When Shift Hits the Fan, Part One: The Conference

This is the first installment in a series on the controversial US Power Shift youth climate conference back in October, as well as my involvement with the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC) and the climate movement at large within the last six months or so.

These blog posts will address the growing discontent I’ve had with various organizers/organizations/the “movement” at large since Power Shift, which has resulted in my leaving said organizations/institutions.

For my own sanity’s sake (as well as a future defense against anyone who might discredit my experiences, etc.) I feel the need to share my take on what happened; maybe my stories will provide insights to others as to why some groups, campaigns, etc. are not as active/effective as they ought to be.

I arrived into the Greyhound station in downtown Pittsburgh the morning of Friday, October 18. After three days on the bus, I was thankful to have enough time to check into my host’s house and take a shower before heading to the conference.

At the registration table I saw Chloe Gleichman, whom I’d met and been arrested with at the White House for Tar Sands Action back in 2011. I wandered around for a bit, locating the SSC table and saying hi to anyone I recognized, before heading to the social media workshop facilitated by Energy Action Coalition (EAC) staffers.

I will go into greater detail on my whole social media team experience in another post, but for now I will say that the initial workshop was a nice introduction to the weekend. I only talked to a handful of attendees, but they were so nice and outgoing; we all exchanged plenty of business cards.

After the workshop I went with a new friend from the social media team to a solidarity rally down the street for the Mi’kmaq blockade. At the rally I saw T.R. McKenzie, one of the main speakers, and even one of the people who attended my SSC summer camp, Sprog, a few months prior.

Once we’d finished chanting and all that at the rally (and after a quick dinner) my friend and I headed back to the conference center for the keynote speeches, which, to my recollection, were fantastic.

I specifically remember Friday’s keynotes to have the incident in which an environmental justice (EJ) organizer, Yudith Nieto, had her keynote cut short by music playing her offstage; I’d been live-tweeting and voiced my disapproval, along with a few others, using the #PowerShift hashtag.

Once the keynotes were done I went back up to the social media room to see what needed to be done. About half of the people who’d attended the workshop came back to help, which was slightly disappointing but there wasn’t a ton to do, so I didn’t stay long.

I do remember talking to a couple of the EAC staffers who were leading the social media efforts, including addressing the whole Yudith Nieto situation. EAC’s then-online coordinator explained that the music was set on a timer, so technically no one intentionally cut her off; it was a simple mistake. I’m pretty sure I stressed to him that it actually was a big deal, specifically because she’s an EJ/frontline organizer, but I don’t remember what I said exactly – only that he didn’t seem to “get it.”

I ended up pulling an all-nighter Friday night because the following day I had three sessions (two workshops, one caucus) to facilitate. So Saturday morning I did nothing but hole up in the social media room until my first session; the room was one of the few places in the building with wifi, and I also needed to commandeer one of the flipcharts lying around the room.

My first session, a caucus space for people of faith/religious affiliation, went really well. I co-facilitated a conversation with about thirty participants of varying ages and beliefs, and left with a lot of great insights on faith/spirituality and the climate movement.

My second session, a workshop entitled “UN Climate Negotiations 101,” was absolutely horrible, in my opinion. I was unprepared content-wise but what really threw me off was how many people came to the workshop. I’d expected maaaaaybe 15-30 people, but ended up with a full room of at least 75 – it was standing room only by the end! I was really disappointed with myself for this session but at least it was a great learning experience as a trainer/facilitator.

I was able to take a break and grab some dinner before my final session, which was an SSC workshop on campaign planning. My co-facilitator and I had forgotten to print handouts for the training, so I went up to the EAC staff room, right next to the social media room, to print them.

While in the EAC staff room I overheard a girl (who kinda looked like EAC director Maura Cowley, but probably wasn’t) ordering a limo for one of the artists performing that night. Now, I don’t remember whether it was just a regular limo or a stretch limo, but I do recall thinking it was a terrible waste of money to rent limos for performers – especially when there was no free food and no registration waivers/vouchers for panelists/workshop presenters/etc.

I did not tweet during the Saturday night keynotes but I will mention a couple key instances. First, EJ organizer Kim Wasserman made a great statement on how frontline communities do not need to be “saved” by mainstream climate groups (Greenpeace, Sierra Club, etc.).

Second, Sierra Club president Mike Brune said something strange during his keynote speech: “Occupy the Sierra Club.”

I should mention now that I’d been sitting near the right side of the stage, a couple rows away from some prominent EJ organizers whom I know and respect a great deal. When Brune said his Occupy comment, these organizers busted up laughing, in the “yeah right, we’ll see how that goes” kind of way.

Now, when he’d made that statement I initially was excited – I thought, “awesome! he wants us to push the Sierra Club to get rid of its archaic policies on civil disobedience!” But the EJ organizers’ response got me thinking about what he really meant; later I would gain more insight on this.

Back in the social media room post-keynotes, I pumped out a quick recap of the evening and headed back to my host’s house for some desperately-needed sleep.

I dragged my heels coming into Power Shift Sunday, not arriving until lunchtime for the SSC’s pizza party event down the street. Mike Brune was there, but I decided not to talk to him – even though everyone said he was approachable, I still found him standoffish/intimidating in his button-up and slacks.

After lunch I attended a break-out session with people from the Northwest region: Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming students. I loved connecting with people from the region, and since I didn’t have any sessions to facilitate that day I felt really relaxed and able to enjoy others’ company.

The final keynote session was strange: the evening’s theme focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, and many speeches felt rehashed from the Forward on Climate rally in DC back in February.

I loved hearing from Crystal Lameman, as always, and appreciated the energy Rev. Yearwood brought to the stage. Mike Brune spoke again, this time to plug the Sierra Club’s new campaign on clean energy.

One major highlight of the evening was the Occupy-style mic-check during the keynotes. The action was undertaken to protest the firing of an indigenous organizer on Saturday. At the time I didn’t know what to think of it, but this whole situation ended up causing massive amounts of drama (more on this in the next installment of this series).

Back in the social media room, I finally felt relaxed and comfortable enough to actually interact with the remaining social media people. After working for a bit we had the opportunity to talk to and take a photo with Bill McKibben (this experience is another post in itself, but long story short: it was the worst encounter I’ve had with him yet, even though I finally got him to sign my copy of The End of Nature).

After leaving the EAC staffers to attend their evening meeting a few of us social media folks went out to grab dinner and some drinks. I’d really regretted not opening up to them sooner, because I’d had such a great time joking around and hanging out with them.

By the time we were done and everyone went off to their respective accommodations, I walked to my bus stop only to find that I’d missed the last bus to my host’s place. I had no choice but to call in a favor from one of the EAC staffers whom I’d befriended and asked to stay the night in his hotel room…

To be continued in Part Two: The Fallout!

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