As the director of the Sierra Club’s Democracy Program, National Citizen Leadership Conference speaker Courtney Hight works at the intersection of democracy reform and environmental justice. She enriches the Sierra Club’s environmental efforts by weaving voting rights, money in politics, and grassroots activism into the fabric of the organization. Hight says big money in politics manipulates decision-makers and affects policy around almost every other issue impacting our lives. The lack of action toward solving the global climate crisis is just one demonstration of the way industry dollars stymie legislative action.

“One of the reasons Congress has yet to pass comprehensive climate legislation is because of billions of dollars of official and secret donations from the oil, gas and coal industries to members of Congress—even though a majority of Americans want action on climate,” Hight says. “We need the people we elect to be accountable to the people they represent, not campaign donors.”

Citizens are elevating their voices to be heard over the “political free speech” from wealthy corporations and lobbyists. Last month, millions of people were galvanized to participate in the Global Climate Strike. And, by taking action in their communities, mobilized citizens are also achieving huge victories in the fight for democracy reform and the 28th Amendment to get big money out of politics.

“Citizen engagement is the reason so much progress has been made at the local and state level over the past few years,” Hight says. “People have been driving successful campaigns to create small donor public financing at local and state level from Seattle to Maine to Washington, D.C.”

Looking ahead, Hight is optimistic about the future of America where We the People govern. Although the concentrated power of the wealthy few is strong, Americans can achieve democracy reform with a coordinated, empowered network of citizens.

“We are being strangled by a small handful of people who don’t represent the majority,” Hight says. “If we truly had a government, of, by and for the people, it would look and act a whole lot different. When we have that, we can have cleaner air and water, healthier and safer communities, a better educated population, and a country where decision-making is driven by fairness and equity—not who has the biggest wallet.”

NCLC is Oct. 19-21 in the Washington D.C. metro. Join us! Can’t come? Follow along on our social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.