YPCCC Partnerships Interview with Interfaith Power & Light (IPL)’s Rev. Susan Hendershot and Tiffany Hartung

Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) works in all 50 states and U.S. territories with a broad national network of state- and regional-level affiliates. The organization inspires and mobilizes people of faith and conscience to take bold and just action on climate change. Their work has reached over 6.5 million people over the past 25 years, making deep value-based connections with the issue of climate change and inspiring people to take bold and just action on climate change in their own communities. IPL’s mission and messaging, in combination with YPCCC tools and resources, demonstrates a particularly successful environmental communications strategy that connects shared values and identity with civic engagement and mobilization for climate action.

Natasha Feshbach and Cora Hagens from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program had the opportunity to sit down with Reverend Susan Hendershot, President of IPL (pictured on the left) since 2018, and Tiffany Hartung, IPL’s Chief Strategy Officer (pictured on the right) to learn more about climate communications, their civic engagement work, and their ongoing partnership with YPCCC.

Side by side headshots. Rev. Susan Hendershot is on the left. She is shown in front of the US Capitol. She is a white woman with light hair, a black shirt, and white pants. Tiffany Hartung is pictured to the right. She is a white woman in a black suit with a purple shirt. Tiffany has light brown hair.

Natasha: I would love to hear from both of you how you found your way into the climate space, into the climate movement, and then eventually to Interfaith Power & Light. 

Susan: Okay, it’s a long and winding road! I’m ordained clergy, so I served congregations in Iowa before I came into the climate space. But at the time, the issue I focused on was hunger. Interestingly enough, I attended a workshop that Iowa Interfaith Power & Light put on where I learned about the connection between climate and food scarcity and global hunger. That was my entry point to the climate space–realizing that if I want to actually solve hunger, I need to work on climate change. I stepped into the role as the director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, which was just a really good fit for me because it connected the justice issues that I care about with continuing to work with the faith community, which was really important to me. I feel like the faith voice has a deep value-based connection to the issue of climate, and it can be very transformative for people to work on an issue connected with their deeper spiritual values. I moved into this role [as President of IPL] when our founder retired, and staying with the network has been great. I love the IPL network and love the work that our affiliates are doing, and so I’m glad to be able to support that in my role at the national level.

Natasha: The interconnections of food and climate and social issues are such an important gateway into thinking about climate and thinking about public health, thank you for sharing that. How about you, Tiffany? 

Tiffany: I started out working as a campus organizer for the PIRG [Public Interest Research Group, and then moved into environmental justice work in Tennessee in the early 2000s. I worked with communities opposing mountaintop removal for coal mining among other coal mining-related issues, and so I sort of inadvertently ended up doing climate work, because that was climate related. I later did some other tax fairness work in Tennessee at the state level, and then moved into working with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign in Michigan. I started working with IPL in 2020 around the time of their civic engagement and electoral work in the 2020 election with the Faith Climate Justice Voter Campaign– a campaign that YPCCC advised on.

Natasha: You both bring up interdisciplinary connections within your interests and a shared path to climate work through elements of environmental justice, which is such a palpable core of the work that IPL is doing. I’m sure that it can be very challenging to engage with so many different people and also to be at the head of this network with such diverse placed-based contingencies of your organization. Can you share more about your organization’s approach to communications in this space, especially as a faith-based organization? 

Susan: So one thing I wanted to share with you is how I first connected with Yale resources because it also relates to our approach to communications. When I was still working at Iowa IPL, I became familiar with the Six Americas study. Having a way to talk about where people fit on a continuum was incredibly helpful because I think before that there seemed to be a complete dichotomy between activists and climate change deniers. Being able to see that people exist along a continuum rather than a binary was really valuable to our thinking as an organization.

So when I get asked, “How are you changing the mind of climate deniers?”, I’d say I’m not really focused on that. What we’re focused on is engaging the people who either already care about the issue or are in that movable middle where they could be moved to act on this issue if they hear about it more and understand the connection to their lives. We could just decide that we’re going to use the same messaging as other environmental organizations, but we’re just going to slap some religious language into it. But for us at IPL, I think we’re trying to be more focused about how we talk about climate change as a moral issue. All of our religious traditions have something to say about the moral mandate to care for the earth and for those who are most vulnerable. Climate is an issue that impacts both of those things. We’ve tuned in to make sure that we are focused on that in whatever ways we’re communicating. Tiffany, you jump in.

Tiffany: We also really like the research and polling that YPCCC produces. We use that research to help guide our messaging and our communications because it’s helpful to have the science to understand how we can be most effective with our work and communications.

Natasha: That’s great, we’re really glad that you’ve been able to use YPCCC resources to identify who you want to talk to. I would love to hear about your first connection with YPCCC on the civic engagement campaign in 2020. How did that start?

Tiffany: During the 2020 presidential election campaign, YPCCC helped provide strategic advice and guidance on our nonpartisan, civic engagement campaign design. We worked with YPCCC to identify voters who are climate Alarmed, people of faith, and infrequent voters. Our volunteers then reached out via peer-to-peer texting to those folks with our value- and faith-based messaging that Susan mentioned to encourage them to vote and to check their voter registration.

Natasha: We’ve seen in all kinds of experiments and campaigns that connection to a shared identity is an incredibly powerful communication tool, and IPL is a great example of this in practice. I would love you both to shine a light on what you think your organization does well. What do you feel makes the work your organization does so successful?

Susan: One of the big things is that we are focused on constant improvement and learning. We went through a pretty extensive strategic planning process in 2020 and decided to double down on policy advocacy, community engagement, and our commitment to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. IPL is also unique and powerful because we are both a national organization and also have grassroots work that’s happening around the country. We could just be a loose collection of affiliates, but we take a coordinated approach and we work very closely with our 40+ affiliates around the country.

Tiffany: Yes, we have such a wide reach within the faith community to all of our affiliates across the country and all of the congregations that they work with, especially given the additional reach of faith leaders and lay leaders in those 22,000+ congregations around the country.

Susan: My feeling is that we’ve become well known for our policy advocacy, as one of the main faith-based climate-focused organizations in the US that is working on federal policy. We have a reputation for being a good partner in the space and for being a group that many other groups look to for leadership, which I’m very proud of.

Lastly, we do a good job of drawing people into our organization in a number of different ways. Some folks come to us because they sign an action alert, while other folks participate in Faith Climate Action Week with their congregation, while others connect with us through our solar webinars when their congregation is doing solar. We weave those things together so that folks are empowered to take personal action, have agency over what they can control in their homes and their places of worship, and can have an impact on the things that are going on in their community. We always give people a number of things that they can do to take action so that they feel empowered and feel like part of a community of folks who are also working on this issue because of their deeply held values.

Natasha: Conversely, I’m interested in learning about the greatest challenge you face in communicating these issues and getting people to engage.

Susan: My first thought is just that there’s so much noise in the space, right? There are so many things that are competing for folks’ attention. A major part of our work is trying to connect the issue of climate and environmental justice to the issues that people already care about. This kind of goes back to my own story of working on hunger, in that it wasn’t that I didn’t care about climate change, it just felt like that wasn’t my issue. Once I recognized the connection between climate and my issue, then it was clear to me why I needed to work on this. In many congregations and communities, their issues and needs have not been about climate–they’ve been about hunger, or racism, or needing shelter, or bringing refugees into the community. If we can have the right conversations and communicate effectively, we can draw connections for folks between climate and the exacerbation of all of these issues. It’s not to say that we don’t need to work on the other issues, it’s just to say that climate has to be a part of how we work on the other issues.

Natasha: Absolutely! We need to meet people where they are and help them make these connections. We’re running out of time, so I want to end on a hopeful note. I would love to hear from you both about what keeps you excited about this work and keeps you hopeful moving forward?

Susan: For me, what keeps me energetic around this is the community of people who are working on this issue. I get so much energy from our staff at IPL. We have so many partners that we work with who are just great people doing really impressive work, and I think hearing about what other folks are doing and being in a regular relationship with them keeps me from just burning out at the end of the day. I’m really deeply grateful for all of our partners that we work with.

Tiffany: Exactly the same for me. What inspires me and keeps me going is hearing about the work our affiliates are doing or getting an email from a congregation leader talking about the work that they’re doing. Learning and asking questions and just seeing all the things that are happening, that’s what keeps me going.