Midwest Convergence mobilizes youth at the intersection of climate change and social justice
As many movement spaces often do, the day began in a circle. One hundred young people – high school students, college students, and twenty-somethings – gathered around a huge parachute laid on the floor with big green letters reading ‘Leave it in the ground! Resist!’ It was early on a Friday morning, and people had traveled from as far as North Dakota, Michigan, and Ohio.
The audience was slowly waking up. ‘What are you willing to commit to?’ they were asked. ‘Whose land are we on right now?’ ‘What are your gifts and passions?’ ‘What are your privileges and oppressions?’ With each question the energy in the room began to rise. ‘Do you believe that we will win?’ By the time the sun began to shine over the Minneapolis skyline, the room was unified in expressing and affirming what we know to be true: that climate change is as much about conservation and preservation, as it is about the food we eat, the air we breathe, the security we seek, and the places we call home. Climate change is as much about the natural environment as it is about the socio-economic systems we live in. Our ability to transform these systems is key to realizing the dream of a just and sustainable future – a dream that will not be realized unless we commit to the work of transforming ourselves.
From Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and the Dakotas, young people traveled by bus and by car to Minneapolis for the Midwest Youth Climate Convergence, held at the Minneapolis American Indian Center, October 30 – November 1. This three-day working retreat was co-hosted by Climate Generation, Grand Aspirations, MN350, Energy Action Coalition, and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, in partnership with SustainUS, MPIRG, Responsible Endowments Coalition, and 350.org – with the goal of connecting the dots between climate change, race, class, and identity to build a stronger Midwest youth climate movement.
Over a year and a half in the making, the Midwest Youth Climate Convergence was the culmination of a long-held vision – to bring committed youth climate organizers together across the Midwest to support existing campaigns, build synergy across movement sectors, and to integrate the Just Transition framework into campaign strategy and the long-term trajectory of the climate movement in the Midwest.
The Just Transition framework, created by the Climate Justice Alliance, includes the following six-point winning strategy:
- Fight the bad
- Build the new
- Move the resources
- Change the rules
- Change the story
- Strengthen democracy
The Convergence focused on the three most robust and emergent youth climate campaigns in the Midwest: divestment & reinvestment, tar sands, and green economy/community wealth building. Youth organizers active in these movement sectors convened peer groups to plan and facilitate two days of working sessions related to each sector. It was a powerful experience for all involved.
For Midwest students organizing on campus divestment, the convergence offered a space to build out their regional network, share strategies, and deepen their peer mentorship strategies. “The divestment & reinvestment track was an opportunity for students to learn about reinvestment, ask questions, share concerns, and access new tools for building solidarity with other groups on and off campus,” shared Patty O’Keefe from MN350. “Ultimately, students representing seventeen college and universities across the Midwest came out of this working session with concrete plans to implement a new structure for the Midwest divestment network.”
For tar sands organizers, the convergence was a chance to further develop youth strategy to stop rapid tar sands pipeline expansion in the Midwest, and increase youth leadership in the Midwest Tar Sands Coalition. It was also a powerful opportunity for young organizers to learn about treaty rights and indigenous perspectives on extraction and pipeline resistance from Audrey Thayer, professor at Leech Lake Tribal College and member of the White Earth Ojibwe Nation. “The convergence was a chance to roll out a regional campaign,” said Andy Pearson, who worked with a small team to convene the tar sands track. “Our work this weekend was framed within the organizing model of ‘story of self, story of us, story of now.” This coordinated regional campaign will be a culmination of work built by the Tar Sands Resistance Tour of campuses along the proposed Alberta Clipper pipeline last spring, as well as the Tar Sands Resistance March in this summer that drew thousands to the streets of St Paul.
Finally, the green economy/community wealth building track provided an opportunity for young people to hear directly from community wealth building practitioners who are living examples of Just Transition in action. This included Jason Edens, founder of Rural Renewable Energy Solutions, a Minnesota organization focused on providing solar as a solution to reduce energy poverty. “When we first launched RREAL there were only 10 solar contractors in MN. Now there are about 500,” Jason told the audience. “Solar is the future of low-income energy assistance.” B. Anthony Holley shared stories from his experience as co-founder of The Cooperation Group in Detroit, an organization working to assist in the economic self-determination of people who desire a more inclusive economy. His organization has assisted in a variety of campaigns and programs including Soulardarity’s solar streetlight campaign, helping residents of Highland Park, Michigan, reclaim ownership and control over their future energy needs.
Throughout the convergence, the natural light that filled the American Indian Center accentuated the beautiful indigenous art in the building, providing a grounding sense of place for the work being undertaken. Collaboration from the Beehive Design Collective, and intentional planning on arts integration within the convergence, provided ample opportunity for participants to learn and process experientially, through movement, song, and creative expression. At the end of the weekend, youth from all three tracks came together to develop a shared narrative on how these three movement sectors intersect, and how youth organizing across the region can be more intentional in coordinating and supporting each other’s campaigns and strategies.
Needless to say, three days provided barely enough time to scratch the surface of all the complexities that lie before us. Our planning committee is painfully aware of this. And yet we hope that the convergence provided a call to action – for each of us to explore our niche within the Just Transition framework and deepen our work across the Midwest, at the critical intersection of climate change and social justice.
Abby Fenton is the Youth Programs Director for Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy. Climate Generation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota dedicated to educating and empowering people to engage in solutions to climate change. Our Emerging Leaders Youth Program aims to empower Midwest youth climate leadership as key strategy in the transition to a just and sustainable future for all.