The 20/20 Vision Thing

The Green Group For Busy People

Shana Milkie was always an activist at heart, but the demands of fulltime motherhood kept her out of the loop. The Ann Arbor, Michigan resident says she “wanted to get involved, but I was nervous about it. I’d never written to a congressman, and I didn’t know how ordinary people did that. Then I saw an ad for 20/20 Vision in an alternative paper.”

That was seven years ago. Now Milkie leads a 20/20 Vision core group, buttonholing congressmen every month about peace, justice and the environmental way. Her group gets involved in both national issues, like the campaign for a comprehensive test ban treaty, and local ones, like the grassroots effort to stop a landfill in the suburbs of Detroit. “This absolutely fits in with my life,” Milkie says. I can write letters during my two-year-old daughter’s nap.”

Photo: 20/20 Vision

20-20 Vision has 30 core groups like Milkie’s, and approximately 30,000 member around the U.S. that it serves from a base in Washington, D.C. The group was founded in 1986 by Lois Barber, an art teacher and nuclear freeze campaigner, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Three years earlier, Barber had attended a huge peace march in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was frustrated when all the energy dissipated after it was over. “All those people showed up, full of energy and commitment,” she says, “but when the march was over they just went home. They had nothing to do.”

20/20 Vision gives them something to do, in a time-efficient way that seems just right for the frenzied baby-boomer lifestyle. Annual membership costs $20 and require just 20 minutes a month. The national group identifies urgent issues each month, and passes along succinct summaries of them to the membership, with all the information they need to send a personal letter or make a phone call to their elected representatives. Letters to the editor of newspapers are also encouraged.

Last December, 20/20 Vision’s action items ranged from polluting trucks to oppressed banana workers. Members were urged to: write the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a campaign for tougher emissions standards; appeal to the Secretary of State in an effort to strengthen international laws protecting sea turtles; advise the National Security Advisor to take nuclear weapons off full alert status; convince the president to downsize the military; and stand up for the rights of Chiquita farm workers.

Legislative Director Laura Kriv says 20/20’s small staff of eight full-time and three part-time pore through newspaper clippings, attend coalition meetings and congressional briefings, and leaf through material submitted by members to arrive at the issues that will be featured in the action alerts. But the core groups are free to choose their own agendas, whether of local, national or international scope. Unfortunately, only about 30 percent of the membership is organized into core groups, so the national staff’s guidance is appreciated.

Erika Chan, the group’s director of special projects, points to a series of success stories for the group, including the EPA’s adoption of relatively tough clean air standards. “Secretary Carol Browner said the mail favoring stringent standards was the most she’d ever gotten,” Chan says, adding that it’s not always possible to weigh the effectiveness of the group’s letter-writing campaigns. Certainly, 20/20’s letters were a significant percentage of the 200,000 Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman received in opposition to his agency’s proposed organic standards, which were tainted with genetically-engineered products, sewage sludge and irradiation.

The numbers are interesting. Some 60 percent of 20/20’s members say they never wrote to their elected representatives before joining the group, and the same 60 percent are now active letter-writers in any given month. The value of letters is undisputed: congressional insiders reckon that one piece of personal correspondence represents the views of 500 other constituents. 20/20 advises its members to avoid both faxes and email, since neither one gets the attention of a conventional stamped letter, particularly if it’s hand-written. “Policymakers definitely pay attention to the correspondence they get,” says Barber. “As few as two or three constituents can get a representative focused on an issue.”

The British-born David Watkins, a California landscape gardener and member since 1989, cares enough about the group to make “2020” the last four digits of his phone number. “When I first heard about 20/20, a lightbulb went off in my head,” he says. “Here was something anyone can do. It’s not reasonable to expect people to go to regular meetings. I get satisfaction from knowing at least a little bit about a broad range of issues, and I like the personal contact with the organizations we work with. If I want to learn more about sea turtles, for instance, I call Earth Island Institute.”

Watkins’ group is in the 17th congressional district, which includes Santa Cruz, Monterey and Salinas. For the members, conditions for migrant farm workers is a major issue, and particularly the growers’ use of methyl bromide, a dangerous pesticide. On this issue, as well as on many more, representatives are strategically targeted. “Our five-member steering committee meets every month,” says Watkins, also a member of the Sierra Club. “And we get to know our congressmen very well. We know what committees they serve on, and where our bills are in the process. That kind of knowledge makes our letters more effective.”

20/20 is going through a leadership change. Robin Caiola, who started as a legislative assistant, and then rose through the ranks to become executive director, left in January and is being replaced by James K. Weyrman, a former vice president of Defenders for Wildlife. Weyrman, who helped run Defenders’ celebrated wolf relocation programs, says he wants to help the group grow. “I suspect that 20/20 is better known in the peace community than among environmentalists,” says Weyrman, “and one of my priorities is working in coalitions with green groups. One of the great things about 20/20 is that we don’t get into the turf wars that can bog organizations down.”

Barber, who is still president of 20/20’s board, co-founded another group in 1992 that takes the letter-writing campaign into the international arena. EarthAction works with 1,500 organizations in 144 countries. “We realized we can’t organize the whole world,” Barber says, “but we be a catalyst for groups with existing memberships, providing them with information about how to take action simultaneously on large global issues.”