Rob Friedman isn’t afraid to ask for directions.
In November 2016, that’s exactly what the NRDC campaigner did when he traveled from New York to North Dakota to spend five days at Standing Rock, where thousands have gathered since August to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Much of the work in building just, equitable relationships with communities—regardless of the fight and the struggle they’re in—is showing up and asking, in person, ‘How can we support you?’ Then you need to follow through accordingly.”
With the weather turning cold, Friedman pitched in wherever he could. He joined a construction crew to build makeshift winterized shelters, or “tarpees.” He witnessed the unbridled assault on the peaceful water protectors by militarized police and jumped into the role of transport medic, ferrying people with hypothermia who’d been shot by water cannons and others wounded by rubber bullets and tear gas.
“Here you basically have people being forced at gunpoint to drink contaminated water,” he says of the pipeline that would transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil a day beneath Lake Oahe and through sacred Sioux Nation burial sites.
The tensions at Standing Rock had been brewing for years before this dramatic standoff. Tribal officials had voiced their objections to the pipeline’s route beginning in September 2014, at a meeting with company representatives. That was the month in which Dakota Access changed the pipeline route from a previous path across the Missouri River just north of Bismarck. “The community of Bismarck, which is predominantly white, was able to say, ‘We don’t want this pipeline going through our watershed.’ It’s a difficult pill to swallow, seeing it firsthand and recognizing the issue as deep systemic injustice that’s based on race and socioeconomic status,” Friedman says.
Injustice is exactly what Friedman campaigns against, a cause nurtured in him since his childhood in the village of Hastings-on-Hudson, some 10 miles north of New York City. The picturesque suburb is known for its striking Hudson River views, but also for the decades-old inactive toxic waste site on its waterfront. With his mother—whose own work centers on energy justice issues—Friedman attended public hearings about the town’s polluted site in the late 1990s. These forums would later inspire his first job, working on a boat and conducting water-quality sampling for Riverkeeper, a grassroots environmental organization based in New York’s Hudson Valley.
“We would routinely see people on a hot day swimming in these sewage outfalls. If you don’t post signs around a waterway in multiple languages, you’re going to have people swimming in polluted water,” he says.
The data he collected was instrumental in creating New York’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know law in 2012, which requires the state to notify the public when raw or partially treated sewage is discharged into waterways. “It was my first taste of lawmaking, and it was a big victory,” he says. “It showed that when you bridge science with community outreach and policy advocacy—when you put the data in the hands of the people—it can be tremendously powerful.”
Friedman is a self-described idealist, but he’s certainly not naïve. Over the course of his education and career, he has witnessed both the positive outcomes and the frustrations of environmentalism in action. In 2009 on a trip to the United Nations climate negotiations in Copenhagen, he recalls the disconnect between the negotiators who were there conducting business and the young people who were there advocating for policy change—“for their very existence,” he adds. “There was a huge gulf. It was difficult to see how little progress was being made.”
Friedman has also witnessed the impacts of climate change firsthand, while studying in Tanzania as a college student. He spent time in a Masai community where a historic drought had struck, killing cattle—the main source of income for this pastoralist tribe—and causing devastated elders to take their own lives. He worked with coastal fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened by rising sea temperatures. “I saw how climate change can dismantle cultures,” he says. “We don’t often talk about it in those terms, but human relations are being ripped apart by the continued burning of fossil fuels.”
Through his work at NRDC, Friedman is aiming to chip away at the inequalities that give rise to so many of the environmental movement’s battles. The primary tool in his arsenal is communication—and listening to the viewpoints of diverse groups of stakeholders to bring them together. “We need to build bridges between older and younger generations, with low-income folks, communities of color, native peoples, and all different types of communities,” he says.
As he gears up for an increasingly difficult struggle in the wake of the U.S. presidential election, Friedman is collaborating with community-based partners on climate justice and anti-fossil fuel initiatives. He continues to advocate for his hometown river, working to stop the expansion of crude oil transport on the Hudson, and he’s fighting fracking across the Northeast, including the proposed Constitution Pipeline, which would run from Pennsylvania to New York. He is also working with partner groups to facilitate a forum to discuss how large environmental organizations and local associations can come together to support state and national climate policy.
“NRDC’s community partners have on-the-ground expertise that we don’t,” says Friedman. “I work to make sure we’re fostering meaningful relationships while respecting that these communities are dealing with more than just extraction. Oftentimes they’re dealing with police violence, gender violence, mass incarceration—all these different aspects of oppression.”
Building transparent relationships with communities while leveraging the resources—legal, political, and other—that organizations like NRDC offer has proved to be a powerful approach. “We’re not successful if we’re siloed,” Friedman says. “If you look at the campaign against fracking in New York State or the campaign against the Keystone XL Pipeline, what has happened in each instance is communities leading the charge, with national organizations supporting them from behind. When those two sectors of the movement are aligned, things become infinitely more possible because you’re coupling the local ground game and local organizing capacity with the state and national advocacy.”
In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, NRDC is also working to reform the federal permitting process that inappropriately fast-tracked this project. But given the dreary outlook for native land rights and environmental issues under the new administration, Friedman’s work to partner with communities in their own backyards will become increasingly important.
Looking forward, Friedman will continue his efforts to lift up the perspective, voice, and work of frontline and environmental justice communities across the country. “We’re building for the long haul,” he says. Guaranteed, he’ll continue showing up and asking, in person, “How can I help?”