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Activist Training
by Heather Coleman

I was a brand-new idealistic college grad one month into my stint as a RAC Legislative Assistant (LA) when I was asked to represent the Religious Action Center at a high-level cocktail gathering in the Capitol to celebrate the Senate’s legislative victory on a nuclear-waste disposal issue. As the LA with the environmental issues portfolio, I would stand in for the RAC’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, who had 10 other engagements that evening.

Nervous about attending my first big event, I studied up on nuclear-waste issues and rehearsed the script I’d use in the event that I encountered any senators who’d voted for the legislation.

In the packed hall, I mingled...and then suddenly found myself face-to-face with a tall congressman—but had absolutely no idea who he was! Trying to conceal my panic, I thanked him for his vote supporting the bill. He asked me where I was from, and when I told him Sudbury, Massachusetts, he began to pepper me with questions. All I could do was nod politely, and he quickly caught on: “You have no idea who I am, do you?” Looking down at my shoes and had to confess: “I do not.” That congressman was Ed Markey (D-MA), who for 20 years had represented the district abutting the one I grew up—and he was a congressional champion on environmental issues! He proceeded to lecture me about how I should study my congressional facebook before going to gatherings on the Hill, and to start reading the newspaper.

On the way home I stopped at a pay phone and called RAC Assistant Director Mark Pelavin in tears, fearing I’d just given the RAC a bad name. Consoling me, Mark said I’d have to develop a thicker skin to survive as the Washington advocate I wanted to be. He promised that I would look back at this incident as a small bump in my long road of activism. He was right.

Benefiting from my RAC activist training, I worked for several years in environmental communications and now serve as a senior policy analyst on climate change for Oxfam America, promoting solutions both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and to help the communities most affected by climate change. In this capacity I partner with many of the same religious community advocates I worked with at the RAC.

There’s a difference though: Back in the mid-90s, the religious community was just beginning to engage in environmental issues; today, it is no longer a rarity for a rabbi, a priest, and an Evangelical minister to join forces in lobbying a congressman on global warming legislation in the name of social justice—to protect the world’s most vulnerable communities from the potential impact of climate change.

Thanks to the RAC, this idealistic young person who wanted to make the world a better place is working to do just that.

Heather Kaplan Coleman was part of the class of 1997/98 at the RAC. She currently is a senior policy advisor on climate change at Oxfam America and serves on the board of the U.S. Climate Action Network.


Union for Reform Judaism.