I am in awe of your enthusiasm, optimism and relentless quest for justice. When I work with you, I am reminded of my own feelings, at the age of 16 in 1969. It was the dawn of the environmental movement. I made a commitment the next spring—the first Earth Day—to a lifetime of work for justice and environmental stewardship.
Early in my career I worried, as many of you do now, about the fate of the country. In my day the president was Richard Nixon, and we were not so sure we would survive him. We did, and so will you survive the current president, and you will be better for it.
I also worried about the fate of the planet. While crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the PATCO High Speed Line, I looked down on the City of Philadelphia, thinking it was once wilderness. I envisioned William Penn sailing up the river seeing the wilderness, envisioning the city he would call Philadelphia. In a flash, I realized humanity is but a passing phase, and as sure as the grass grows in the cracks of the sidewalk, Philadelphia will one day be covered in vines, consumed by the wilderness from which it came.
I understood then that we can alter nature, but we cannot destroy that of which we are a part. However, we can, in our ignorance, eliminate hundreds of species—including ourselves.
I found an odd sense of contentment that my job—our job—is to work together to save humanity.
After doing this for close to 50 years, I understand that, even though you are just starting up, you might feel anxious or overwhelmed at times. But I want you to know that I remain more than hopeful. I am enthusiastically optimistic for our future.
Here are some tips I’ve learned, and I pass them along in the hopes that you will find some truth in them.
Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. There is a difference between self-interest and selfish interest. I have found that being clear about my self-interest is a source of power. Paramount in this work is to understand and respect the interest of those with whom I disagree and sometimes consider the “opposition.”
Always work in teams and have a good time. The great American myth is that one person saves the world, and it is never true. Someone may get the credit, but success is always the work of many. We must not only work together, we should enjoy ourselves in the process and party together as hard as we work.
Decide what your work is based on your interests, and define your victories. The work to save the planet is not a marathon, it is a relay race, and the scope of what needs to be done can be overwhelming. My process is to pick and understand an issue and decide what a victory looks like. I then define what needs to get done and organize people to make it happen, one project at time. I always work to build on what others have done and leave so it can be passed on to those who follow.
Pace yourself, be patient and don’t quit. We need to approach the work with intent and perseverance to succeed. Some projects take weeks, others take years. Be steady.
So, Millennials, take care of yourselves so you can take care of each other. Working together for justice and sustainability, let’s make it happen, one step at a time. Let’s plan to be successful, enjoy the work, celebrate our victories and remain steadfast and diligent. It’s the job of a lifetime.
Maurice Sampson is the Eastern Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, and an environmental activist for nearly fifty years.