Powershift 2007: Youth Rising to the Climate Challenge
by Joshua Kahn Russell, December 28, 2007, Left Turn
On November 3rd, I felt a stadium shake from 6,000 students jumping to their feet and chanting “Green Jobs, Not Jails! Parks, Not Prisons! We Won’t Stop Till Somebody Listens!” It was kind of a national coming-out party for the youth climate movement. More than a student environmental conference, Powershift 2007 was a moment revealing youth power and its potential to drive some deeply transformative shifts in this country.
Powershift was a project of Energy Action, a youth founded and led coalition of over 40 organizations ranging the spectrum from Greenpeace to the Indigenous Environmental Network. The goal was to bring together student leaders from across the nation to College Park, Maryland, for what would become the largest youth summit on Global Warming to date. Energy Action outlined three goals for the conference; to ensure that Climate Change be a central issue in the 2008 Presidential campaign, to empower a “truly diverse network of young leaders,” and to have geographic diversity in the attendance.
Groups from the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) to the Arab-American Action Network (AAAN) mobilized their membership, while student organizers on campuses coordinated bus travel for youth leaders from all over the country. The most striking aspect of Powershift was that the bulk of the outreach was done not through traditional activist organizations, but through academic networks of professors and school administrations. Participants were more likely to have come to the conference through their environmental science class or recycling program than with an organized group campaigning for change.
Powershift, whether intentionally or not, was perfectly positioned to engage a base of budding activists-to-be, giving them a sense that they were part of a larger movement for the first time. The movement-building groups in attendance seized the opportunity.
Van Jones, founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, spoke about grassroots organizing, climate justice, and movement building in a language accessible and engaging to the thousands of young people in attendance. He went beyond urging the predominantly white crowd to start making connections between economic and racial justice and the environment. Instead, he asserted that our movements had already come together; that this new movement includes everyone. He went on to warn that the right wing was plotting to defeat us by dividing us. “This is a poor people’s movement. And we aren’t going to be tricked into leaving anyone behind… If we win cuts on carbon emissions, without using them as a platform to transform our economy, we will have failed.” The crowd roared.
Whether or not our movements are actually united, Van was able to animate and excite new folks, most of whom had likely never heard of “climate justice” before. Deep into the night, students talked about how we can’t let the politicians trick us into thinking that climate change is solvable without addressing larger issues of social inequity.
Democratic Representative Ed Markey spoke too, appealing to students to support his energy bill. When outlining his plan for 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, students in the stadium spontaneously broke out into thunderous chanting “We Want More! We Want More!” forcing Markey to stop in the middle of his speech. “We want more” was a fitting slogan for the tone of Powershift. Person after person that I spoke to kept saying the same thing: the older generation has screwed us. It’s time for us to take our future back.
Panels and discussions at the conference included delegations from Indigenous communities ravaged by US agribusiness, organizers talking about civil disobedience and direct action, racial justice organizers discussing the concept of Green Jobs, and young people debating the role of student organizing in social movements. The workshop tracks included “Anti-Oppression and Diversity,” “Campus Organizing,” “Corporate Campaigning,” “Environmental Justice/Energy,” “Media and Messaging,” “Skills Trainings,” among others.
Much of Powershift was geared toward opening doorways into the movement. One such project was called “I Shot Powershift.” Energy Action gave away 100 video cameras to youth leaders, on the condition that they film 5 short clips during the conference, upload them to youtube, and tag them “Powershift07.” They would then commit to uploading at least 12 more videos throughout the year based on their local work. The end result will be thousands of videos of young people taking action on climate change, flooding the internet. What better way to help young people, who often feel isolated on their own campuses, feel like they are part of a larger movement?
After two days of panels and workshops, Powershifters wearing green hard-hats descended upon Capitol Hill for a day of lobbying and rallying. Simultaneously, more than 300 students joined Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Coal River Mountain Watch, and SEAC in a mass die-in that shut down a major Citibank branch for the day. Citi is one of the biggest funders of coal-fired power plants. While Appalachian women whose communities are being ravaged by mountain-top removal rallied the crowd, activists in haz-mat suits dumped coal all over the front of the bank. With an infectious energy, positive and creative chanting and messaging, tons of art, and no arrests, it was an exciting and radicalizing first action for many of the 300+ students “dying.”
As global warming increasingly becomes “the issue of our generation” it will be up to us to frame the national debate and push for deeper changes. In large coalitions, differences on how to move forward always exist, and Energy Action is certainly no exception. We still have a lot of work to do to build the kind of movement Van Jones spoke of. Powershift 2007, not without its own contradictions, marked an important turn toward a climate justice framework, an exciting development within the larger environmental movement here in the US.
Joshua Kahn Russell is a young organizer working to build the student movement with Rainforest Action Network and the new Students for a Democratic Society. For more information see joshuakahnrussell.wordpress.com.