November 18, 2019

Highlights from an interview with Kelsey Wirth & Dan Porterfield

On November 13th, we celebrated the 12th annual John P. McNulty Prize Winner, Mothers Out Front, founded by Kelsey Wirth. Here are some insights from the conversation between Aspen Institute President and CEO, Dan Porterfield and Kelsey Wirth at the 2019 McNulty Prize Celebration.

Mothers Out Front combines a proven model of deep organizing with leadership training and network building, empowering new constituents that have influence at the local level and show up in force. Mothers Out Front does what so many environmental organizations have failed to do by reaching everyday families who have the most at stake – the future of their children. Since its inception in 2013, the organization has grown to include over 33,000 members, donors, and active participants, with 48 community-based teams operating in 10 states.

This material has been edited and adapted for publication.

Watch the micro-documentary about Mothers Out Front

We invite everybody, whether you're a mother or not, to join our movement, we need everybody.

Kelsey Wirth

Kelsey Wirth

Dan Porterfield: Climate change is such an overwhelming, large problem, which such high stakes - it’s hard to feel like individuals can make a difference. How does Mothers Out Front approach it?

Kelsey Wirth: What makes our group different is that we don't come at it by talking about the magnitude of the problem and the urgency of the crisis. We start by talking to mothers and understanding what they see around them, their concerns in their own communities.

Our teams of mothers identify and work on manageable campaigns, we help them to choose their own achievable, concrete goals and then they go to work tackling these issues. If we have enough moms across the country, not only are we tackling lots and lots and lots of these smaller pieces, but we're changing the political landscape in this country so that we can actually make really transformative change happen. Just a few weeks ago, our moms in San Jose, California played a major role in passing the most significant ban on having gas in new construction. It is super important to get fossil fuels out of our buildings. In Boston alone, 70% of our emissions are buildings. San Jose is now the largest city in the country that has banned gas in most forms of new construction.

Dan Porterfield: How important is it to hear mothers’ voices speaking out for these issues?

Kelsey Wirth: Being a mother led organization is absolutely critical to the work that we do. It is what makes us different and it is our source of power, our sort of magic. It is the magic of the movement that we bring to this work. And it means that no matter what it is that we're working on, we are bringing something different to that particular fight to that particular campaign. There is something different about speaking from the mother's voice, from the mother's perspective, from a deep love and caring for their children and a determination to protect their children at all costs. And it changes the energy in a room. It changes the reactions from the people you're speaking to. It gives us a different role to play and really a different source of power.

But I want to clear to say that though we are mothers led, we are not exclusively mothers. We invite everybody, whether you're a mother or not, to join our movement, we need everybody. And we don't do any of our work alone, we always work with allies and everything that we do because that's the only way we win.

Being a mother led organization is absolutely critical to the work that we do. It is what makes us different and it is our source of power, our sort of magic.

Kelsey Wirth

Dan Porterfield: How is Mothers out Front expanding to be an organization that encompasses more voices and experiences?

Kelsey Wirth: We set out from the start to build a multiracial cross class movement of mothers. Our operating principle was that if you put 30 mothers in a room from all different backgrounds, there's always one thing they can find to talk about, which is their kids and their hopes and dreams for their kids, their concerns for their children. And we knew we could tap into that. That is much more easily said than done of course, we have a long history of structural racism in this country which makes organizing across race very, very challenging. We are on a steep learning curve but we remain absolutely committed to centering race and equity and the work that we do. Because ultimately, this is about justice.

Anne Welsh McNulty and Kelsey Wirth

Dan Porterfield: How do you think about the role of children in the climate change movement?

Kelsey Wirth: The youth movement has been an incredible force in this country and around the world. We partner very closely with them on the youth strikes and we're going to continue to do that going into 2020. There's a natural partnership there, moms and young people. Kids are our moral conscience. But at the same time, we cannot leave this mess for our children to clean up. First of all, it's going to be too late to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. We need to act now. We have 11 years according to most recent studies, 11 years to transform our energy economy and move away from fossil fuels to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. That's our window. If we were to wait for these kids to grow up to vote and start affecting change on their own it would be a complete moral abdication of our responsibility as parents. The young people are raising awareness which is an unbelievably important role. They're speaking truth to power. It is amazing but at the same time we absolutely cannot leave it up to them.

Mothers Out Front continues to develop projects and campaigns across the country. For more information on their work or to volunteer in your own community, visit their website and join the movement.

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