PowerShift Convention in Pittsburgh 2013: An effort to save the environment for the future


This past weekend, thousands of people came to Pittsburgh to witness a historic event. For the first time, “We Are Power Shift” was hosted outside of Washington D.C. (the usual hub), and instead was held Pittsburgh, the United States’ “most livable city.”

What is “We Are Power Shift?” It’s grassroots-driven organization that seeks to empower youth and help them speak out against environmental injustice. It’s led by people of all ages, from all over the country.

Friday night marked the beginning of the event. Keynote speeches by ten different environmental justice advocates were held in the Convention Center downtown. The first to speak was Pittsburgh city councilman and presumptive mayor Bill Peduto. Mr. Peduto spoke about the history of Pittsburgh and how it once had the worst air pollution out of any country in the United States. He said that for us to ever be rid of our “smoky city” reputation, we have to be leaders in the green movement. We have to be a step ahead of the rest.

Next was Ta’Kaiya Blaney from the Sliammon nation in British Columbia. Ta’Kaiya is twelve years old. She stood on stage in front of a room full of hundreds of people to tell her story. She talked about how indigenous culture should be respected, how a lot of the ground that is being poisoned and torn apart for the purpose of fracking was once sacred to her ancestors. She spoke about her inspiration: the protests that arose against the Northern Gateway pipeline led her to join the anti-fracking movement. She even sang the song she wrote, called “Earth Revolution.”

After Ta’Kaiya was Josh Fox, the director of “Gasland,” which was nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for best documentary. Fox also won a 2011 Emmy for best non-fiction director among several other awards. The follow-up to “Gasland,” “Gasland Part II” has been nominated for the 2013 Environmental Media Association award for Best Documentary. Needless to say, Fox is widely-respected and his speech at the Keynotes was very inspirational. He talked about the Keystone XL Pipeline and the destructive environmental impact it will have on the surrounding regions. “After all, the entire country of France, along with the Netherlands, have banned fracking completely. Why can’t we?” Mr. Fox argues.

Next was Yudith Nieto, an activist from Houston, Texas. She talked about her experience with the Tar Sands Blockade, an organization protesting the KXL pipeline. Currently, Ms. Nieto is working with youth in Houston to teach them about the environmental issues affecting  their communities and communities near them. She’s also spent time building relationships between the indigenous people of  Texas and Mexican-Americans living in Texas, uniting people of all cultures in the struggle for environmental and social justice.

Then came Jessica Serrante, an organizer for the Rainforest Action Network. She spoke about the Network’s current goal, to petition “The Snack Food 20” (the top 20 snack food companies in America) to stop using irresponsibly-produced palm oil in their products. The problem with palm oil is that a lot of it is grown in lands that come from major deforestation in Indonesia. The deforestation is a process that not only destroys the forests, but also releases more carbon emissions annually than all of the carbon emissions from cars, planes, and other motor vehicles in the United States per year. The campaign has been named “The Last Stand of the Orangutan.” The orangutan is one of the many species whose home is being destroyed by the deforestation process. “Together these companies have the power to transform the destructive way most palm oil is grown. But they won’t drive this change unless you demand it,” Ms. Serrante declared.

When interviewed on Sunday, she called the convention “Super exciting. I think college is the catalyst for these young people to get involved; that’s when I got involved! We’re trying to get more involved in the movement against deforestation and this is a great platform.”

The last speaker Friday night was Phillip Agnew. Mr. Agnew is the Executive Director of the Dream Defenders, an organization fighting for the equal rights of racial minorities. In September, the Dream Defenders occupied Florida’s State House for an entire month, demanding the passing of “Trayvon’s Law,” which called for an end to racial profiling and “stand your ground” laws. Mr. Agnew came to Pittsburgh, along with a group of Dream Defenders, to spread the word on youth empowerment. The issues of environmental injustice and racial injustice aren’t so different. They both can be solved by a shift of power to the next generation: the youth stepping up to make change in the world.

The event continued Saturday morning with a career and organizational fair. More than twenty different organizations hosted the fair by setting up tables with flyers, pins, bags, hats, and other paraphernalia. Some of the organizations present were: the Sierra Club, the Energy Justice Network, MoveOn.org, United Students Fair Trade, United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Summer, Shalefield Justice, the Green Program, the California Student Sustainability Coalition, Marcellus Outreach Butler, Think Outside the Bottle, the Dogwood Alliance, Mountain Justice, Trash 2 Treasure, Protect Wild Utah, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Rainforest Action Network. Youth from all over the country came to learn about the groups, get involved, or even become members.

During the rest of the day Saturday, the convention center hosted yet more events, like “Issue Breakout sessions” where youth connected with other Power Shifters and formed relationships to work through the issues discussed. There was even a film screening, where environmental documentaries, including “Gasland II” were shown. A series of workshops also trained participants to work as a team and stand against oppression. The day closed with more keynote speeches followed by a concert.

On Sunday, many people participated in “Civil Disobedience Training”, a guide to sit-ins, protests, resistance, and spirit. They were organizing what they called “Operation Molasses”—to slow down PNC Bank locations. They have been protesting PNC’s investments in mountaintop removal and fracking. The conference leaders performed skits on different types of action, like “gumming up the works,” “silent occupation” and “respectful protest.” They instructed the viewers to avoid getting arrested at these protests—this was not their goal. They wanted to lead respectful, educational, and powerful protests, but not have to bail anyone out.

However, at their actual protest on Monday, seven (peaceful) arrests were made.

Not only were there training sessions, film screenings, and idea meetings, many nature-oriented organizations had set up tables at the convention. Sarah Shore, of 350.org, said “We’re here because we need to connect with students over the climate movement. Powershift has been great.” Many organizers said a similar thing: that encouraging young people to join the movement is their top concern. Leader Ariana Neisner said “We have made more significant connections in the last three days than in six weeks.”