This week marked the 1 year anniversary of the BP oil spill in the US gulf coast, an atrocity committed by climate polluters and a government that negates the equal rights of mother earth and instead empowers banks and companies like BP to drill for fossil, as in ancient, fuels.
This week also marked the 3rd Powershift, a national convening of youth climate change activists. Young climate justice organizers utilized Powershift to honor the survivors of the BP oil spill and to share in the resilience of the people from the Gulf Coast. They were shifting the priorities of the conference and putting forward an alternate way for how as a society we think about, talk about and act in response to climate change- moving past the limited agendas like passing a federal, market-based, climate bill and beyond the science-based arguments about the crisis that put our communities to sleep.
These young people were talking about the REAL DEAL- what it’s like to wake up to fumes spewing from the oil refineries in your backyard and to go to school next to a powerplant that provides energy to a city of millions. The young people were talking about the REAL SOLUTIONS- what it’s like to organize and fight big corporate polluters in your community until those polluting sources are SHUT DOWN! This Powershift saw the rise of a leadership that the organizers of conference and their climate movement affiliates had previously discounted- THEY SAW BROWN PEOPLE!!!
Over 400 young people, ages 2-34, from as far north as Alaska, to as far west as Wilmington, CA, from the depths of the south as Mossville, LA and neighboring Gulf Coast communities to the concrete jungles of Brooklyn, Queens, Harlem and the Bronx, came together in Washington, DC during Powershift 2011. These youth leaders shared stories and strategies on how the U.S. environmental justice community has been successfully leading the fight against the world’s largest corporate polluters in their communities. They also met with Lisa Jackson, Administrator to the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama, lobbying the president to hold corporate polluters, like BP, accountable to the destruction and devastation they are causing in their communities. These young leaders took advantage of their spring breaks to stay in DC through Monday to lead a rally and march in front of the White House, through the streets of DC to Congress and the Corporate Headquarters of BP in DC, leveraging their grassroots power to demand that BP pay for the human right of the Gulf Coast people to full recovery, that the federal government protect the Clean Air Act and to lift their message that “Frontline, Grassroots Organizing Cools the Planet.”
“How did those youth do that?!”
In my years of organizing I have intimately learned and come to deeply value the fact that CHANGE does NOT happen coincidentally and that we each individually and collectively stand on the shoulders of GREATNESS! There are many elements leading up to and growing this shift in what we refer to as the climate justice movement. Below I offer my subjective insight on how the youth climate justice movement has developed over the last year.
1 year ago this week, with the support of another government in the land of the Aymara and Quechua Indians, Bolivia, the continent’s first indigenous president hosted 30,000 people from around the world to share their plights and struggles to survive the climate crisis, resist corporate economic and environmental pollution and work to re-imagine traditional, indigenous ways of living in harmony with mother earth in our modern crisis.
A group of young adult organizers in the struggle for environmental justice in the US had the privilege to participate in the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. A few of the organizers had just organized the first NYC Climate Justice Youth Summit that brought together more than 250 young people and 20 organizations to examine their community-based campaigns to transition from dirty energy to a clean, justice-based economy at the city level and build the kind of intergenerational political power needed to ensure the residents of NYC most affected by the climate crisis are prepared to adapt during a rapidly changing climate and ecology.
While in Bolivia the group experienced first-hand the alignment of governments rooted in climate justice and the rights of mother earth fueled by the support of the people of these countries.
For these grassroots organizers on the frontlines of the ecological crisis and the fencelines of coal and oil extraction, oil refineries and incineration in the US, a government that endorses the further commodification of the earth’s natural resources, the experience was a breath of fresh, uncontaminated, poison and toxic-free air.
Bolivia posed a challenge to the group of young leaders. How will young people in the fight for climate justice in the US continue to shift the framework for understanding the crisis from a science and policy-based agenda to an agenda anchored in the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of mother earth and international human rights?
Those of us who are one with the environmental and climate justice movements understand that sustainable, just change and our victories are a timely, careful, intentional process that takes places over years of work and local organizing. Change, in our purview, translates into local, community power holding government and polluting sources accountable for the destruction of our communities and our health. Our work also includes bouts with systemic racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism and citizenism; campaigns for equitable resources such as jobs, healthcare, housing, violence prevention, education and pathways to citizenship. With only 2% of resources for “environmental” work in the US going to environmental justice groups, our comprehensive organizing strategies are also under-funded, adding another layer to our change process.
The challenge posed to us in Bolivia is one we openly welcomed. We viewed Bolivia as an opportunity to reinforce our interconnectedness with mother earth and the interconnectedness of our struggles as indigenous peoples on this continent and global south countries. In Bolivia we built solidarity with international groups who share a language for weaving together the affects of climate change AND the neo-liberal, capitalist government sponsored policies on poor, Black, Brown, indigenous, API young people in urban and rural communities in the US.
We viewed Bolivia as an opportunity to align ourselves with a grassroots global movement for climate justice made up of socially-inspired governments, such as Bolivia and Venezuela, international organizations, such as La Via Campesina, and cross-sector social justice groups in the US, such as Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Indigenous Environmental Network.
Bolivia was our opportunity to name ourselves and emerge as a collective of young people, youth workers and youth allies on the streets in the multiple crisis hubs in the US taking direct action to STOP the political and economic forces destroying our communities. We formed Youth 4 Climate Justice.
Youth 4 Climate Justice is a national network of grassroots youth, young adults and youth allies in the US and vehicle for organizing and mobilizing local, community-based strategies for climate justice into the national and international arenas of climate struggle.
Cancún- COP 16
After Bolivia, Y4CJ organized a delegation to attend UNFCCC COP 16 in Cancun. Y4CJ was one with a larger delegation of grassroots organizations under the umbrella of “Grassroots Solutions for Climate Justice- North America” that targeted climate polluters at COP 16 in the form of rejecting REDD+, offsets and carbon markets and the false solutions to climate change that commodify forests, land, life and water. Y4CJ urged the Obama Administration and lobbied other governments of the world to drop the ineffective Copenhagen “Accord” and adopt the Cochabamba People’s Agreement, the draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP).
Y4CJ made their interventions in the form of participation in the UN negotiations, organized direct actions at the convention, and participation in the Global Forum for Life, Environmental and Social Justice and the “1000 Cancun’s” an International Day of Action which manifested a 6,000 person strong march in Cancun and 100’s of actions around the world, convened by La Via Campesina.
Motivated by the UN’s failure to adopt our demands, members of Y4CJ returned to the US eager to continue building an intergenerational base of young people from frontline communities in the US, deepening local campaigns with the knowledge of grassroots global solidarity and preparing the next wave of young leaders to bring their local struggles into the national and international arenas. This motivation is what led to multiple members of Y4CJ to convene youth from frontline communities throughout the US at Powershift 2011.
Shout outs to our friends at Mun2 who put out a slideshow titled “brown people are green too” featuring the unification and movement-building that took place at Powershift 2011. In the words of one of the young woman of color who participated in the frontline community training at Powershift: “Brown is the Original Green!” My personal goal is to continue working within our communities to remind our people that we are no too far from the people we come from. Some of us were on our parents families “terrenos”, “ranchos” or “campos” just last week. No se hagan. Todos somos del mismo nopal. Or maize.
Everything we need to know about “being green” is within reach right now. All we got to do to get started is take a look back a generation or two and you’ll see we’re much closer to Pachamama then we think.