Marshall Saunders succeeded by empowering others

Marshall Saunders was a friend, a mentor, a pioneer and an example. He passed away at home, surrounded by loved ones, yesterday at the age of 80. I first met him in 2010, when I joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby as a volunteer. I quickly came to know three things about Marshall that I believe never failed to be true of him:

  1. He dared to say preventable injustice must be prevented;
  2. He led with a rare combination of confidence and humility;
  3. He trusted people to live up to their desire to do good for others.

Nearly 4 decades ago, Marshall made the decision to devote his life to combatting poverty. Working with the Hunger Project, the Grameen Bank, and RESULTS, he spent decades delivering micro loans (more than 1 million) and supporting legislation to combat poverty, hunger and disease.

There were 25 people at the first annual CCL conference in June 2010.

In 2007, Marshall founded Citizens’ Climate Lobby, because he had come to understand that climate disruption would force hundreds of millions of people into unconscionable vulnerability, deprivation, and displacement. True to his character, he understood this injustice was preventable, committed to lead with confidence and humility, and trusted that others would rise to the hard work of patiently, diligently building political will.

The first local chapter began with 29 people. At the time of Marshall’s passing, 12 years later, there were 175,000 CCL members, spread across every US state and a total of 55 countries on 6 continents.

By June 2019, there were so many CCL volunteers going to Capitol Hill at once, staging a group photo required logistical coordination.

My own last significant experience with Marshall was when I had the honor of listening to him speak to a group of young people (aged 10 to 16) who were going to Capitol Hill for the first time, to talk to members of Congress about their concerns. He didn’t try to teach them or steer them or give them talking points; he told them about his own first meeting, nearly 40 years ago, and how nervous he had been.

He told them that their power was in being themselves. He assured them that their own natural voice and their own genuine thoughts were what was most needed. He assured them that the nation’s leaders needed that honest moment as much as they needed any other kind of guidance. The confidence he gave them was palpable, and their gratitude was so rich it still gives me chills to think about it.

I have the privilege of representing the Citizens’ Climate Lobby family on the world stage. The very fact of such widespread ongoing citizen engagement compels people accustomed to the tidal forces of geopolitics to take a breath and contemplate the power of a commitment to basic decency.

Marshall cherished the opportunity to stand with citizen volunteers talking to their elected officials. His mission was to make democracy work as it should.

That is the beating heart of what Marshall created: an opportunity for people to do what should be done, if our aim is to be decent to each other, and to future generations, in the way we give life to our civic space.

I am grateful to Marshall for his trust and friendship, for his character and forthrightness, and for the deep and lasting friendships he has made possible.

Standing in front of a room of 1,000 CCL volunteers, Marshall memorably remarked “You are a dream come true.” Because so much depends on that dream coming true, we will work to bring it to people around the world—to heal the ethical fabric of our politics and industry and make right our relationship to the climate system.

Thank you, Marshall, for seeing what needed to be done, and for inviting us to do the work alongside you.

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