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Power Shift: How the Youth Climate Movement is Changing the Game

The 10,000 young people who gathered in Washington, DC, for the third Power Shift came prepared to get things done. They traveled in groups from campuses, high schools, and neighborhoods across the country. They brought stories of campaigns to get local food on campuses, to shut down coal plants and stop natural gas fracking, and … Continued

The 10,000 young people who gathered in Washington, DC, for the third Power Shift came prepared to get things done. They traveled in groups from campuses, high schools, and neighborhoods across the country. They brought stories of campaigns to get local food on campuses, to shut down coal plants and stop natural gas fracking, and they educated themselves with speeches, documentaries, and stories from the front lines of the dirty energy battle—places like the Gulf coast, which is still struggling from the aftermath of the oil spill.

But they did more than learn about issues and listen to inspiring speeches. At Power Shift, much of the time was spent in trainings and regional organizing sessions on the serious business of mobilizing a powerful movement for clean energy and social justice. Perhaps that seriousness of purpose was what inspired President Obama to take time out to meet with a dozen young representatives from Power Shift at the White House. On the final day, thousands took action on the streets, protesting in front of the White House, at BP offices, and outside the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents some of the biggest climate emitters (and deniers). Thousands lobbied their representatives in Congress, and canvassed door-to-door to sign homeowners up to weatherize their homes.

In the midst of it all, I sat down with Jessy Tolkan, who, as one of the founders of the Energy Action Coalition, the coalition of 50 youth-led environmental and social justice organizations behind Power Shift, has had a front-row seat to the evolution of the event—and the youth climate movement.

Sarah van Gelder:

Compared to the first and second Power Shift events, what would you say has changed in terms of the focus and tone and atmosphere?

Jessy Tolkan:

2007 was like the coming out party for the youth climate movement. There was great work happening locally around the country, but there wasn't a real sense that there was a national movement. We were also near the end of the oppressive Bush regime, of dealing with a president that really didn't acknowledge climate change—so it was like you could see the light at the end of the tunnel; it was a building moment.

In 2009, there was a bit of euphoria in the air. Barack Obama was president of the United States, and we were going to pass a climate bill, and we were going to have the most progressive environmental policy we'd ever seen. There was a real sense of hope.

Here, in 2011, there are a lot of pissed off people. Our hero-in-chief has not been as heroic as we want him to be. We haven't won, but we're also better organized than we've ever been.

We know from every successful movement in history that you don't always win on the first shot or the second shot. I think Power Shift 2011 is a lot about realizing we are digging in for the long haul, and if it means criticizing people that are, in theory, our friends—like Barack Obama—then we do that, because we're standing up for our climate and our generation.

For me, it’s an amazing experience to see a new generation taking over, willing to be more aggressive, more confident, more strategic than they've ever been before.

Sarah van Gelder:

In a lot of movements, there's some combination of putting pressure on the political process, through lobbying and so forth; protests out on the street; and building the new society—not asking for permission, just going ahead and doing it. I see all three strategies here. Has the balance changed over time?

Jessy Tolkan:

Embracing all three of these is part of what has enabled us to keep really diverse parties together in one coalition, but the balance is always in flux. For example, in the lead-up to the 2008 election we were intensely political, though in a non-partisan way. The presidential election was the biggest conversation happening in America, and we fought really hard inside that system. But you know what? That system is broken. It's under the stranglehold of Big Oil and Big Gas and other polluting industries.

My sense is that the dynamic is now leaning much more in the direction of building the solutions in our communities. If the EPA and the president cannot stop coal, then we will shut down coal plant after coal plant on every college campus in America. If we don't have economic policy to drive the building of the clean energy economy, then we will create the demand for clean energy and energy efficiency block by block and community by community. We will protest and we will employ the skills of nonviolent direct action to actually change a broken political system.

When I started at Energy Action Coalition in 2006, I I would not have ever imagined I would be somebody who would consider getting arrested or taking nonviolent direct action. But times change. I'm in this fight for a clean and just energy future, and that means we have to be willing to sacrifice and put our lives literally on the line when necessary; folks like Tim DeChristopher have really inspired me in that way.

There is a responsible and deliberate way that movements escalate; part of Power Shift is providing people with a host of skills and experiences that allow us to escalate in a safe and strategic way.

Sarah van Gelder:

How did the Energy Action Coalition get started?

Jessy Tolkan: It was founded by about 20 remarkable young people who cared passionately about the climate but who, in the aftermath of George Bush's re-election, were incredibly depressed and frustrated and really at a loss about what to do. They were affiliated with a number of different environmental and environmental justice organizations that were relatively small in size, with relatively little power, and they decided to come together to form a coalition. The idea was, “we're going to work in a united way, we're not going to fight against each other for resources—like some of our elders in the environmental movement do—but to share best practices and strategize together.” It was really diverse, a reflection of our generation—the most diverse in American history.

And so, in a time when there was no chance of federal action on climate and energy, we started with a campus climate challenge. Students do have power on campuses; the idea was to make universities models of the clean energy future we wanted, and prove it was possible. We had teeny tiny victories, like schools agreeing to get 5 percent of their energy from wind, and huge ones, like the University of California system committing to climate neutrality by 2020. We built real power, including a powerful network of organizers, and a coalition that works together to make consensus-based decisions. We’ve been around for seven years and raised over $10 million, and also given the mainstream environmental movement a new model to think about.

Sarah van Gelder:

Energy Action Coalition is very much a youth-led organization. How has your relationship with the organization changed as you’ve gotten older?

Jessy Tolkan:

I just turned 30. When you've spent your entire career working in the youth movement, it’s a big deal to turn 30. It’s so exciting, though, to meet the 18- and 19-year-olds who are working now.

Sarah van Gelder:

The grassroots organizing that was at the center of the Obama campaign looks a bit like the Powershift approach to organizing. Is there a connection?

Jessy Tolkan:

When we train Power Shift trainers, we use a curriculum called Story of Self, which was developed by Marshall Ganz. He’s now associated with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, but his real story is that he worked side by side with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; he's spent his entire life as a grassroots organizer in the civil rights movement, the farmworkers movement, the LGBT movement, et cetera. The movement to elect Barack Obama used his curriculum. It was revolutionary in some ways to employ a real grassroots organizing strategy to elect a president.

We don’t use this curriculum because it got Barack Obama elected president, but because some of the most successful movements in our history—of farmworkers, of civil rights activists—have been rooted in this idea of people learning their story of self.

I remain in awe of the movement that was built to elect President Obama. My biggest frustration is that it didn’t sustain itself long enough to be a powerful force in this administration. I think that's partially President Obama's fault, but it's partially our fault as well. Our job didn't end the day he got elected. We’re now focusing on our own responsibility as citizen activists, inside and outside of election cycles, and it's rooted in us telling our stories and bringing other Americans in.

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