop mining filed for bankruptcy.
Today, Flanagan and her EQAT are deep into another long-shot underdog campaign — campaigning with the interfaith group POWER to persuade Peco Energy to draw more of its electricity from local solar to create jobs in Philadelphia — but they also have something else to offer that's of great importance: lessons for the thousands of newly created activists in opposition to the Trump presidency.
After all, the Earth Quaker Action Team, launched in 2009 by local activists disturbed over the lack of action in tackling climate change, was staring at many of the same obstacles as the so-called Trump Resistance: a large and mighty power structure with little interest or incentive to change its ways, and seemingly few tools to convince them otherwise.
Flanagan sees the hunger for change — and for figuring out what the heck to do about it — in the courses on effective activism that she teaches online. She had 160 students in her first classes, but since President Trump took office in early 2017, a whopping 700 people have signed up.
Much of what she teaches cuts against the grain. The bottom line is that while the prevailing modes of protest — the occasional big march, the flood of phone calls to a recalcitrant politician (cough, cough Sen. Pat Toomey) — are all fine and good, but they aren't the most effective way to change policies. The depressing reality is that in America as things go in 2018, elected officials are way too locked in to their big-money donors to care much about their angry constituents.
So what does work? Finding the smaller pressure points, where you can see an actionable result — a light at the end of the tunnel. Using a mix of escalating protest tactics — including civil disobedience, with a willingness to get arrested if necessary. And — most important — focusing not on the politicians, who seem pretty bought off and useless these days, but on organizations that actually care about their brand, typically consumer-facing corporations.
"The politicians in Pennsylvania and across this country get so much money from the fossil fuel industry that it's not the most effective way to make change," said Flanagan, noting that a lot of the folks signing up for her class are people who got frustrated by repeated and ignored phone calls to elected officials like Toomey.
She felt many of the same frustrations early in her life as a student activist in the 1980s — protesting U.S. support for apartheid in South Africa — until she latched onto a theory about social change developed by the veteran Philadelphia Quaker peace activist George Lakey. It called for changing society not by attacking the top of the power pyramid but the "pillars of power" that prop the pyramid up.
EQAT, which was cofounded by Lakey, Flanagan, and others, decided to fight climate change by tackling mountaintop removal — which pollutes streams and produces toxic dust, all in the name of producing more dirty, climate-harming coal. But it decided to do battle with mountaintop removal not by seeking legislation to ban the practice but by urging PNC Bank — which competes for customers here in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and which had touted both its Quaker roots and its support for the environment — to stop financing projects in the region.
Flanagan and other EQAT activists requested — and got — a meeting with PNC officials. "They did not take us seriously," she recalled. "They said, 'We don't make investment decisions based on anything other than money' " — and that this was the law. "If you want to change the law," the bank told the activists, "talk to the politicians."
Instead, according to Flanagan, EQAT launched a campaign of escalating protests — some 125 in all, including sit-ins in the bank lobby where members, including Flanagan, were arrested, and the high-profile actions at PNC's annual shareholder meetings — and grew its network from a Philadelphia living room to having allies in some 31 states. The protests drew negative headlines for the bank in the cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where PNC advertises heavily for new depositors — thus achieving the one thing that cannot be tolerated in a corporate oligarchy: tarnishing the brand. It took five long years, but bank executives — just like Dorothy clicking her heels three times in The Wizard of Oz — decided they'd had the power to restrict loans for mountaintop removal all along.
"I think their brand is a big motivator for them," Flanagan said — possibly an understatement. EQAT didn't rest on its laurels but immediately hurled itself into its next campaign — urging Peco Energy, the electric utility serving Philadelphia and its suburbs, to pledge to get 20 percent of its energy from solar power (currently it's less than 0.5 percent) and focus efforts in North Philadelphia, with a goal of job creation. If anything, the Peco campaign — trying to persuade a big corporation to do something new, rather than stop doing something — is facing even steeper odds, but Flanagan and the EQAT team seem undaunted.
There's certainly a lot to learn from the Quakers' approach. Indeed, it's clear that corporate America is more willing to listen to the public than the U.S. government is. Look at gun safety in the wake of Parkland, with big companies like Dick's Sporting Goods, which stopped selling assault weapons, responsive to public outrage while Congress cowered in fear.