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Dowser Interview: Gillian Caldwell of 1Sky

,    /   Mar 30th, 2010International, Interviews, Tech

Gillian Caldwell had a dream job. She was running WITNESS, an organization that safeguards human rights through multimedia technology. Everything about the work aligned perfectly with her values, talents and interests. She had also realized her long-time ambition of launching “a YouTube for human rights.” So it came as a surprise to many when Caldwell left WITNESS to take over 1Sky, a nationwide organizing campaign that uses technology and new media to connect and strengthen climate change activists. We caught up with Caldwell, who told us about her career transition — and explained why she views climate change as the central human rights issue of our time.

Dowser: When did you become interested in human rights?
Caldwell: My history teachers connected me to Amnesty International when I was 11. That inspired me to become a human rights advocate in high school.

Also, my mother ran an art gallery in New York which featured the work of an artist named Leon Golub, who did a lot of work with Amnesty. He had a series called “Mercenary,” which depicted very brutal torture by CIA-trained mercenaries on political prisoners. Those paintings were in our living room, so that was certainly formative.

What type of work did you do before joining WITNESS?
I’ve been involved in social change-related work my whole life, whether it was working in a soup kitchen, leading employability skills trainings, working on disability issues or doing anti-apartheid work in South Africa.

So how did you wind up at WITNESS?
I did an undercover investigation for the Global Survival Network on Russian Mafia involvement in trafficking women for forced prostitution out of the former Soviet Union. We used hidden cameras to produce a film about it, which is how I got connected to WITNESS. I became WITNESS’s first full-time director in March of 1998.

WITNESS trains and supports human rights advocates to use video in their campaigns. Is WITNESS the only organization of its kind?
At a global level, yes. There’s the Chiapas Media Project, whose focus is Mexico, and Undercurrents which has focused more on U.K.-based police brutality issues.

“Video advocacy” was a term that we coined at WITNESS, although many more organizations are making effective use of video and tactical media in their work, which is terrific.

Did you have a five-year plan to grow WITNESS?
I think business planning is a good idea, but sometimes it’s hard to plan — especially when you’re trying to keep pace with technology. In that case, planning five to 10 years out makes no sense. Three years is a more reasonable timeline.

What has been the most rewarding success?
All the projects that I am personally responsible for are rejuvenating and rewarding. Too often, executive directors and CEOs get distanced from the central work of an organization. But I think you need to create the space to do it — to stay alive, and to learn and to be creative.

You left WITNESS in late 2007 to work for 1Sky, a global warming activism organization. What drew you to 1Sky?
I gave WITNESS notice in 2007 because I decided that I had to do something about climate change. It was very clear that if we didn’t get U.S. leadership on this issue, we weren’t going to reach global agreement on the post-Kyoto Protocol framework.

Climate change has some of the most significant human rights repercussions of any challenge we’re currently facing.

What makes climate change a human rights issue?
Increased temperatures are causing Arctic ice to melt, which is raising the sea levels and flooding low-lying areas which many people call home. If we continue at present rates, we could have hundreds of millions of eco-refugees worldwide by 2050.

Also, diseases that couldn’t survive in lower temperatures are thriving in a warming planet. For example, malaria and mosquito-borne diseases are expected to increase dramatically.

What about the role of the global economy?
We’re going to have food shortages, water shortages, and famines, and it’s going to affect every aspect of our lives — where we live, where we work, what we eat, what water we drink.

We’re also going to have – as we do already – wars over natural resources. The war in Iraq is a war for oil. Access to water plays a central role in the Darfur conflict. Water will be one of the most pressing crises moving forward.

So what do we do about climate change?
When we talk about reducing global warming here in the United States, we’re talking about reducing pollution and poverty at the same time. We can create five million green jobs in this country, and pathways out of poverty for millions of Americans, if we start focusing on a 21st century economy that’s built on smart, renewable energy rather than dirty, expensive fossil fuels.

And what will 1Sky do?
1Sky is a highly collaborative campaign in the United States to pass bold federal policy to tackle the climate challenge. There are three central elements to our policy platform: the creation of five million green jobs through a massive energy efficiency campaign, sharp cuts in greenhouse gas pollution — at least 25% reductions from 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050, and a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants coupled with incentives for renewable energy.

That’s a tall order. What’s 1Sky’s strategy for accomplishing these goals?
The strategy is to focus hundreds of thousands of citizens and organizations at a national level around that set of policy solutions. We have over 110,000 allied citizen advocates nationwide who take part in our national calls to action. We have over 200 allied organizations from many different sectors.

At this point we have the most widely endorsed policy platform on climate change in the country. We have 23 organizers in 20 states and 50 congressional districts trying to change the politics of what’s possible in Washington, D.C.

How does your experience at WITNESS inform your work at 1Sky?
1Sky is trying to build the most creative and effervescent nationwide movement in history, and a lot of that will be achieved through open source technology-based efforts like those at WITNESS.

And, in fact, just when you walked in I was designing this campaign: “Tell your climate reality.” I was imagining people videotaping or photographing their climate reality in every state in the country — because every state’s impacted, in very real ways, by climate change.

How do you feel about the transition you made?
It was very hard to leave WITNESS, but I feel that what I’m working on now is so related to the many issues I tackled for many years at WITNESS. So I don’t feel I’ve left civil rights advocacy, or human rights advocacy. I just feel like I’m trying to use my skills in a way that’s mission-critical and very time-sensitive.

This interview took place in two sessions and was edited and condensed.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

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