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Power Shift 2011

Posted by kevinwolz on April 19, 2011

Last July, I attended an intense, weeklong activist training camp in Alabama called SPROG. It was there that I first heard of this thing called Power Shift. Supposedly, there had been two before in 2007 and 2009, and we were told there would be another in 2011 that we should all attend. While the idea sounded great, I was originally skeptical that I would actually be able to fit it in with everything else I do. Nevertheless, this past weekend, I participated in Power Shift 2011, one of the largest gatherings of Youth in Washington, D.C. EVER. Power Shift 2011 was a convergence of 10,000 youth leaders (mainly college students) from every walk of life all over the country to stand up for the clean, sustainable future they believe in. Two days of training built the grassroots leaders that will organize this movement across this country and the rest of the globe. Strong messages and direct actions on our nation’s Capital made a powerful statement that my generation will not stand for dirty energy, dirty money, or a dirty planet. It has been four CRAZY days…

My story started last Thursday night when seven other students and I left the Illini Union in two cars at 8:30pm. We drove east…and drove…and drove. Rather than driving straight to D.C., however, we decided that we were close enough to rationalize taking a slight detour into southern West Virginia for a life-changing experience: seeing Mountain Top Removal in person.

For those of you who haven’t yet heard, Mountain Top Removal is the coal industry’s latest, greatest method of extracting coal from the ground. Basically, it involves blowing up entire mountain tops and dumping them into the valley below, exposing the small layer of precious coal beneath. Consequences include, irreversibly destroying the surrounding ecosystem, completely blocking streams, cutting available jobs, and…oh yeah…poisoning the water and land of the Appalachian people. Don’t even think for a second that is just some small, isolated incident…take a minute to open a new tab in your browser and head to southern West Virginia on Google Maps. You don’t even need to zoom in that much! See all those grey splotches everywhere?? Those are mountains that have been leveled to get coal for your energy! Search around a bit more…it’s all over Appalachia. If you can see it from a satellite way above the Earth’s surface, what do you think it was like in person? Exactly.

We arrived in tiny Sharon, West Virginia at 6am after about nine hours of driving, took a quick nap to rejuvenate, and then meet with Julian Martin — one of the longest-serving activists in this arena.  Julian guided us on a rough ride up to the top of Kayford Mountain, which has been featured in several documentaries and is considered ground zero for the fight against Mountain Top Removal. What we saw at the top, or rather what we didn’t see, rendered me speechless. Fuel for the fire.

This is a once-valley filled in with rubble from the once-mountain to the above right.

There used to be a mountain there. Oh yeah...and trees.

Mining at its lowest moral level. See that small strip of black? Yup, thats what theyre looking for.

After heading back down and another bout of driving, we finally made it to D.C…just in time to see Al Gore’s opening keynote. And what a speech it was! He may have fallen out of the spot light in the last few years, but he’s still a great communicator, and he did a great job getting us fired up. There were a bunch of other great speeches that night as well, with another great keynote by Van Jones.

After getting all riled up, our exhaustion caught up to us. Barely one hour of sleep in over forty hours can hit you hard. Luckily, one of my friends from the D.C. area was willing to let us crash at her place for the weekend. Sleeping that night was just beautiful.

Saturday at Power Shift brought some great organizer trainings and a bunch of really interesting and educational workshops on a variety of environmental topics. There was SO much going on, but the best part of the whole day was randomly finding and catching up with all my SPROGer friends from last summer! It was so great to see everyone again and find out what awesome things they had been doing at their respective schools over the last year.

At night, we experienced three more great keynote speeches. The first was Lisa Jackson, Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ms. Jackson outlined what the current administration’s EPA has done in the last few years and where they are headed next…however, she very slyly skirted around Mountain Top Removal, coal ash, the BP Disaster, and natural gas fracking…probably our biggest current environmental issues. Hmph. Don’t get me wrong, the Obama EPA has done wonders compared to the Bush EPA…but that’s not saying much. Next was Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and probably the climate movement’s most influential current leader (I saw McKibben for the first time last summer at MREA). McKibben’s speech was great but slightly pessimistic, as always. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as he’s really just being realistic…something I think is necessary.

Before heading back to the conference center on Sunday, I managed to get my weekly long run in on the National Mall. Talk about a runner’s high! In just 70 exhilarating minutes, I saw the White House, Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Korean Memorial, Washington Memorial, World War II Memorial, Smithsonian Museums, U.S. Capitol, and countless other large, historic buildings along the way. The history and power of everything that I saw is just so daunting. Jefferson was definitely my favorite…he’s just so cool.

After the run, there were more training and then a big emphasis on state coordination of campaigns and information. Participants from each state broke out into groups to discuss with other attendees what their own campus was doing, how they could work together, and how they could share information. It was great to see that the few of us from UIUC weren’t the only ones from Illinois!

After state breakouts and a quick dinner, we headed to a training for Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA)…probably the best tool in the activism toolbox. Trainers took us through the history, rationale, tactics, and methods of NVDA in order to prepare us for the following day when our masses would head to the National Mall to take action for our cause. We then headed to bed to dream about the memories we would make the next day.

NVDA Training

The rally started at Lafayette Square just north of the White House. We gathered there, donned our green hard hats, crafted our signs, and got pumped. The energy was amazing. Standing side by side with Illinois friends, fellow SPROGers, and countless others sharing the same cause, we made our voices – the voice of Democracy – heard loud and clear.

After the rally, our group split in two for the march. The first group headed towards the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the largest single source of lobby money in the country…dirty money that does not represent every American business, as they claim) and BP’s D.C. office (enough said). The second group (the one I was part of) marched the two miles to the U.S. Capitol. This short hour was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I marched side by side with my peers, friends, and allies for a common cause that we know is so necessary to the future of our country, our Earth, and humanity itself. I got shivers as people would peer out their office windows, scramble out of buildings to see what was going on, and even join us in the streets. We were making a difference. We were being heard. As the Capitol drew near, we grew louder and stronger. The chants were powerful and resonant. The participants were passionate and unified.

After a final push on the Capitol grounds, the group dispersed yet again. Some headed into the Senate to lobby their state’s senators, some headed to the other end of the building to lobby their Representatives, and others, like us unfortunately, had to begin the long drive home.

It’s still hard for me to grasp everything that happened this weekend. Everything was so surreal. Contrasting the amazing that happened, however, my biggest disappointment of the weekend was that I missed joining my friends and teammates at our National Track Meet. The prospect of not being there for my team made the decision to go to Power Shift extremely difficult. However, while I’m still sad that I missed fully supporting my track teammates, this weekend’s experiences reassured me in my decision. The keynote speakers repeatedly told us that our movement would not grow and make a difference without many sacrifices. This is something that has been hard for a lot of us to realize but became immediately apparent while planning for this trip. There’s no debate: Attending Power Shift was honestly the most important thing I could have been doing this weekend.

Hell, Power Shift is probably the most important thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.

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4 Responses to “Power Shift 2011”

  1. Joan said

    Kevin,

    I am so proud of you and know that you ARE making a difference in our
    lives! That was our future in DC and it made me feel good to know you are all on the same page.

    Love, GB

  2. Roger said

    Kevin, thanks for sharing what seems like a life changing event.

  3. kwolz said

    DISCLAIMER: You may be reading a communist blog!

    We all fully expected Glenn Beck to call us “communists wrapped in an American flag,” but I don’t think any of us could have seen this coming:


    Careful parents! We’re out to get you! Grrrrrr!

  4. Ellen Klaus said

    You are inspiring, Kevin!

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