When Shift Hits the Fan, Part Two: The Fallout

Continuing from part one: after missing the last bus to my host’s house Sunday night, I texted an EAC staffer (and kind-of friend?) who was part of the social media team. I was welcomed to seek refuge in his hotel room in the Sheraton. Initially I hadn’t planned to stay, and instead grab a cab in a few hours, but after hanging out for a bit I decided it was safe enough to stay the night.

Another staffer who shared the room was drunk and rolling around in one bed; my friend was passing out (not drunk at all) in the other. The drunken staffer, who shared that he’d be leaving the EAC in a few days anyway and thus didn’t care much for confidentiality, stayed up and talked with me for a bit.

We talked about Mike Brune’s “Occupy the Sierra Club” comment: I shared my theory it was Brune’s way of asking youth to push the Club past its archaic policies on civil disobedience, while the staffer suggested it was likely a plea to get youth to volunteer in Club chapters. The organization just had to make a ton of layoffs after Bloomberg’s $50 million donation ran out, so existing campaigns, resources and staff positions were likely being reshuffled.

We also talked about that evening’s mic-check protest during the keynotes, and the controversy that started it all: he suspected that the person who was fired – an indigenous organizer from South Dakota – was fired because she was really nice and quiet, and thus wouldn’t create waves after being let go. I added this to my theory that the conference’s expenses (the fancy hotel rooms, limo(s) for concert performers, etc.) meant the EAC had to make cuts in other areas.

The next morning I woke up and left to go back to my host’s house before the big rally and march through downtown Pittsburgh. It was your typical rally: short speeches and performances, colorful crowd full of signs and props for the march.

Marching through downtown Pittsburgh was a nice way to tour the area; as for effectiveness of the action itself, I’d say the march was a great photo-op but did little else to convince the general public of… something.

One point of interest: at some point during the march the people up front started chanting, “Whose land? Our land!” I then saw/heard Kat Yang-Stevens, who was holding a banner at the front, correcting the crowd over their shoulder: “Indigenous lands!”

Everyone stopped and, within a couple minutes, switched to a different chant. I wonder how many had, like me, paused to consider the full weight of what had just transpired.

After the rally I went back to the convention center for one last jaunt with the social media team. I didn’t do much – ate lunch, knocked out a collection of tweets from the rally/march, hung out on the floor with friends I’d gone out with the night before – and in the early afternoon said our final goodbyes to those who were heading home.

Those who were sticking around for the night were invited to a “Power Shift after-party” at a pub downtown. Earlier that afternoon I’d decided to extend my trip an extra day, so I was able to attend this event.

The gathering wasn’t entirely what I’d expected (mostly EAC staff and people from partner organizations, though I’m not sure who else I was really expecting), but I was happy to see some familiar faces there. I ordered a beer, helped myself to the free food and made small talk with people around me. I met the EAC’s diversity coordinator(?), which made her the second EAC staffer of color whom I knew about (my social media team was staffed by three white males), as well as people like David Turnbull, the sister of EAC director Maura Cowley, etc.

I’m not really into these kinds of social, networking-centric events, so after finishing my beer and closing my tab I went back to my host’s house and turned in early for the night.

Tuesday had been designated as a sightseeing, hang-out-with-whoever’s-around day, so my morning was spent walking around Pittsburgh’s Strip District, a cultural landmark of sorts where I enjoyed a delicious Polish lunch and snapped photos of colorful street art and business fronts.

In the early afternoon I met up with my EAC staffer friend who’d let me stay in his room Sunday night. He and other staffers were holed up in the Sheraton lobby dealing with post-conference stuff that, as I later figured out, included the fallout from the firing controversy. I would hear snippets of conversations – “we can’t say anything … it’s a legal/HR issue – it has to go through lawyers…” – but mostly people were fixed on their laptops or walking around to consult with others.

I did meet Maura Cowley, though; she was casual and friendly. We made a little small talk – probably something about how they were supposed to be out sightseeing, but were instead stuck inside working. When I said goodbye I added, “See you in two years!” to which she replied, “Maybe sooner!”

After seeing my friend off I went back to my host’s place to collect my bags and begin my own journey back home. The seat next to me was empty for most of the three-day Greyhound trek, so I was able to relax and reflect on the past few days.

Of course I’d loved seeing SO many old friends and meeting new people from across the country; that’s pretty much the whole point of going to Power Shift. I enjoyed spending time in Pittsburgh, a city I’d stopped in before but had never explored. Mostly I loved having the opportunity to share my resources and experiences with others, and generally deepening my understanding of the environmental movement at large.

But the microaggressions, the seemingly isolated instances, eventually led me to realize just how professional organizers (i.e. paid staffers of nonprofit groups, not unlike those within the EAC) differ from true grassroots/community organizers and activists.

One main difference is professional organizers run their groups like an office: something to be managed, with the “professionals” on top holding all the legitimacy and the “nonprofessionals” striving to work their way up to their level.

Such was the case with my experience with the Power Shift social media team: I felt like I was competing for a job that wasn’t actually real, networking for a potential vacancy two years down the road. It didn’t help that I felt like the only nonprofessional person, and one of two/three people of color, in the room.

What the “isolated incidences” really revealed was how clueless the Big Greens (Energy Action Coalition, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, etc.) are when it comes to anti-oppression and inclusive/equitable movement-building in general. If such small mistakes – a person being fired, a speaker getting cut off – could snowball into such big controversies, how can these people, these organizations be trusted to lead this “movement?”

Lastly, I realized how I, as a volunteer of the Sierra Student Coalition and general supporter of mainstream climate groups, was also to blame for the failure that was Power Shift. I promoted the Big Greens; I shouted the mindless, sometimes-oppressive chants; I gave legitimacy to a system that pushes down frontline/EJ organizers while promoting itself as the sole solution.

Somewhere between Albuquerque and Los Angeles I knew what I would have to do once I got home: tell everyone the truth about what happened. Verify that, indeed, shit was fucked and people who were getting paid (and enjoying some considerably-luxurious perks, i.e. hotels and catering) were mostly at fault.

And I did just that, which I will go into detail more in Part Three: The Aftermath…

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