The Power is Already Shifting
by Meredith Jacobson
There’s a special type of energy that forms when passionate people fighting for change fill a space. It resonates. It bounces off the walls. It enters our lungs as we breath, laugh, and listen. It escapes through the doors and windows and fills empty spaces. It spreads out into the pores of the city. As I sit on the bus rolling away from Power Shift and Pittsburgh, that energy is inside me, tickling all of my senses.
Power Shift is a conference for the young at heart who are dedicated to overcoming the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry, and creating a world that is socially, economically, and ecologically just. Every other year since 2007, thousands of young people from around the country have converged in one place to build a movement strong and diverse enough to create the world that all of us want to live in. For the first time ever, Power Shift 2013 took place in Pittsburgh, instead of D.C., to gather in a city that is revitalizing but also grappling with the reality of fracking nearby and across Pennsylvania.
For me, it all began when I arrived to the Pittsburgh Airport. My boyfriend Steve and I were just two of over 200 Californians who made the pilgrimage to the east coast. We hurried to baggage claim after landing, converging with old friends who had traveled east on different flights. We were giddy. As we got on a shuttle, a young woman asked, “Are you all going to Power Shift?” Our faces beamed when we answered yes. Maybe it was the fact that we were all young and wearing backpacks, or maybe it was the excitement streaming out of our faces and into each other, but that Friday night, it felt as though Power Shift was taking over the city. Somehow, we could recognize each other in pizza shops and on the streets of Pittsburgh – it was like a gigantic family reunion, except I hadn’t met most of the family yet.
When I was in high school in D.C., I attended Power Shift 2009, the second and largest of the four that have taken place. It was the start of what I knew then would be a lifetime of activism and organizing for me. I was in a different point in my life then, awake to the problems in the world but still dazed and daunted. So was the climate justice movement. In 2009, speakers like Bill McKibben and Van Jones called us to action with new narratives and stories about the “movement” and “environmental justice.” In green hardhats, we lobbied and rallied against coal-fired power plants and environmental injustice in the February snow. We came together to discuss what sort of “green” economy we envisioned, what sort of strategies we might use, and how to expand the movement to include as many different types of people as possible. In short, it was the beginning.
Four years later, it’s not the beginning anymore. As I wandered the convention center, attended workshops, listened to speakers, reconnected with old friends, and met new people, something was clear – the power is already shifting. I feel it, I really do. Four years ago, no one had begun to use the tactic of fossil fuel divestment to advance the vision of climate justice. Four years ago, we were mostly a group of environmentalists hoping to expand our network to other circles. Four years ago, we were very sure of what we were against, but rather unsure of what we were for. This time around, I interacted with more types of people interested in more types of issues working on more types of campaigns and projects: from Appalachia Rising, to eco-feminism, to Grid Alternatives, to the Soul of the Cities project. In fact, Power Shift has diversified so much, that there was a session on “Biocentrism” and how to incorporate its more ecological philosophy in a movement that is increasingly human-centric.
What does it mean to be a “climate justice” movement? At Power Shift, I realized it’s not actually about ending climate change. Tackling climate change is the vessel we are using to make our communities livable for all inhabitants, human and non-human, into the future. Of course, we won’t have livable communities if we don’t address climate change, and that’s what we’re doing. But at its core, this movement is about creating communities that we all want to live in, and that means a lot of things – not just lowering our parts per million. It means we have the capacity and the obligation to change all the status quos that we want and need to change.
On Saturday morning I attended a panel called “A Cage or a Classroom?: The School to Prison Pipeline Affecting EJ Communities.” I listened to a dialogue that I personally had never heard before, but one that’s so important here in California. The panelists discussed how our society discounts young people and how our culture imprisons rather than rehabilitates. What does that mean for the future of the planet? How can our youth start making positive change in their communities if so many end up in a cycle of imprisonment? Ending the schools to prisons pipeline is one key step to a better future for people and planet. Organizations like Dream Defenders and the Hear Me Project are working on just that. Over the course of the weekend, I heard from amazing young people revolutionizing transportation systems in their cities, connecting people to local clean energy solutions, organizing on the frontlines against injustices like fracking and mining, rehabilitating and restoring “at-risk” communities, addressing environmental racism head-on, forming unstoppable coalitions, and honestly, just not taking shit from anyone anymore.
Even with all this momentum, sometimes I get jaded. Let’s be honest, don’t we all? There are those moments when it just seems like it can’t be done. Like everything is corrupt and everything has been tried already and we are falling in quicksand and there’s no rope to pull me out. Like the time has run out. Trust me, I know how easy it is to get caught spinning in confusion, fear, distrust, and resignation. And I think this falling is extremely important. We need to constantly give ourselves reality checks, question our motives, look critically at the movement. As others have done, we need to question the effectiveness of Power Shift and continuously work to make it stronger and more aligned with our vision of justice. We need to stare hypocrisy and injustice in the face, and address problems within our organizations as we continue moving forward with campaigns and projects.
But now that I’ve gotten used to this type of falling, I’m starting to learn how to recognize the ropes that I can climb up to get back into the game. They come in the form of genuine smiles, new friendships, stories of hope, hands in the dirt, seeds sprouting, chanting together in the streets, boundary-shattering conversations, big and small victories (De Anza Community College voted to divest last week!). I’ve learned to recognize these ropes, because my life depends on it. Like all of you who I met at Power Shift, I think I am what Tom Steyer called in his speech an “identity warrior” – this fight for justice defines who I am and what my life means. It’s what I live for.
It may be cliché, but that golden feeling of strength in numbers just never gets old. Kandi Mosset reminded us all on Saturday night that “as individual fingers, we are easily broken, but together we are a mighty fist.” During the march against fracking on Monday, a small group of people started singing “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” and oh, were they shining. To all those who attended Power Shift, and those who are shifting the power all around this magnificent world, thank you. Thank you so very much. We are greater than fossil fuels. We are greater than big banks. We are greater than injustice. Do you believe this in your heart? I do.