Last weekend, 35 Wesleyan students joined 10,000 young activists from universities around the country for the third semiannual Power Shift environmental conference in Washington D.C.
The event consisted of talks, workshops, panel discussions, and breakout sessions dedicated to a wide range of environmental topics. It culminated on Monday in a “lobby day” on Capitol Hill and protests in front of the White House, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and oil and coal industry buildings.
In 2009, a workshop at Power Shift inspired students to form Wesleyan’s own “Green Fund.” Since then, the conference has been a hallmark of the University’s green scene.
Marjorie Dodson ’13, who is the co-coordinator of Environmental Organizers Network (EON) and attended the Power Shift conference, was optimistic that this year’s trip will bring further innovation.
“People who went to Power Shift from Wesleyan this year are all really jazzed and figuring out how to put our actions into tangible works,” she said.
High profile speakers, such as former Vice President Al Gore; author/activist Bill McKibben, who delivered the keynote at the “Pricing Carbon” conference on campus last November; and direct action radical and Rising Tide founder Tim DeChristopher, who spoke at the University last week, represented the broad range of views within the movement, many of which the conference tried to represent.
Organized by the Energy Action Coalition, a conglomerate group representing youth environmental movements around the country, the event billed itself as the largest organizer training session in history.
Monday’s rally in central Washington, D.C. began with thousands of protesters in green hardhats on Pennsylvania Avenue staging a large-scale puppet show in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest lobby and a strong advocate for energy interests. The show was about big polluters and “the dirtiest politicians.”
The puppet show was coordinated by Penelope Hillfrau, an Italian artist who described herself as a “homeless gypsy” and said that she “believed in whales more than [she] believed in people.”
Although she has no computer or cell phone, Hillfrau managed to coordinate and train almost 100 volunteers over the course of three days in preparation for the elaborate presentation.
The rally culminated in a group of around 300 students, at the prompt of DeChristopher, illegally taking direct action to occupy the Department of the Interior in protest of the sale of federal land to dirty energy companies.
DeChristopher currently faces up to 10 years in prison after his recent conviction for entering false bids during an auction of federal land to oil companies.
At the protest, 21 more activists were arrested after they refused to remove themselves from the Department of the Interior. Wesleyan student Evan Weber ’13 briefly took part in the direct action protest but left shortly after the police arrived and threatened to arrest protesters.
“It wasn’t a sacrifice I was willing to make then,” Weber said. “I had already sacrificed my Monday to be part of this. But it is a sacrifice I would be willing to make in the future.”
This event was the largest of a series of direct actions that occurred throughout the Power Shift weekend, including a flash mob that briefly closed a BP gas station in protest of the company’s failure to clean up the Gulf oil spill or to pay for their damages.
A group of eight students, four of whom attend Williams College, disrupted Congressional Budgetary proceedings to protest the $45 million that has been slashed from environmental protection funding. The students were arrested one by one as they sang altered versions of the national anthem.
While the radical civil disobedience of some activists stood out as the most notable aspect of the event, the substance of the convention occurred when thousands of students met to discuss campus environmental initiatives, such as how to discourage bottled water and how to create bicycle co-ops. A shared passion for environmentalism brought students and activists from diverse regions with a wide range of motivations together.
“My water was poisoned growing up. It ran red,” said Junior Walk, an activist who engages in direct action against the coal industry, which he blames for his health problems and the loss of his home. “My grandfather and his father before him went out to the mountains and dug edible food. I’m never going to see those places.”
Walk is from a poor town in Appalachia that is the site of the coal industry’s controversial practice of mountain-top removal. For him, slogans like “clean energy future” and “up with the people” were not enough. Walk wanted to see a more radical environmental movement that embraced civil disobedience.
Lauren Ziemer, on the other hand, represented a more moderate fringe, whose views were not in line with the largely progressive and liberal student base at Power Shift. As a conservative Baptist from Alabama, Ziemer felt out of place at the conference, where presenters and speakers often made snide comments about those who did not hold liberal views.
“I don’t see my environmentalism as being conservative or liberal,” Ziemer said. “I see it as coming out of my Christianity and the need to take care of God’s creation.”
While religion did not play a major role in the conference, there was another committed Christian who garnered some attention: Hilary Mains.
With his shaved head, bare feet, and the 30-foot long navy blue sheet that he wrapped around his body, Mains stood out from the crowd. A 33-year old environmental engineering major at Florida Gulf Coast University, Mains embraced environmentalism because of his belief in the Bible.
“The Bible wants us to get back to Eden,” he said.
In 2001, Mains began following what he saw as the path of Christ’s disciples, becoming entirely dependent on God and charity to provide his home, food, and clothing.
“I wouldn’t ask for money. I wouldn’t panhandle. I would just walk,” Mains said. “I decided to let God give me clothing and what I found was people kept giving me sheets.”
Mains demonstrated how idealistic visions are still compatible with grassroots, practical environmental initiatives. Mains worked with his school to put together a workshop on campus gardening and hopes to apply his environmental engineering degree to work on sustainable agriculture projects.
Back on campus, the University students who attended Power Shift met today to discuss their ideas for moving forward.
“We can’t just be satisfied or complacent in simply attending these conventions and thinking that’s sufficient,” said Oliver James ’14. “We need to bridge the gap between statements and actions.”