Photo of Jenny Zimmer
Problem Addressed Climate Change, Threats to Voting Rights
Solution Trained to be a movement organizer
Location North Carolina
Impact National

What she’s done

Jenny Marienau Zimmer trained to be a movement organizer, an essential role in democracy that rarely gets the media spotlight. After nearly a decade organizing for divestiture from fossil fuels, Zimmer’s skills and expertise have made her a wanted woman. Recruited to help start a nonprofit ahead of the 2020 election that worked to thwart a potential coup attempt by Donald Trump, she was later hired by RepresentUS, a national nonprofit seeking to hold politicians accountable to the voters who they represent. Originally interviewed for this profile in the middle of her third year there, she is now in her first weeks with Mothers Out Front, which mobilizes mothers, parents, and caregivers for climate, racial, and social justice.

Her story

When asked why she does what she does, Jenny Zimmer makes a clear link between her life’s circumstances and her career decisions. She identifies three pivot points that reflect how her growth from new college graduate to mother of two influenced the choices she has made along her career path.

The first brought her to a year-long paid training program for environmental advocacy and nearly a decade fighting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The second resulted in her co-founding a pop-up nonprofit prior to the 2020 election that worked to prepare Americans for an attempted coup should then-President Trump lose and refuse to leave office. The most recent led her to back to the frontlines demanding action on climate change.

The First Pivot

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 2010, Zimmer and many of her classmates saw a bleak future of limited job opportunities, high student debt, and congressional inaction on climate change. Zimmer recognized she had a profound choice to make.

“I had this sense that I was just expected to go along with it,” she recalls. “Find a job, have family, and just pretend like the world’s not coming apart at the seams. And at that moment of – just honestly – despair, I met a few organizers, just at the right time in my life, who really helped me see that I didn’t have to live that life of despair and complicity. I could organize myself and other people to build actual power and push back on the system and make some small changes that could change the future.”

That August, Zimmer went to work at Green Corps to be trained in environmental organizing. She had done some organizing in college, which she remembers mostly as trial and error. Organizing, she soon discovered, was more than simply rallying people to march for a cause.

The year-long program taught Zimmer to make specific demands, set specific targets, and have a well-defined strategy for bringing people into campaigns and achieving their goals. Green Corps also provided a path to her first job in her new profession.

She spent nine years at 350.org, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the use of fossil fuels and hastening the transition to renewable energy worldwide. Zimmer’s work centered on a campaign that successfully persuaded a range of colleges and universities, faith institutions, pension funds, and at least one national bank to sell all their oil and gas company stocks.

As she worked her way up from state organizer in North Carolina to political campaigns manager, Zimmer found one organizing method particularly effective. Known as distributed organizing, it pairs a movement organizer with groups in multiple communities that share similar objectives. The organizer provides materials and training while the local groups provide the people to carry the campaign into the community. This gives the organizer maximum flexibility and reach without having to establish a costly local footprint.

A crucial virtue of this system, in Zimmer’s view, is that it offers near-infinite possibilities for small victories, which builds momentum and energizes people for the next campaign.

Her experience is what eventually took her to RepresentUS, which hired her as national organizing director in 2021. But even before she arrived, Zimmer had begun shifting her personal priorities from climate to voting rights and elections.

The Second Pivot

“2020 was an important year for a lot of reasons,” she explained. “It was the first time I feared there might be a coup over the presidential race.” It was also the year Zimmer gave birth to the first of her two children. As a new mother, she found her thinking focused “a lot less on my own frustrations and self actualization and more on fighting for the world that my kids deserve.”

One of Zimmer’s friends, Daniel Hunter, shared her concerns that Trump was serious when he said, months before Election Day, that he might reject the result if he lost. As he and another long-time activist, George Lakey, conceived a response to this threat, “they pulled me in because they had seen through my work that I know how to build an organization, I know how to recruit talent, I know how to help manage a team.”

Together, they launched Choose Democracy, an anti-coup “pop up” nonprofit, to do what they understood best: They trained more than 10,000 people to engage in civil resistance should Trump refuse to leave the White House.

The group paused activity the day after President Biden’s inauguration, believing it had, along with many other organizations, accomplished its goal of averting a coup. Its website remains as a testament to that moment in history, and as a potential resource for the future.

In May 2021, Zimmer joined RepresentUs. Her primary task was to expand the organization’s capacity to engage in more campaigns in more places and increase opportunities for more wins – a mission well-suited to her Green Corps experience.

As RepresentUS developed new partnerships with groups engaged in local campaigns, Zimmer’s team would evaluate each campaign to assess its needs and then provide the training and materials needed to “help them turn a loss that might be right on the edge into a win – or a squeaker of a win into a slam dunk.”

The training program has three tiers:

  • Executive leadership for those developing campaign strategies
  • Campaign leadership for those on the ground managing implementation of those strategies
  • Volunteers who go into the community to deliver campaign messages and engage more voters

The program laid the foundation for building a corps of pro-democracy activists around the country, many not directly affiliated with RepresentUS. This approach has enabled RepresentUS to be more agile, even surgical, in Zimmer’s view, in responding to a greater number of opportunities to support and win campaigns nationwide.

The results of the past year have been impressive: Coalitions of groups supported by RepresentUS won enactment of restrictions on foreign spending on a referendum in Maine and approval for ranked-choice voting in more local races in Minnesota and Michigan. Also in Minnesota, the group won restoration of voting rights for as many as 55,000 formerly incarcerated felons and enactment of a democracy reform package expanding voting access, limiting money in politics, and protecting voters and election officials from intimidation and harassment. There were additional pro-democracy wins in Maine and Oregon.

Several of these wins came in November, by which time Zimmer was introducing herself to new colleagues and immersing herself in her new role as senior director of campaigns and organizing at Mothers Out Front.

The Third Pivot

Zimmer explains this latest career move as a coming home of sorts. While she valued the mission and accomplishments of RepresentUS, she came to recognize that the climate crisis remained her first priority. And, as its name suggests, her new employer allows her to prioritize both climate justice and her work as a mother of two. As she explained in a LinkedIn post:

“Fighting for a healthy climate and parenting have been the two most transformative experiences of my life. Both require hope, patience, rigorous strategy (y’all parents know), and a determination to make this world into the place all children deserve.”

Zimmer is quick to point out a common thread in her recent work. Whether she’s organizing to combat the climate crisis or to improve democracy, she says, “there are consistent themes in our world around power and money, forcing decisions that put people’s lives and health and safety as a secondary thing to profit.”

Her new role has given Zimmer new responsibilities. While she was focused solely on building the organizational structure and resources at 350.org and RepresentUS, her work at Mothers Out Front includes the kind of relationship development necessary for the long-term success of the movement for climate action. She is busier than ever with more challenges ahead.

Undaunted, Zimmer says she is most excited by the prospect of leading a team that is doing the work “out of love for the people in our lives, especially children, and out of a sense of shared humanity and care that that brings into the individual experience.”

Get Involved

Get trained and earn money: Apply to Green Corps to join the next class of movement organizers. Or apply to their Campaigner Program.

Join the Action Brigade: Volunteer through RepresentUS to campaign for election reforms that will hold politicians more accountable to the voters.

Fight for your children: Join Mothers Out Front to campaign for a livable climate.

Author: George Linzer
Published: December 5, 2023

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Sources

Interviews with Jenny Zimmer, Sep 7, 2023 and Nov 16, 2023; phone call on Nov 8, 2023

Interview with Susan Fothergill, RepresentUS, Nov 28, 2023

Jenny (Marienau) Zimmer, LinkedIn profile, https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennymarienau/, accessed Oct 20, 2023

Eileen Flanagan, “Choose Democracy’s whirlwind effort to prevent a coup is a crash course in good organizing”, Waging Nonviolence, Dec 15, 2020, https://wagingnonviolence.org/2020/12/choose-democracy-prevent-coup-crash-course-good-organizing/, accessed Oct 27, 2023

Choose Democracy, https://choosedemocracy.us/, accessed Oct 31, 2023

RepresentUS, “The Movement’s Wins”, https://represent.us/our-wins/?source=wp_homepage#39533-minnetonka-mn, accessed Nov 28, 2023

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