There’s no shortage of volunteer opportunities or organizations offering them. But how often are the communities meant to benefit from all of this volunteer work determining what help is truly needed, and which issues are most pressing? Christian Vanizette has spent the last decade building MakeSense, a global network of over 100,000 citizens and entrepreneurs committed to solving social and environmental issues where they live — bringing neighbors together to share solutions to address local challenges together. Baratunde met up with Christian in Paris to find out what it takes to move people from local volunteers to global activists, and to learn more about the creative, strategic, and fun tactics he’s bringing to the fight against climate change.
Christian Vanizette 0:01
The thing it creates. My hope for democracy is just it makes people realize that they can do more than just vote, and that they can. The problem, the more you make friends, and the more you have fun doing this thing, the more you want to continue, explore, learn. Then you learn more about the problem, and you say, "What could I do more?" Then it becomes kind of natural path.
Baratunde Thurston 0:25
Welcome to How To Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagines citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about how we practice democracy. What can we get rid of? What can we invent, and how do we change the culture of democracy itself? Relieving the theoretical clouds and hitting the ground with inspiring examples of people and institutions that are showing us new ways to govern ourselves. At the start of COVID, I remember being terrified. The streets were quiet. The coyotes and the deer had started taking over our driveways and our sidewalks. For those of us who could stay at home, depending on who you were, it was shocking, but kind of easy. For others, it was life denying, especially if you were someone who lived in an elder care facility.
I remember phoning up my friend a lot during this time, and I'd always make sure to ask him about his grandparents. I'd never actually met them, but I felt like I did because he talked about them so much, so they'd always come up in conversation. He shared this story that they were both living in the same care facility, but they were each being isolated in different rooms, in different wings of the building, in fact. They were together but completely alone. That was so sad to me.
At the same time that this deep loneliness was being experienced by so many people around the world, there were also people with nothing to do at home, feeling helpless but wanting to feel helpful. Finding out that Christian Vanizette, the person you're going to hear from, helped spark a phone calling program that matched young people with elders to keep them company. That was just really moving to me. On the surface, this idea of young people calling old folks' homes sounds real basic, but then the majority of our human needs are real basic. It doesn't mean that they're easily or regularly met, though. This program, it became so popular that the French government added it to its official volunteering website, so not that basic. That's just one of thousands of projects that Christian has helped bring to life.
Christian was born in French Polynesia in Tahiti, actually. Now he lives in Paris. My wife and I met him through our friend, Diana, an American who's basically living a better version of that Netflix series, Emily in Paris. Anyway, we were recently in Paris between work gigs, and decided to interview Christian in person. We walked over to his offices in the Bastille neighborhood, where the French behead their leaders. Okay, one of the places the French behead their leaders. I was so excited to be there that I didn't make sure we had the best audio setup, so you may be able to hear that we're in an office and not, in fact, a sound-padded studio. I may have clipped Christian's mic to his hoodie drawstring, because I'm not a professional sound engineer. Okay? What I am, instead, is someone who's very excited to add Christian's voice to the How To Citizen world. He's built something that is moving, and so perfectly aligned with the way we see citizen as a verb.
I also want to make sure that How To Citizen isn't just an American thing, even though I am a very American thing. I love America, and I love not America as well. We've got a lot to learn from people outside of this country. Christian has inspired this global movement of citizens who are passionate about crowdsourcing solutions where they live, solutions to our most pressing social and environmental problems. He's done it by essentially becoming a recruiter, and I'd even say a matchmaker. The organization he co-founded, MakeSense, draws in citizens who want to take action but don't know where to start. Does that sound like somebody you know? The group places them in small teams of strangers who want to make a difference on the same issue, and then it empowers them by giving them opportunities to shape the projects they'll be working on, opportunities to learn from each other, to become team leaders, and then to recruit their own friends and start the cycle all over again. Since starting a decade ago, MakeSense has seen nearly 300,000 people attend workshops, has opened offices in seven countries, and has started volunteer chapters in over 100 cities around the world. It's been so successful, Christian's gotten the attention of many government leaders and was recently selected as an Obama Scholar Fellow. Remember Obama? Yeah, we still like that dude. Yeah, yeah. I know. Volunteerism has been around for a very long time, and we've definitely seen a lot of organizations that help place volunteers inside of other organizations, but the method that MakeSense uses? It's bottom up. It's citizen led, locally based, and the work and the projects that they foster and support, they're culturally appropriate to each place, because Makes Sense HQ is taking all its directions from the people on the ground, not imposing some top down template from on high.
Now, a decade in, Christian and the organizations many volunteers have increasingly turned their attention to the fight to stop, and even reverse, climate change ... We know the basics here. Humanity's got limited time to avert climate disaster, and we need to reduce our carbon emissions dramatically to achieve that. That means more electric cars, renewable energy, regenerative agriculture. It also means we need to stop fossil fuel extraction, and that's going to be hard. Researchers have identified hundreds of carbon bombs, like coal mines and oil and gas projects, that would release at least one metric gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions if they move forward. You don't have to know what a metric gigaton of carbon means. Basically, the people who do know what this means, the experts, they're terrified of these carbon bombs because they understand that, if they get built, it likely means the planet will warm past 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by The Paris Agreement. Warming past that number could intensify hunger, conflict, and drought worldwide.
Now, one of these projects is the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, AKA EACOP, and it's run by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the French oil giant, TotalEnergies, or Total for short. There's a campaign to stop it, and it's called ... Wait for it. Stop EACOP. I love the creativity. Now, Christian helped launch this campaign in France based on what he's learned from a decade at MakeSense. The way Stop EACOP is trying to defuse this particular carbon bomb? It's creative, strategic. It's even fun, which isn't something I generally associate with the climate movement. Like [Insay Ofot 00:07:29] who we heard from earlier this seasons, Christian is finding ways to bring joy and communal connection to the ways we participate. Instead of focusing on elections, he's bringing that energy to the ways we volunteer, and even the ways we protest. You'll hear how Christian helped create a global movement and just how organized it is right after the break ... Hello, Christian.
Christian Vanizette 07:58
Baratunde Thurston 07:59)
So, what is MakeSense?
Christian Vanizette 08:01
So, MakeSense is a nonprofit that started in Paris. Basically, we train community organizers all across the world, so they mobilize volunteers in the community for social or environmental issues. 10 years ago. Now it's around 300 employees across the world, and more than 300,000 volunteers.
Baratunde Thurston 08:21
300,000, so you've basically built an army that's undeclared. Does the UN know about your army?
Christian Vanizette 08:29
Yeah. We just built a way for people. When they see a problem, we train them, and they know how to mobilize other volunteers. Within the map we have expert social entrepreneurs, and then the citizen self-organized system to do the thing they want to do, like collect things, help the elderly, but between themselves, and not needing a big NGO like the Red Cross to tell them what to do.
Baratunde Thurston 08:53
So take me back to the beginning of MakeSense. Who were you before then? What were you doing with your time? How old were you, and how did this idea emerge?
Christian Vanizette 09:02
I come from Tahiti, French Polynesia. I arrived in France for my business school. During the time in the business school, I studied social entrepreneurship, so I was really interested in how business can do good. My dad bought me the book of guy named Muhammad Yunus, the November raid of peace in 2006.
Baratunde Thurston 09:25
I'm interrupting my own interview with Christian to add a little context. I like to call these Explainer Tundes. Professor Mohammed Yunus, you just heard mentioned, is a giant in the world of social entrepreneurship. He started this project called the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in the late 1970s, and it became internationally renowned for its revolutionary system of microcredit, which gives loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans, and it's helped millions escape poverty as a result. The unique feature of Grameen is that no collateral is required to get the credit. Dr. Yunus was one of the first leaders to talk about the possibility for business to do good and set limits on infinite profits. His concept of a social business defines financially self-sufficient businesses as those whose primary aim is to address the social problem and not pay dividends to its owners.
This idea, often referred to as social entrepreneurship, it's inspired many people in the world of business and economics. It actually sparked Elizabeth, my wife and executive producer of this show, on her journey around all this too. In fact, you could say Professor Yunus is one of the reasons we even know each other ... Now, back to my conversation with Christian.
Christian Vanizette 10:42
Guy named Muhammad Yunus, the November raid of peace in 2006. I was really inspired by how you use business to do goo. In the business school with my friend, Omar, we said, "Okay, what about we create a platform where people can support social businesses?" So people who start business to do good. This is how the idea of MakeSense was born. To start, we decided to go at the root of where social entrepreneurship for us was invented, which was in India, in Bangladesh. We negotiated with the school that instead of going to University of Rhode, was supposed to go to Germany, that we do a backpack trip for six months.
Baratunde Thurston 11:26
So you convinced the school?
Christian Vanizette 11:27
Baratunde Thurston 11:28
Instead of studying abroad in Germany, you're going to backpack around.
Christian Vanizette 11:30
Around India and Bangladesh, so we went with backpacks to meet social entrepreneurs, and do videos about them and stuff to build this platform where volunteers would come and help them.
Baratunde Thurston 11:41
What year was this?
Christian Vanizette 11:42
Baratunde Thurston 11:44
Christian Vanizette 11:44
So it makes sense it was just a Facebook page at the time. Every time we were arriving in a city, like in Mumbai, we would start a Facebook group to say, "Hey, we organize a workshop to help this project that's helping people with disabilities have access to the information in the subway in Mumbai. Do you guys want to come help?"
Baratunde Thurston 12:02
Christian Vanizette 12:03
So every part of the trip we started a Facebook group, and then we organized the first workshop, which is a trailer workshop. People would come together, give ideas and skills to the entrepreneur. We called it the hold up of ideas.
Baratunde Thurston 12:15
The hold up?
Christian Vanizette 12:16
Yeah. Then we gave the PDF in the Facebook group where people could continue do it, and every time we go. Now there's like 250 Facebook groups, and people using the method. This is how MakeSense was born. Was really organic, and kind of just people using simple toolkits of workshops by themselves.
Baratunde Thurston 12:36
Because so much of what many of us understand social improvement, change. You need expertise. You need deep training. You're a kid with a backpack and a dream. You're not from India or Bangladesh. In this particular case, I presume you don't have a deep history of understanding accessibility in public transit in India. What role are you playing in bringing strangers in the form of these entrepreneurs and strangers in the form of these volunteers together to try to solve their local problem?
Christian Vanizette 13:09
The main point was to say we want volunteers from the city itself, so what we acted like was just facilitate it all with the toolkit and methods, and also connection between these local communities. Because when you're in Mumbai, or when you're in Marseille in the South of France, and you're a student in the business school, you want to do good. You feel kind of alone in your school. Then, thanks to the internet, you feel there's someone else who also feels alone on the other side of the world and who has the same ideas as me. The role was really to facilitate with methods, but also connect all these communities that want to make change on the global scale. We use all the tools of community organizing, so all the local staff or local office are run by locals. They decide by themselves what they want to do, so it's not like the headquarter in Paris giving orders. This is what's been different from other endeavors.
Baratunde Thurston 14:03
You've described playbooks, workshops, a process, and community organizing as the kind of DNA. Where did you learn these things yourself, or where did the organization in its journey decide this is what belongs in the playbook, this is how we're going to organize ourselves?
Christian Vanizette 14:21
Yes. The playbook was really about how to run a brainstorming, so it wasn't even as a how to community organize at first. It's just how to get people together, and everyone can participate and give ideas. Basically creativity workshops and ways to create ideas together were the first steps. In a country like France, it might seem obvious in the US, but in France, since you're a kid at school, we never ask you what is your idea. We always think there's a right answer, or a wrong answer, and you can only talk if you have the right answer. For students in France to say, "I don't need to be an expert. I just come to this workshop, and I can express myself, give my point of view, my ideas," this is what make it go super fast. Then from the trial and error process, we build into the longer thing of organizing your local chapter and other methods to keep bringing people together.
Baratunde Thurston 15:14
How have you been able to make sure that the solutions, and the ideas, and the creativity people are putting forth are actually relevant and have a positive outcome for the core problem that they're trying to address?
Christian Vanizette 15:27
So, for us, the expertise and the local knowledge is the entrepreneur of the NGO who work on the field for many years. They define what is the challenge, what is the ideas they need, and then the volunteers come and help. There are two legs of MakeSense: supporting the entrepreneurs, and getting the citizens to join and support them. Over the years, it grew into firms and more programs to help the entrepreneurs grow.
Baratunde Thurston 15:55
I need some examples.
Christian Vanizette 15:57
Baratunde Thurston 15:57
In this vast history, 300,000 people, 300 staff. I don't know how many entrepreneurs. What's a few examples of projects that you've helped?
Christian Vanizette 16:05
One example, in France we have a project that's really big now. It was really small at that time. It's called Back Market.
Baratunde Thurston 16:11
Christian Vanizette 16:12
To make you buy your old phones instead of the new ones.
Baratunde Thurston 16:15
Okay, so instead of Black Market, it's Back Market.
Christian Vanizette 16:17
Yeah, yeah. Right.
Baratunde Thurston 16:18
Helps reuse phones.
Christian Vanizette 16:20
Reuse, so it's been interesting.
Baratunde Thurston 16:20
Christian Vanizette 16:23
The challenge they give when they launch is which kind of even could we organize to make Back Market known? So the volunteers came together, and the idea was to organize the other keynote. The same day Apple did the keynote about the new iPhone, Back Market was organizing the-
Baratunde Thurston 16:39
The other keynote.
Christian Vanizette 16:41
Keynote about the old iPhone.
Baratunde Thurston 16:42
Christian Vanizette 16:42
The volunteers came up with the ideas and help set this up, and now it's one of the biggest startup in France, so it's one example.
Baratunde Thurston 16:49
Yeah. I can just testify taking the Metro around all week as we've been in Paris. I had heard of Back Market just a few months ago due to a company we have a relationship with that's based in the US, but seeing the billboards, I was like, "Oh my God. Back Market is huge over here."
Christian Vanizette 17:06
Yeah. No, it's huge.
Baratunde Thurston 17:06
You all literally helped launch it.
Christian Vanizette 17:08
At the beginning, yeah.
Baratunde Thurston 17:09
Christian Vanizette 17:09
So there's many stories like that. A story I love is during the COVID time, there was this startup that we helped support, which is to connect the elderly together so they don't feel alone with their family. What we set up was through this program of self volunteering. We had like 4,000 people in three weeks who went on the platform to call a random elder, and then have weekly conversations with them during the top of the COVID time. The way the volunteers built the trust with the retirement house to get the numbers was by the first thing we told them is first you bring them a cake, the director. So you had volunteers showing up bringing cake, and then one of the directors say, "Okay. I'm okay to give the number so you can call them." It went into a listing, and people were picking up the phone and calling. This example of program was taken by the French government on its public volunteering platform, so then it becomes officially something you could do during COVID.
Baratunde Thurston 18:12
Did the government acknowledge the origin of this idea?
Christian Vanizette 18:15
Yeah. I mean, they bring us in the groups. Right now, this program that's called Reaction, it's a two week program, so you can take action to have the other we have now is working with the state to become public policy.
Baratunde Thurston 18:28
Christian Vanizette 18:30
To make it that the way the youth engagement program of the state, which is around 300,000 young French people per year, works the same way that program-
Baratunde Thurston 18:38
That your program works.
Christian Vanizette 18:39
So it's really interesting. After two years of just an idea during COVID, and then it has become a big policy.
Baratunde Thurston 18:45
How much did you spend on lobbying dollars with your government to get them to?
Christian Vanizette 18:49
No, we didn't. We-
Baratunde Thurston 18:49
Adopt your program?
Christian Vanizette 18:49
Baratunde Thurston 18:52
That's how we would do it in the US. We'd have to give a lot of campaign to the-
Christian Vanizette 18:54
No, no. The thing they need is that they had too much demand on their platform, and not enough offers.
Baratunde Thurston 19:01
In this case, because it's such a clear case with COVID, isolated older people, young people who want to help, can you lay out a big of the pieces of how that came together? Was there an initial volunteer organization that had relationships with elderly homes? Was there a young person who missed their grandparent? What's the seed of that solution?
Christian Vanizette 19:23
At the beginning of COVID, no one knew what was going to happen.
Baratunde Thurston 19:25
I remember that. Scary. Yeah.
Christian Vanizette 19:27
At that time, I was studying in a program in New York at Columbia University with The Obama Foundation.
Baratunde Thurston 19:32
Christian Vanizette 19:33
So we had a briefing from the team that was working with President Obama on preparing pandemics.
Baratunde Thurston 19:39
Oh, wow. That's nice.
Christian Vanizette 19:42
The day the whole thing started, we did this briefing. I joined the briefing, and I told the MakeSense team, "Hey, guys. This thing is real, and it's going to be a lot of mess for most normal people." Then we saw it was the elderlies, the young people because they couldn't go to studies, the people that already don't have house, so how do they access to hygiene products, and all that. So we had six programs at the front lines, and we just said, "Okay, let's do a digital program where people self organize in groups of 15." For each program, we asked our experts, the social entrepreneurs who've been working 10 years with the organize, 10 years with elderly, what is the actions people should do? We build those toolkits, and we launched it. I think the first week was 150 people. Each group of 15, you had one organizer whose goal is to get people excited-
Baratunde Thurston 20:34
Like a team leader, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 20:35
Yeah. The magic of the thing is that each group then created three people to become the team leader, so you have one group, and the next week would lead to three groups.
Baratunde Thurston 20:44
Christian Vanizette 20:45
This is how we grew the system. It was really exciting, but it's also amazing to see the power of digital tools, because it was all running on WhatsApp and emails when you plug it with community organizing. This method, you can use the same for activism, for elections. Even something to get a virus to stay.
Baratunde Thurston 21:08
A different type of virus.
Christian Vanizette 21:09
Baratunde Thurston 21:09
As opposed to the COVID virus that's spreading. Because what you have co-created with the community isn't a top down playbook. You kind of set the stage, and it's emerged. Groups of 15 people scaling, self replicating, self-teaching, like a positive virus. I'm curious what you've been learning about where people go from here. If you've unleashed these tools of collaboration, and problem solving, and growth, what have they seeded that is kind of a derivative of some of this type of organizing?
Christian Vanizette 21:41
What's happening now is we see the first model that we had, which was based on people meeting in real life and doing workshops together. This model, which was really digital, since COVID is starting to go away, it's kind of a merge of both.
Baratunde Thurston 21:57
Christian Vanizette 21:57
So we see the people who did the program in the cities getting together, and say, "Hey, let's meet in real life," and then they start to think together what they could do next. It's really interesting, because then it spins kind of out of MakeSense. The good part of it is just, from the statistic we had, is two third of the people who did this program never volunteered before. The thing it creates, my hope for democracy, is just it makes people realize that they can do more than just vote, and that they can solve the problems.
The tension we're seeing right now is that the news you get on climate, for example, or the social and environmental issues are becoming really urgent, and sometime they feel the connection of the small action they can do the help someone, and then the big problem that comes, especially from the youth participant of the program. We see that there's a will to become even more than just volunteering, like really become an activist to push for more radical change faster. What we're trying to build at MakeSense is to say, "Okay, we helped start social entrepreneurship, especially in French. Why don't we create accelerator and incubator for activists?" Because this is a trend. We see that people realize they need change of the systems faster, so the volunteering part is kind of the ... Well, see, you start as a volunteer until you're left a-
Baratunde Thurston 23:21
You're an activist.
Christian Vanizette 23:23
And then become an activist.
Baratunde Thurston 23:23
Yeah, yeah. But that wasn't the explicit intention.
Christian Vanizette 23:24
That wasn't the explicit intention.
Baratunde Thurston 23:27
But that's some of what emerges when you give people these kind of tools.
Christian Vanizette 23:30
Yes. The more you make friends, and the more you have fun doing this thing, the more you want to continue, explore, learn. Then you learn more about the problem, and you say, "What could I do more?" And then it becomes kind of a natural path.
Baratunde Thurston 23:41
One of the things that I've experienced, and I think a lot of people who will hear this have, is a sense of isolation. In the face of great challenges, we feel alone. We have our phones, which are supposed to connect us, but they kind of make us feel smaller. In the US especially, our connections to each other are weak. You know? We don't have churches as much anymore. We don't live with extended family anymore. We don't have the clubs we used to have, in terms of just the power of being with other people, maybe who are even different from us. What have you learned about the power of gathering or associating through volunteerism, through these small groups of 15, in terms of a culture of civic engagement that goes beyond learning?
Christian Vanizette 24:23
The thing is when it was the workshops. Basically, people coming to help a social entrepreneur on his project and idea. The people we were having were mostly people who did the higher degree studies, so they were students or young professionals, and they came because they were applying were learning at school or university. When we did the COVID programs, then the first call to action wasn't to come to workshop for three hours, but it was to call an elderly and have a discussion, which is something everyone can do. This was really great, because the demographics of people participating were really looking like the French society. All age, all background. This was really amazing, because you could see different. Once, now, they get together in real life, I think it's going to make something powerful, because they're going to define actions of things that look more like the French society than what it was before COVID. This is bringing different people who didn't knew each other before.
Baratunde Thurston 25:21
What you've described so far and built sounds great. It's like hundreds of thousands of people reconnecting with their society, with each other, solving problems, not just waiting for a government or some big business to come and fix it for them. What is the hardest part of pulling this off? What are the things that we're not hearing yet, in terms of the challenges.
Christian Vanizette 25:43
Yeah. Building the organization, finding the financing, the business. All the things people don't see. It was really tricky, especially that it started as an organic movement, MakeSense, so we have those volunteers running these workshops everywhere. Then we built the organization to run after them. There was a lot of people speaking Spanish. We need a support team to do the training. Okay. Where? In Mexico. Okay, the first volunteer can join the team now. Built this whole thing, so building the organization was a bit tricky, much like any entrepreneurial journey. The thing that's really frustrating now is that MakeSense has these volunteers, these employees, for the social entrepreneur. We even have a fund. We have a hundred million dollar-
Baratunde Thurston 26:25
Like an investment fund?
Christian Vanizette 26:27
Investment fund. We can invest. You just feel like, "Okay, this is great, and we're happy in the team," but the problems seem so much urgent and huge when I started that I'm like, "What can we do now to accelerate?" Because it's not just by continuing what we did during 10 years, then we would make a bigger dent in the issues we're trying to solve as an organization. This whole questioning is what happening in the team now, and we're trying to see what next should be done so that we can make a bigger dent in the problems that are becoming more urgent.
Baratunde Thurston 27:03
What type of person ends up doing what you're doing? Why does this move you so much, the idea of MakeSense, the idea of empowering people to collective work to solve their problems? Where do you think that comes from?
Christian Vanizette 27:18
I grew up in ... Tahiti's really a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My grandfather was from the French Navy, and he arrived with a boat, and he met my grandmother, who's a Tahitian, from Tahiti. He started a soccer club and had a lot of friends, and so then he went into politics. He was the first president of the local assembly, because Tahiti is part of the French Republic. We have our own government.
Baratunde Thurston 27:45
Christian Vanizette 27:46
The first law that he passed was the social security, so people do have free healthcare.
Baratunde Thurston 27:53
You are so French, dude.
Christian Vanizette 27:56
Free healthcare and, not free, but retirement for everyone. This was kind of the biggest thing you could do for advancement in Tahiti. I grew up in this family of people super motivated and engaged. When I needed to study, I was like, "Okay, where do I feel is going to have the biggest impact?" My guess was the economy is running the world, so finding ways to tweak the economy and making room to solve problem and not just make more money is why I chose business school. Also, the thing when you talk about global challenge, for example, like climate change, super scary when you come from a small island.
Baratunde Thurston 28:34
Christian Vanizette 28:35
The main narrative you hear is like, "These are the first place that are going to disappear." I really engage on this topic because you can see the effect right now on the corals. The problem is that you come from Tahiti. It's so small. You can't do much about the problem of climate change from Tahiti. It's not because 100,000 people take their bags that things will be sold. Then you realize, "Okay. 70% carbon emissions come from big cities," so people acting in New York, in Paris, in Manila, it has more impact to save my island. This is kind of why we're selling connecting the dots in local communities acting. It's what's needed for this kind of challenge. In a really selfish way, I'm kind of grateful-
Baratunde Thurston 29:14
You're just trying to save your home. This all comes back to self-preservation, but through collective action ... After the break, the wild and clever tactics Christian and thousands of others are using to defuse a carbon bomb ... So, you've made this connection many times to climate change as the accelerating type of global crisis, and the idea that you can't solve it just from where you are. You have to look to other places to kind of affect where you are, which brings us to this pipeline, this East African Crude Oil Pipeline, EACOP, that you are very much against. Can you give some context? More context for the pipeline, and the connection of this kind of self-organizing volunteer effort to try to stop it.
Christian Vanizette 30:11
Yeah. We do the same as what we did during COVID. You know?
Baratunde Thurston 30:13
Christian Vanizette 30:14
You look at what science says we need to do and we need to help. It's the same with the climate. One of the first recommendation of the scientist of the international and the urgency is really clear. They say if we want to keep The Paris Agreement alive, so not more than 1.5 degree global warming, the first thing to do is no new oil and gas infrastructure. It doesn't mean no oil from tomorrow. It means we don't need to build new ones, because it will make global warmer worse. I just was thinking, "What can I do to participate with my capacities to this priority that the scientist said?"
In the climate activist movement, what happens is that, if you're in the UK, you focus on the UK oil company, so it's BP. If you're in France, this company is called Total. I looked at what is the thing we could do from France to make sure there's no new oil. This company is building one new oil and gas project. It's going to be the longest heated crude oil pipeline. It has to be heated at 50 degrees.
Baratunde Thurston 31:17
The longest heated crude oil pipeline-
Christian Vanizette 31:19
In the world.
Baratunde Thurston 31:20
In the world? Okay.
Christian Vanizette 31:22
It's going from Uganda to Tanzania.
Baratunde Thurston 31:23):
Christian Vanizette 31:23
So the first thing we did was to ask the local activists there what do they think about the project, and-
Baratunde Thurston 31:32
I just want to pause you right there, because a lot of us don't do that step.
Christian Vanizette 31:36
Baratunde Thurston 31:37
Right? So you have had a, initially, kind of analytical approach. Right? This I read the IPCC report, the International Energy Agency. Cha, cha, cha, cha, cha. They said this is important. I looked at the energy companies that were kind of within my reach. I'm French. It's in Total. Boom, boom. Then I checked with the local activists to see what they want. I need to reaffirm that pause, because a lot of people skip that step and just say, "We've got to stop this. We've got to do that," and don't check in. What happened when you checked in? What did they say?
Christian Vanizette 32:09
Because the thing is we don't know the local realities, and so maybe the would say, "Oh, we really need that energy, or we need these things." Then what you realize is that there was two court case from local NGOs, and people affected by the pipeline, who are taking Total to court in France to say that this project don't happen. The biggest thing that happen is that there's 100,000 people being displaced, so there was a lot of mobilization in Uganda, not from what we thought was the angle of climate, but from the angle of human rights. For the last seven years, they can't use their land because it's going to be on the way of the pipeline.
Baratunde Thurston 32:49
Christian Vanizette 32:50
It's mostly farmers, so basically there's a huge amount of farmers who are like, "We can't use our land. You're not compensating us." What we did when we started the campaign in France was to say, "Okay, we need to bring voices from Uganda to come and tell to the French people that." We're so proud of saying we invented the human rights, and all these things, to just say what the French company is doing there, so that it's known and people realize that this is a mess not just for the climate, but also for the lives of the people.
Baratunde Thurston 33:22
So listening to the activists on the ground, listen to their story, find the connection to the story of the people you're trying to influence. French people take credit for inventing human rights. You know? The Declaration of the Rights of Men is a very proud part of French history. If you really believe that, then you're going to be really sensitive to these stories of these people.
Christian Vanizette 33:41
Yeah, yeah. They tend to tell the story. Once you spend two weeks with them, and you're hearing their stories and everything, it's kind of the motivation to do the fight and what we need to do. It's very human, because climate is something really help people to grow.
Baratunde Thurston 33:58
It can be very abstract.
Christian Vanizette 33:58
Baratunde Thurston 33:59
Very analytical, numbers based. Yeah.
Christian Vanizette 34:02
Also, it was really important for us that the start of the campaign was the activists fighting for years on the field there, promoting their voice first so that they're more known and more protected, because we don't know what could happen in Uganda. The second thing is to tell this oil company that Total keeps saying, "But everyone in Uganda wants it," and such. No, there are some people who don't want. It's just that they are being repressed. This was the start. When you look back, I think it was the best angle, because it's really the thing where Total is pushing to say, "But it's people from the North who don't want Africa to develop."
Baratunde Thurston 34:39
So they're basically saying you're racist?
Christian Vanizette 34:42
Baratunde Thurston 34:42
For stopping Africans from having progress economically and moving forward. Okay, we're going to hit pause here. You don't have to hit pause. I'm hitting pause on my own conversation for a quick fact Thunde check. What Christian's saying here about Total needs a little bit more context. We couldn't check down any instances of Total Energy saying these exact statements. However, they did recently post something to their website responding to a "set of misconceptions" about EACOP and another projects. They said the following, which I will deliver in a cartoonishly French accent, because I find their behavior to be cartoonish. "We could ask ourselves whether the desire to prevent countries like Uganda from exploiting their natural resources is not itself inspired by a vision that is neocolonialist or selfish, to say the least. What local Ugandans want to see is a developed country with infrastructure catering to people's most basic needs."
Critics, you're the colonialists. That's good. I hope they're paying these people well. No, they don't say Northerners don't want to see Africa develop, but we can agree it's implied, given their response seems to be responding to non-Ugandan detractors of the project. Yes, in that statement Total doesn't outright say that everyone in Uganda wants EACOP to be built, but by saying that, "What local Ugandans want to see is a developed country with infrastructure catering to people's most basic needs," in a company post that's specifically responding to misconceptions about this project, I think we can infer that they're meaning that locals want EACOP, whereas non locals may not. Next to Total, the Ugandan government has been much more direct. After the EU called for EACOP to be halted due to human rights abuses and climate curses, President Yoweri Museveni responded saying, "They are insufferable, so shallow, so egocentric, so wrong." I don't know if that's his accent, but that was, I'm certain, his energy.
Now, this may seem extra to fact check, given how much is implied here, but when you're fighting multi-billion dollar companies with padded marketing and legal teams, getting specific with our critiques is a necessity. Just part of the job ... Now, back to my conversation with Christian.
Christian Vanizette 37:20
It's really like a big fight to win the narratives. Well, most activists from Uganda, what they tell you is that of course they want development, but it doesn't need to be a dirty development.
Baratunde Thurston 37:31
It doesn't need to be dirty, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 37:33
Because if there's a leak it's going to be the fishermen from the Lake Victoria who won't be able to fish anymore. Of course, yes to investment, but it needs to be renewable, different kind of projects, and not oil pipeline. Especially in the moment where I'm not sure oil is going to continue in the longterm being a good asset to have. If a country develop itself on an asset that's going to be not good in 20 years, then you're screwed. When you look in Africa, they didn't land phone. You know?
Baratunde Thurston 38:00
Christian Vanizette 38:00
They directly went to mobile phones.
Baratunde Thurston 38:02
To wireless, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 38:03
Why not doing the same of the energy?
Baratunde Thurston 38:05
I got an idea for the campaign name.
Christian Vanizette 38:06
Baratunde Thurston 38:07
Totally Screwed. That was a free one. There you go. Workshop it. You know, I'm not in the brainstorm, but you can add it to the team list to consider.
Christian Vanizette 38:17
Yeah. It's been really an interesting fight.
Baratunde Thurston 38:20
So as you have engaged further in this fight to stop this pipeline, besides that the problem feels very large, how have you gone about further breaking it down into pieces that groups of volunteers can feel like it's approachable for them?
Christian Vanizette 38:37
Yeah. The first thing to know is that there's what we call carbon bumps.
Baratunde Thurston 38:40
Carbon bumps. Okay.
Christian Vanizette 38:41
So it's new oil and gas projects that is creating a lot of carbon emission. This pipeline, for example, in Uganda alone, it's seven times the emissions of Uganda. You can be millions taking your bike. If these things happen, it doesn't change anything, so it's really the urgency in the climate movements. The goal is to make sure that everything we do on this pipeline can be replicable, because there needs to be activists and campaigns like that happening all around the world against all these oil companies. The key thing, the key pressure point on all these carbon bumps, is always the same, is the finance. Where there's a lot of cities and power that can be used, is to put pressure on the banks so that they don't fund. Even better than the banks is the insurance, because if you put pressure on the insurance, then the bank don't want to lend to a project that's not insured.
Baratunde Thurston 39:37
Christian Vanizette 39:38
So then you break it down. Okay, what can citizens do to put pressure on an insurance?
Baratunde Thurston 39:42
On insurance, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 39:44
So then you need to track which insurance might insure the pipeline. For example, there was one in Germany that was called Munich Re.
Baratunde Thurston 39:52
Yeah, they're huge. Yeah.
Christian Vanizette 39:53
Then we contacted the most well known activists in Germany, and we say, "Hey."
Baratunde Thurston (39:57):
Again, checking with the people on the ground.
Christian Vanizette 39:59
"What can we do to get them out of this project?" Then she said, in Germany we're really lucky, because she's really powerful. When she tweets, there's like thousands of people going in the street, so she just did tweet to the CEO. The next day, the guy then said, "Okay, we're out." This is how many insurance, like all the German ones, really easy because we have the power to tweet. In other places, it's more complicated. Right now, Total is going to try to find an insurer in the marketplace for insurance, which is Lloyd's.
Baratunde Thurston 40:27
Okay. Lloyd's of London, yep.
Christian Vanizette 40:29
Right now, all the dirtiest projects on the planet, they all come to Lloyd's at some point.
Baratunde Thurston 40:34
Christian Vanizette 40:34
Because Lloyd's is made to dilute the risk. Instead of saying, "I insure the whole projects," it's, "I insure two percent of it," and someone else say, "Oh, I insure the other two percent."
Baratunde Thurston 40:41
Yeah, so no single person holds the whole risk.
Christian Vanizette 40:44
Then it has become really tricky, so what we created is a WhatsApp group with 60 volunteers.
Baratunde Thurston 40:47
Christian Vanizette 40:49
Every day at lunch, you have two people going with posters, stuff pick up, and the flyers. Their job is to recruit within the insurance marketplace. Who knows which actor might finance, et cetera, and also which one is against. They give their emails, and then we basically recruit employees within the insurance marketplace to give us information. Then once we know these guys, they post it on the WhatsApp group, and then we have hundreds of people sending emails. Direct message, people don't do that. Then every three weeks we have a big happening in front of the Lloyd's Marketplace. The last one was organized by Mother's Rise Up. They had 150 dancers who came and did a show of ... I forgot her name. Chim chimney, chim chim. Mary Poppins.
Baratunde Thurston 41:36
Christian Vanizette 41:37
Yeah, so they did, because it's the story of bankers being sad. We had 150 bankers with a fake Mary Poppins.
Baratunde Thurston 41:43
With a fake Mary Poppins.
Christian Vanizette 41:44
Sing to the CEO of Lloyd's "insure our future, don't insure those projects."
Baratunde Thurston 41:49
Christian Vanizette 41:49
So you have this multi campaigns like that, with digital WhatsApp groups. These techniques will hold Lloyd's dropped from Adani Coalmine, a big coalmine project, so we know it works. You just have to find the right pressure point, and how it is fastest to get the information. Actually, the best job to do is to go every day, make friends, have lunch with them, and get the information, and then you need to organize.
Baratunde Thurston 42:14
You're like an intelligence operation.
Christian Vanizette 42:16
And it's all run by people who are 19 to 21. There's an Instagram where they post every day, "Hey, we're out every day in front of Lloyd's." This is really pissing them off. The project costs 1.5 billion more. It's around like 10 billion, because of all these tactics to not find insurance, and things like that.
Baratunde Thurston 42:34
So I'm hearing at least two things. One is consistency, just like every day at lunch two people go and do this thing, so there's a rhythm to it. I'm also hearing play, fun, joy. You're hiring dancers. Young people are getting excited. A lot of the image that we are taught about what it means to engage civically is it's boring. It's sad. It's cold. Maybe you call your member of parliament, or your member of congress, and hope they listen to you until the next day. This sounds much more active and much more fun. Is that by design?
Christian Vanizette 43:10
It's because from the history it makes sense. We know that people volunteer. They are not paid. They need to have fun. Otherwise, if they don't have fun, they'll not keep going and keep doing. For example, at every end of the week they will meet all together in a pub. It's in London, and then they make friends. At the same time, it's really fun to be like 20 years old, and to scare all the CEOs, and to cost them billions. When you're just one person, it seems like they're giants from outside, but then they can be so weak, too.
Baratunde Thurston 43:39
They're fragile. They are very fragile.
Christian Vanizette 43:41
You play on the fun, and also this rebelliousness. The really sad part is even if people have fun, and there's all this campaign, there are still some real things happening like activists in Uganda. When you're not in England, in France, it's a bit different particular regimens there. There, they are being put in jail and things like that. I think it's this mix of being real about the issue, but at the same time knowing which tactics to engage more people then can work, just so that it doesn't become just a fun thing that you then detach from the reality that's really not fun.
Baratunde Thurston 44:14
I think that's essential, because things can get too performative and feel, like you said, disconnected. Also, there's something you were describing. Even in terms of the digital activism, which is often rightly criticized as clicktivism. There's a disconnect from real outcomes and real impact, because it's so easy to like, and share, and retweet, especially if that's not part of a larger strategy. It doesn't matter. How are you ensuring that the digital actions are meaningful and really connect on the ground?
Christian Vanizette 44:46
Yeah. On this specific campaign for the pipeline, it's first there's a coalition of NGOs all around the world opposing it. They build and decide the pressure points. There's an NGO that specialized in analyzing the financial act of the banks and the insurance, and they say what is the thing that can help the most.
Baratunde Thurston 45:06
Christian Vanizette 45:06
Actually sending an email to these people in this insurance, they are not used to receive emails from everyday citizen. It's also the nobility of the action. This activism is not just like you're expressing something, like you write to your congressman.
Baratunde Thurston 45:19
Or a big petition.
Christian Vanizette 45:23
A big petition.
Baratunde Thurston 45:23
On Change.org. Yeah.
Christian Vanizette 45:23
Yeah. Even just five people sending an email to that guy who never received emails from any citizen, and say, "Hey, I'm watching you and what you're doing."
Baratunde Thurston 45:30
Yeah. "You're looking at me? You're looking at me? Oh, no."
Christian Vanizette 45:34
Then they're like, "Wow." For them, it's new. They're not politicians. This is how you can design the right strategy of digital activism. It's finding where it can be the most useful. Often, it's just a tool to help the NGOs campaigning. For example, right now there's people being arrested in Uganda because they protested again EACOP. The main things to do is we put pressure on the French ambassador in Uganda, so he condemn, and all of this because of French company. Of course, there's NGOs who know really well the ambassador, then they know really well the foreign affairs with France, so they love it. They go talk to them. But if at the same time there's hundreds of citizens sending them email, it gives more power to this nonprofit when they negotiate, so it's just about launching this at the right time.
Baratunde Thurston 46:22
It reminds me of a puffer fish. You know? You're appearing bigger than you really are, and you show up with allies. You're like, "We have a massive army," and it's like five kids emailing.
Christian Vanizette 46:34
But the cool thing is that then you have, at the same time, the journalists who talk about it. Then you can make it a thing. It's also because, at the end of the day, it's not okay that in a country that say they are the country of human rights that, because of a French company, human rights are not respected. It's still tied to something really deep in the people being mobilized.
Baratunde Thurston 46:52
It's personal, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 46:53
Baratunde Thurston 46:53
Yeah, it's not just a charitable do good. It's holding people to their own standard.
Christian Vanizette 46:57
Baratunde Thurston 46:58
And reminding them who they say they are, and giving them a chance to be who they say they are, which I think is also a pretty deeply empathetic approach to persuasion, activism, and even pressure points. There's some love in that pain.
Christian Vanizette 47:11
Baratunde Thurston 47:11
Yeah. You've recently launched an app. Can you describe this app and how people might get involved in it?
Christian Vanizette 47:17
Yeah. The complicated part about this oil and gas pipeline is that there's a huge number.
Baratunde Thurston 47:23
All these carbon bombs around it, yeah.
Christian Vanizette 47:26
Carbon bombs. Every time, what we realize is that, for example, you need 5,000 people to send a message to a bank that they're a client of. If 5,000 people send them an email saying, "Hey, guys. I really don't want you to use my money to finance this kind of project," this ring an alert in the bank. It's a reputational risk. Regroop is just a platform where people can join the campaign and send those emails when it's the right time to do. Then we know these people, and if there's another campaign, and they can directly help on the other campaigns, you fast track how people act together using digital tools. My hope is that people will start by sending an email to this insurer, and then they will end up being the people in front of Lloyd's in London every day at lunch, being more active.
Baratunde Thurston 48:10
Right. It's like going to the gym. You start with a little exercise, and by the end you're running the whole circuit, because you've gotten stronger.
Christian Vanizette 48:17
Baratunde Thurston 48:18
We like to leave our listeners, and our audience, our community, with things they can do. In your experience through this campaign, through the decade of MakeSense, how have you grown to interpret what it would mean to citizen as a set of actions, or as a verb? What does that look like to you?
Christian Vanizette 48:36
To me, one thing I learned during this one year in New York at this fancy university, at Columbia in this Obama program, we were eight. There was one girl who was with me who was also in the co-op. Her name was Wai Wai Nu.
Baratunde Thurston 48:52
Wai Wai Nu. Okay.
Christian Vanizette 48:53
She's an activist from Myanmar. She spent her whole teenage years, seven years, in a jail because her dad was in the party of NLD. The junta put her dad in jail somewhere, put the whole family in the jail somewhere else. I really related. Before I was dismissive of people who are volunteering and stuff like that, but one of the exercises we are to do during the program was to tell the other person's story to the others, but talking at the first, like it was you.
Baratunde Thurston 49:22
In the first person, yeah. Yeah.
Christian Vanizette 49:24
So you hold that story like a baby. I had to tell the story of Wei Wei, which was all about the pain, the suffering, and the jail, and being far from her dad. At the same time, going out after. You think the junta is out, but then her community is the Rohingya, so they were still persecuted after. Just hearing her story and having to say it completely transformed me, and this developed bigger side of empathy. For me, this is the thing of how to citizen is to, when you hear someone's story, to really feel it. Then you can't take it away from you. The story of these activists in Uganda, the story of Wei Wei. Now, I would do whatever I can, whenever, just to do something, because their story is in me now.
Baratunde Thurston 50:11
Christian Vanizette 50:11
So I think this is the thing that really changed me. How to citizen? I would say to let others' stories of injustice that happened, of things that need to change to the world, not just mentally, but let them live in you.
Baratunde Thurston 50:26
Yeah. At the risk of sounding very much like someone who enjoys puns, that makes sense. Thank you, merci beaucoup, for giving us a window into how we can make more sense, have more fun, and have more power when we do it together.
Christian Vanizette 50:42
Baratunde Thurston 50:48
Four seasons in, as we are with this show, I hope you are familiar with our refrain about how civic engagement and citizening has got to be more than just voting. Voting is necessary, but it is not sufficient, especially because many folks can't vote by law. But we can all participate in shaping our communities, and in solving our own problems. Our first pillar of How To Citizen is literally show up and participate. But, many of us, we're out of practice. We need a way in, and it helps if that way in is also fun.
What excites me most about Christian is that he's helped create a gateway drug to citizening. MakeSense helps people build and practice that collective problem solving through volunteerism, which sometimes slides into activism. It's these practices that help reinforce a culture of small deed democracy, a culture so crucial to upholding a democratic system of self-governance. Christian is a recruiter for helping us all practice democracy, helping us all citizen by showing up. He successfully recruited me. For real. I get excited about all of our guests, but I don't necessarily always go all in on the thing they just built. I tried the beta version of the Regroop app he mentioned, and I did the stop EACOP daily actions for a while. It's all in French because, yes, your boy also speaks French, but it also speaks to how addictive, and cool, and fun the platform was that, the French I didn't speak, I was looking up to make sure I knew what I was doing.
Now, look, you can learn more about MakeSense over at MakeSense.org. It doesn't really operate fully in the US, but there's still a lot to be learned from it, and maybe you'll be someone who starts a US chapter if you're here. Check out the actions to stop EACOP on Instagram, Stop E-A-C-O-P, where there's actions you can take in the US. Because, unfortunately, Black Rock, which is based right here in our own New York State, is an investor in Total Energies, which is a major shareholder in EACOP, which we're trying to stop. If you want to get in on these daily actions and notifications like me, which got me so excited, you can help stop this pipeline with the Regroop app. It's R-E-G-R-O-O-P. Find it in your nearest app store.
Speaking of daily actions, in the show note we always have actions you can take after listening to each episode. We give you options to go inwards and feel into the material, to become more knowledgeable, or to get involved with others to make an impact. Here's a juicy prompt for some internal reflection. How do you feel when you hear the words climate change? You encounter a story on the topic. What's the dominant emotion? I want you to write this down, and then I want you to think about a different climate story that provokes the opposite, or at least a very different emotional reaction, and spend more time in that one.
When I think of climate change, the emotions that come up are anger, despair, frustration. Now, when I think about a story that shifts me out of that, I think about Christian. I think about a lot of the stuff that we talked about in this episode, and I feel a sense of awe, even a little happy, because I'm like, "These kids are getting so creative." For me, this exercise is going to be looking for more stories that provoke that reaction. Are there other climate change stories that lead to a sense of awe, or joy, or excitement, or hopefulness, as opposed to the despair and the overwhelmedness that I felt before. The goal here is to be curious and open to your feelings, to be conscious of the emotional impact of the climate narratives you're ingesting, and to consciously try to rebalance that.
Now, for more active actions, there's what we already mentioned with the stop EACOP campaign. On the other side of this coin, there's a chance to take some personal responsibility for our consumer culture. This culture is fueling more demand for oil, and we can counter that with a different kind of spending. There's this product called FutureCard. It's a payment card that rewards you for climate friendly purchases. Full disclosure, I'm an early investor and advisor, because I think it's a powerful way to align incentives in our economy. Find them online at Future.green.
Also, you may hear people say that, "It's not on us as individuals to stop climate change," and it isn't on us, at least not alone, but we do have power. I don't want us to feel like because our governments aren't doing enough there's nothing we can do, so it's a both proposition. We can lower our demand for fossil fuels while we also pressure policy makers and the oil industry at large to change. No matter what you hear from any side, we truly need to do both to curb climate change.
As always, we'd love to hear from you about your experience taking any of the actions. We may even ask you to share your story with future listeners. The show notes got full details, so check them on your podcast app, or visit HowToCitizen.com where we have transcripts, actions, and more. How To Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Rowhome Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, and Elizabeth Stewart. Our lead producer is Allie Graham. Our associate producer is Danya AbdelHameid. Alex Lewis is our managing producer, and John Meyers is our executive editor and mix engineer. Original music by Andrew Eapen, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thinks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio, and Layla Bina.
Next time on How to Citizen, we're turning inward.
Dr. Sam Rader 56:51
It's a radical act of citizening to change our story, to change the narrative that we're living within, and our relationship to ourselves, and others, and the world, of I won't participate in that old way of being: the otherizing, the dehumanizing, the fighting, the oppression. I won't. I'm not going to do that to me. I'm not going to do that to you. I am going to stand for love. I will stand for love, and in that beingness change my world.
Baratunde Thurston 57:21
In our final episode of the season, we talk with Dr. Sam Rader, who helps us invest in a relationship with ourselves so we can build better relationships in our communities.
Let us know your thoughts about the episode. What did you learn or what surprised you or challenged you?
Share what you’ve learned. Knowledge is power! Tag #howtocitizen so we can reshare!