Photo: Brendan Davis

Why Local Advocacy Matters

Pro trail runner Clare Gallagher shares her journey from social media superstar to backyard canvasser—and how it’s changed her life.

Planet-size problems don’t always need planet-size solutions. In fact, according to pro trail runner and environmental advocate Clare Gallagher, that’s one of the biggest fallacies of climate change discourse—not to mention one of the biggest reasons young environmentalists get overwhelmed and discouraged. If we want to beat this thing, she says, we have to think smaller—both for our own good and the good of the planet. 

Sound contradictory? Think again. While sweeping national and global policies do matter, Gallagher says the real key to solving climate change lies at the local level. And she means really local. Like, the town-council, city-park, neighborhood-HOA kind of local. 

If you think those kinds of entities sound too small to matter, you’re not alone; Gallagher once felt the same way. Rewind to 2016, when her advocacy career started in earnest. That August, at age 24, Gallagher won the notoriously difficult Leadville 100 Run, becoming the first woman to cross the finish line after 19 straight hours of trail running. It was her first-ever 100-mile race—and a grueling one at that, with a route covering a whopping 5,700 feet of elevation gain on a course over 9,000 feet above sea level.

At the time, finishing the Leadville 100 was one of the hardest things Gallagher had ever done. It was also a huge honor: She’d grown up in Colorado. The opportunity to compete—and win—one of the state’s most prestigious races was a dream come true.

But that’s not the reason it changed her life. Not exactly. After crossing the finish line, a win of that stature started sinking in. “I realized, ‘Oh, I’m going to be doing this professionally,’” she recalls. “I felt so privileged to become a professional runner and get to see amazing trails and work with amazing brands, but there was also this somber feeling, this anxiousness.” 

The unease she chalked up to larger threats to environmental conservation causes. When newly elected President Trump set to work pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords, Gallagher needed to do more: “I felt like it wouldn’t be right to just focus on running,” she says. “When I run on trails, I’m taking in some ways. And I knew I had to give back.”

Making an Impact

To start, she wanted to reach as many people as possible. Gallagher figured, as many people do, that going big was the best way to make an impact. So, she joined climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters, where she started lobbying for state- and national-level climate policies. She also did advocacy work in her spare time, leveraging her social media accounts to spread the word about environmental issues.

At first, it felt like it was working. On social media, she was getting tons of likes and engagement. People were responding. They were sending her personal messages and asking questions. But after a few years, she realized that the actual change she was trying to create just wasn’t there. She was spending tons of time and effort responding to those messages—many of which came from trolls, strangers whose minds she’d never be able to change, no matter how hard she tried. It was draining her. 

Around that same time, Gallagher started to get involved in local politics, working on grassroots campaigns that relied almost entirely on high-quality interactions, one-on-one (basically the opposite of social media). She started going to town council meetings. She volunteered to stand outside grocery stores collecting signatures. 

“I realized that talking one-on-one with real humans—that’s the thread that holds the woven quilt of society together,” she said. “Doing this kind of work was better for me. It gave me insight into what was happening in my own backyard, it’s been more fulfilling, and it’s given me a lot more empathy. I think social media lulled me into thinking I knew everything, and that it had to be my way or the highway. In reality, life is so much more complicated.”

She also realized something else. Essentially, a house is only as good as its foundation. We can ask President Biden to end Arctic drilling, but it will only do so much good if we don’t back it up with divestment policies at the local level. Louisville, Colorado, for example, is looking to become the second city in the state to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings, Gallagher says. That’s another small step toward a greener future—and a step Gallagher has been a big supporter of.

Logic in Local 

Today, Gallagher has intentionally shrunk her social media presence, but she remains one of the more formidable competitors in American trail running, and one of the sport’s best-known environmental advocates. Right now, she’s focused on preparing for the 2023 race season, and getting out the vote for the midterms—especially at the local level.

That kind of local involvement is something Gallagher thinks everyone should try, both as a way to intimately understand the issues facing your own community and as a way to find empowerment amid the climate crisis. After all, it’s easy to feel disillusioned when you know you’re a drop in the bucket. But at a local level, everyone has the opportunity to be a significant part of the solution. That agency can build confidence that snowballs into even bigger actions down the line. The secret, though, is to start small.

If you’re already voting regularly, Gallagher recommends volunteering as a poll-worker in local elections as the next step. “Most cities and counties are in need of volunteers,” she says. “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our political systems.” If you’re more passionate about a particular candidate, reach out to their campaign to see how you can be involved. Remember that no action is too small.

“It can be death by 1,000 cuts or success by 1,000 cuts,” Gallagher says. “If we can take care of our backyard in every city and make these strong, smart policy decisions in our hometowns, we’ll get there.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.