Kayaktivism: Redefining “Raise the Paddle”

In philanthropic circles the phrase “raise the paddle” might bring to mind nonprofit auctions and fundraising events. But in SVP Partner, Kathy Washienko’s story it, it takes on a whole new meaning.

In the early afternoon of Thursday, May 14th, my cell phone buzzed. Shell’s Arctic drilling rig, the Polar Pioneer, was on the move from Everett to Seattle; could I make it to Alki to protest? Shell’s strategy seemed to be to sneak the rig into Seattle before the big protests planned for the upcoming weekend.

Glad it wasn’t my day to drive afterschool carpool, I headed over to Alki. I don’t own a kayak, so I needed to rent one. And what I really hoped to find was a willing partner for a double kayak who could do the steering! Happily, I did. There weren’t many of us who could show up at the last-minute in the middle of a work day, but the few dozen of us who took to the water on Thursday were mighty in spirit.

While seeing that enormous rig round the tip of Alki, especially from the vantage point of a kayak, was a sobering experience; helping to unfurl and hold aloft a banner “Arctic Drilling = Climate Chaos” (no small logistical feat!) was energizing and empowering.

polar pioneer may 14 2015 kathy kayak

Come Saturday, I wavered about whether I would head back to the water. But being among others fighting for social change inspires me, so I decided to head out again. This time, when I made it to Alki, all the kayaks were already rented out, but paddleboards were still available . . .

Now, I’ve gone paddleboarding before, but never in a big crowd and never on water I was afraid might give me hypothermia if I fell in. So I paddled on my knees, a not-super-efficient way to cover the long distance I needed to go to catch up with the flotilla. (And one my quads would complain about for the next few days!)   But I finally made it to the hundreds of other paddlers, including several Native longboats, out that day and joined in the chants and songs – a very moving and inspiring experience.

So how is my kayaktivism connected to SVP?

I’ve long been engaged in environmental issues, and have focused on climate change for many years. Logically, my first SVP volunteering was on the Environmental Grant Committee a few years ago. Then, last year, I joined the second cohort of the Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship, a joint program of SVP and several local foundations. That process pushed me to identify and outline my theory of change for working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep the world under 2C.

As you might imagine, my theory of change identified many fronts on which the fight against climate change needs to be fought. My flowchart sketched out the need and opportunities for Changes in Policies, in Attitudes, and on the Ground, all potentially mutually-reinforcing, ranging from local to international in scope, and divided into the need to both ‘block the bad’ and to ‘advance the good.’

An ideal outcome of my and others’ recent kayaktivism would have been a tangible ‘Change on the Ground’ (or the Water) to block a bad – had we successfully blocked Shell’s ability to drill for oil the climate cannot have us burn, in an ecologically fragile area where a spill will be near-impossible to ‘clean up.’

While we may not have achieved that, I nonetheless believe that protests like these are an important part of creating ‘Changes in Attitudes.’ Every time we say “No” to further and more extreme fossil fuel extraction, we raise awareness that we simply can’t continue to develop major new, long-lived, fossil fuel infrastructure and resources, and still have a chance at stabilizing global temperatures below a 2C rise.

And as the cover of ‘The Stranger’ touted, our kayaks were ‘seen round the world.’ As I refuse to leave my children a world beyond fixing, I’m hopeful it’s all part of our journey to a more stable climate future for all our kids.

Kathy Washienko

Kathy Washienko earned her BA at Harvard College and her MPH at the University of Michigan, before working as a public health researcher in HIV prevention at the University of Washington.  She currently serves as a Senior Partner for Climate Strategies with Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions.   She is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, recently served on Seattle’s Green Ribbon Commission, and is a member of Element 8, a clean-tech angel investor group. She co-founded two local “green teams” and personally gathered over 500 signatures to qualify Washington state’s clean energy initiative for the ballot.  She lives in Seattle, where she is raising two daughters.

You can follow Kathy on Twitter.