Remembering "The Detroit Project"

I realized that if I was going to have an impact on these issues, I was going to have to understand that being attacked is part of being in the debate -- and not let it paralyze me.
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One of the scariest experiences I've had was when I was working with Arianna on a campaign she undertook called "The Detroit Project." To parody the Bush Administration commercials, we made several commercials connecting the dots between people's purchase of SUVs, the extra gas required for them, and where the money ultimately ends up (not-so-freedom-loving governments in the Mideast).

I was very passionate about the need for us to get the debate going on the viability of SUVs, but nobody was talking about it. So we made these commercials, and we had a press conference. Now, I wasn't that experienced in the world of activism at the time. I mean, I had done political fund-raising at my house, and I was working with the Natural Resources Defense Council, but The Detroit Project was really my first step into a bigger arena. I was very grateful to have Arianna as a front person for me.

So we held a press conference, and we all spoke, and we showed the commercials; a lot of media showed up. We actually tried to purchase some ad time on the networks to show the ads, but they all rejected us. And then literally within one day, the news that the ads were being rejected spread like wildfire -- it was like throwing a match on a haystack. Suddenly, the commercial was airing all over the place for free! I don't think I understood how quickly this could happen. I had hoped something would happen, but I had no idea how suddenly this little project could become such a spark for the debate on SUVs and energy policy.

I remember the first night it all started. It had been a good day, and I was settling down to sleep. I should preface this by telling you that I like to listen to the radio before I go to sleep. Sometimes I'll actually put a little transistor radio under my pillow and fall asleep to it.

So that night, I'm incredibly tired, and feeling really good and sleepy, and I put the radio under the pillow, and press the "on" button. Well, the dial must have shifted, because suddenly what I hear is a right-wing radio station and they're screaming about the SUV ads, and who do these people think they are, and then they're screaming about me. I'm hearing them actually scream my name, and Arianna's -- just ripping us with personal attacks.

The majority of it, of course, was aimed at Arianna, since she was much better known. But I remember laying there shaking, just shaking. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that it could just jump across the road that fast, and I couldn't believe how personal the attacks were. And I mean, I remember feeling scared to death -- it really shook me up. But I talked to Arianna about it a lot, and she was so courageous. To her, it was like water off a duck -- it just rolled off her back. She didn't absorb the negativity at all. I remember being so impressed with that, and saying to myself, okay, I've gotta learn how to do that, too.

I think it was that weekend or the weekend after that I was on a ski trip with a bunch of friends. The phone rang, and it was for me, which was weird, because nobody knew we were there. It was Bobby Kennedy, Jr. calling. He'd just seen the ads on a talk show (they were still being rejected as actual commercials) and said he was floored by them. He said he just wanted to call and let me know how amazing he thought the ads were and how glad he was that they were shining a light on how bad the fuel economy is with these SUVs, and what an accomplishment it was getting it all done.

At the time, I knew Bobby only vaguely -- we were friendly, but not close. So it really meant a lot to get a call from him like that. After that conversation, I started to feel like, okay, we're really doing something here. I also remember telling him how shaken up I was by the personal attacks. "Laurie," he said, "that's the first sign that you're having an impact -- you can't change the world and not have people come after you who don't want you to change the world."

That was when I realized that, if I'm going to have an impact on these issues, I'm going to have to understand that being attacked is part of being in the debate, and I just have to accept this and not let it paralyze me -- and remember that it's simply a sign that you're having an impact and getting through to them.

-- As written for On Becoming Fearless ... In Love, Work and Life.If you haven't already visited our new Becoming Fearless section, click here for more blog posts, news stories, and special features on relationships, work, parenting, health, sex . . . life.

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