Delyse Sylvester, Principal of Social Currents, has spent years listening to mothers in suburban and rural communities across Canada on climate issues. In this feature interview, she talks about how a research project connected Canadians who do not directly engage with environmental messages. And why a sense of isolation is a motivation for climate communicators and other social change movements to examine more closely in an era of polarization.
The Energy Mix: Who’ve you been talking to and why?
Delyse Sylvester: Between 2016 and 2019, we listened to and shared mothers’ stories of their personal experiences in climate mitigation activities. By the end of the project we engaged 35,000 women—mostly mothers of young children.
About 50% of the women were from Alberta and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. 30% were scattered across suburban and rural areas. 20% were from major cities.
Our goal at the time was to understand the disconnect between Canadians’ rising concern about the climate crisis and the lower priority they were giving it in their lives and at the ballot box.
We wanted to understand what could be behind this perplexing disconnect.
The Mix: Why did you choose mothers as your focused audience?
Sylvester: While there is increasing interest now in connecting with mothers on climate issues, in 2016 it was a rather new audience and puzzling to some in the climate movement.
We chose mothers as a core influential audience after extensive research that revealed that mothers are a culture, a political and economic force. Mothers make 84% of domestic purchases and 91% of the real estate decisions. They are uber-networkers. They are able to rally other mothers online and offline. They also live the policy change and drive generational values and behaviours. Meaning, don’t touch a policy if mothers are fully behind it.
The research just kept adding up that mothers, outside the climate base, were a critical influential audience. And at the time of our research, they were not yet a focus for government and environmental NGOs.
The Mix: How did you listen to mothers outside the climate tent, and what did you find out?
Sylvester: We listened to mothers on Facebook. It’s where mothers gather, and still do. At the time of the project they were spending two to eight hours there every day.
What we found out is that mothers engage with climate information in a very different way than people in the climate tent.
Where climate communicators have climate issues at the nexus of the story, we found that mothers engaged when it was adjacent to the core story.
So direct climate policy appeals and increasing “conversion”-style awareness messages were not connecting with this audience.
The Mix: What was the centre of the stories if not climate?
Sylvester: The centre of the stories was consistently about how to break mothers’ sense of isolation. Climate mitigation information and activities were only of interest if they could show that they assisted mothers in building relationships that could help them overcome that isolation.
If the story did this, then mothers showed up with more than interest. Many mothers wanted to know how to get involved. And in many cases, how to start and lead climate mitigation activities in their own communities.
The research took place well before the pandemic. So I can imagine this interest in overcoming isolation has magnified.
We also learned that who told the story was as important as what the story was about. Only mothers who shared the same experience of a deep sense of isolation, feelings of being judged, and exhaustion, were the trusted peers who were influential in engaging mothers. There was much less response if the mothers we interviewed identified as climate professionals. They had to be of the audience.
We found that professional, climate-centred communication campaigns were not reaching mothers outside the climate base.
The Mix: How did you find all this out? How did you know they weren’t hearing climate messages?
Sylvester: Facebook is designed to be a marketing platform. It displays content to users to find out what their interests are so it can place ads in front of them, which fuels the company’s massive revenues. The platform keeps track of all the content you engage with via three actions: reacts, comments, and shares.
Facebook also keeps track of what content you don’t respond to. It will prioritize the content you interact with and place more of that in your feed. If you interact with something, the algorithm estimates that your friends and connections are more likely to interact with that content, as well, and that’s how things spread. All this data on interests and interactions allows Facebook to embed ads to an ever-growing number of people with increasing certainty about who will like and respond to the ads they’re being served.
Content providers appear on Facebook as “Pages”. You must have a Page to run ads, but Pages can also collect organic fans and followers. The average number of pages a person will “like” or follow is about 70.
35,000 women liked our Page ‘Whole Family Happiness’. That meant our content could now continually reach these 35,000 women and their Facebook friends.
When we looked at what other pages the women liked, we found no NGO or ENGO pages represented in Facebook’s affinity list. Not one page. In context, I have about 30 NGO and ENGO pages that I like, and that engagement shapes the type of content that often appears in my Facebook feed.
The data told us ENGOs were not reaching these mothers outside the climate tent. But also that virtually no content being published by NGOs or ENGOs was being picked up by our growing audience. So we were reaching an important audience outside the climate base.
When we invited the 35,000 women to engage more deeply together around the issues and themes of our page, 3,500 of them said yes and joined a closed group for that purpose. It all happened in less than two months, which also begins to suggest that this engagement has much more promise than direct climate conversion tactics.
But it’s also very important to set limits on Facebook.
In 2016 and 17, it was surfacing how the Facebook algorithm was being used to manipulate its users. Our team was tracking this very closely. And we took it very seriously. We felt we needed to be where the mothers were on Facebook, but not use tools and processes for manipulation. We developed a code of ethics that reflected the goals of the research project, which was to answer a core question, not to “convert” the mothers. We from the beginning set the standard of only posting content developed by mothers. We were also transparent about who we were, our intent, and also what funders were supporting our project.
The Mix: If isolation was their starting point, what were the climate-related topics that brought them together?
Sylvester: The big entry point was waste, because mothers have to manage so much of it in their households. It’s a big, isolating activity that just gets mothers feeling depressed.
So it started with peer influencers creating ‘mother huddles’ to get the waste out of their homes, neighbourhoods, and parks. Over time, mothers began to make connections to landfills, pollution, and eventually to the carbon conversation. And a small number of peer influencers we interviewed started organizing to lobby their municipal decision-makers for policy change.
We also found that many of the women who were nominated as community leaders and influencers were highly entrepreneurial. We’ve got a lot of environmental or ‘planet caring’ entrepreneurs out there.
Their messages weren’t ‘well, here is what you must do to save the planet’. It was ‘do you want to go on a walk together to deal with this trash so our kids are safe?’. Or ‘want to make friendships by swapping clothes and toys?’. Or ‘want to buy a beautiful, repurposed item?’. And then—‘let me tell you a little about the value-add of how we are caring for our planet by keeping more carbon out of the air’.
If we understand this trajectory and honour it, we can also focus climate communications on empowering trusted influencers to make the direct link to pollution and carbon and the ballot box. We can be of the community rather than broadcasting messages at the community.
The Mix: This seems like it makes a great deal of sense. Why are we not seeing more of this engagement approach given the climate urgency?
Sylvester: One reason, I think, is that it is very challenging to not deliver messages at people who we believe “just don’t get it”.
It’s human nature, as many academic studies will attest. We listen for and speak about what we believe in and discard what does not align. Mindset shifts that respect the experiences of others, that we don’t share, are harder than they should be. The DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] movement demonstrates every hour that this is a critical requirement in our human evolution. And it is increasingly clear we won’t survive if we don’t figure this out.
Our research was showing that to reach beyond our base, we need to step out of our worldview. We need to take a percentage of our communication budget to listen to another’s perspective. And commit to their needs and approaches.
For instance, if a climate activist went to our Whole Family Happiness page on Facebook, they likely would not relate to the content. Even the title could seem absurd. It is so different from what we’re used to seeing as policy-driven professionals.
But it’s not created for a climate activist. It’s full of content, interviews, memes, and comments that were designed by the mothers outside of the base. And it resonates by and for them.
Honestly, this was the most challenging project I’ve ever led. Not only to find ways to slow down and develop a real project that seeks to understand first, in service of answering an important research question. But it also required dismantling my own activist mindset and calming my own panic. I mean, at the time of the project, we had a pending critical federal election and the  IPCC report forecasting a code red warning on climate. The stakes could not be higher in the history of the planet.
I felt most days between a rock and a hard place. I felt my own sense of shared urgency with climate colleagues and climate funders. I knew this project might not be well received because the answers were not ones that our sector wanted to hear, that we cannot “convert” people who don’t share our worldview.
I do see climate communication changing. However, I still feel the mindset shift, to seek to understand first over conversion tactics, is not at the level of sophistication that we need.
The Mix: How did you meet this challenge? How did you get out of your own way in this research?
Sylvester: I committed to finding a team of creatives who demonstrated real maturity in managing bias. I knew the creatives must be of the audience. So all of them, with the exception of one team member (now soon to be a mom), were mothers of children under 12. And they resonated with the intensity of mothering. They were a mature group that could hold the need to listen, understand, and find ways to amplify mother influencer voices, while also bringing insight to the climate communication research question. A very fine balance.
I called them the culture creative team. And they were the first line of trusted peers. They were able to engage and build the trust of other mother peer influencers working on climate solutions in communities across Canada.
The Mix: So what you found is that mothers outside the tent are engaged with climate, but not at all engaged with the climate community?
Sylvester: This is a good news story. Climate education, awareness, and mitigation activities are happening in every community across Canada. But it’s often an invisible climate community. Because they do not share climate narratives, stories, or actions in the way we typically identify with. That is our sector’s responsibility—to seek to understand first.
We learned from the mothers how climate mitigation can be at a critical intersection in addressing the isolation pandemic. These mothers are pointing the way on how to prioritize engagement in climate conversations by focusing on breaking isolation through climate activities their peers develop. I believe we need to listen to these important insights instead of deploying broadcast conversion tactics at this audience.
The Mix: Your research ran from 2016 to 2019. What have the women been doing since then?
Sylvester: We went back in 2020 to see how the influencers were doing, especially the very successful ones whose stories garnered hundreds of reactions, shares, and comments.
Many of the influencers said they were overwhelmed with the response. One of them said she had to stop because there were too many requests to help create chapters across the country. Others said the volunteer work was taxing and for economic reasons they needed to focus on finding employment to assist their families.
Again, mothers are telling us practically what they need. Just imagine shifting some of our funding to support peer influencer climate initiatives and entrepreneurial business start-ups to mitigate waste? Again, we would be of the community, and that is a critical place to start conversations about needed policy and voting decisions.
The Mix: You’ve been trying to share your results across the climate community. How’s that been going?
Sylvester: I am grateful for what our climate community is achieving. People could not be more passionate or working harder to deliver effective climate messaging. And the base is growing, which is critical.
I see communications as a pie with many wedges. We need to dedicate a good portion to support and focus on the climate base. Other wedges are needed to experiment with new marketing and broadcast strategies.
And we need to dedicate a few communication wedges that require us to step out of our base mindset and let peer influencers lead. Because they already know how to reach audiences that we haven’t to date.
The Mix: Given the urgency, how effective is this strategy if it has such a seemingly long tail?
Sylvester: If we look historically at stable policy change, that is, policy that isn’t knocked about by constant left/right ping pong politics, it is always about deep cultural commitments.
Mothers are a very good bet. They have led dramatic and resilient social policy change when they’ve perceived a threat to their own and their loved ones’ well-being: criminalizing drunk driving; banning indoor smoking; breastfeeding rights; demedicalization of death through the hospice movement. It’s a long list. Mothers do need to be listened to when developing and communicating policy change.
But they do not respond to being told what to do by professionals whose messages and actions can be at cross-purposes. They trust peers who have similar life experiences, who see and understand their full complexity and agency.
In this way, mothers are continually showing the climate sector that trust is the cornerstone of cultural change. And we need to save a few funding pie wedges to recognize there are some people for whom we are not trusted messengers. And respect and empower those who are.
The Mix: Is your research relevant today?
In 2021, Stats Canada found that one in 10 Canadians reported being always or often lonely. And one in five experience loneliness. Clearly a great number of Canadians are suffering. And the numbers are growing ever faster through this pandemic.
Five years ago, in our research, mothers showed us that isolation is a primary motivation for behaviour change. It isn’t too far a jump to consider that all kinds of activities, for example those that polarize, will get the attention of people who are isolated.
Meaning people will continue to seek a way out of their isolation by looking for opportunities to create community. It can be a community that actively foments anger and othering. Or it can be communities that actively create connections to address climate, racism, homelessness, or the opioid crisis, for example.
In our research, mothers showed us how to build the latter. We didn’t tell them. This is the communication mindset shift. And we found it to be timely, humbling and insightful instruction for our climate and social sector.