by Ethan Nuss, Tar Sands Blockade
The Southeast has historically been a launching pad for significant, world-changing social movements. This weekend at the 7th Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference (SSREC), the power and energy of the more than 400 youth organizers in attendance made it easy to feel that we too are making history. Hosted by the Southern Energy Network, youth from across the Southeast gathered for an incredible weekend full of essential organizing trainings, motivating workshops, and inspirational speakers. Youth in the Southeast are organized, trained, and energized! After this year’s SSREC, they’re turning up the heat to head home and ramp up their campaigns to achieve a 100% clean energy economy.
This year’s SSREC was held in Asheville, North Carolina exactly one year out from the 2012 president election. Youth leaders gathered in this critical swing state to remind President Obama of the power the youth electorate demonstrated in 2008 when we elected him to office. We’ll soon be the largest voting block in the country – that’s power – and we wanted to make sure Obama knows he’ll need us to win in 2012. IN addition to being politically important the Southeast is deeply dependent on dirty, dangerous energy sources like coal and nuclear power. Southern youth are rising to the challenge to move us to a cleaner future.
This year’s SSREC kicked off with a bang on Friday night with a dazzling array of keynote speakers and culminated yesterday with a massive action to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.
Friday night, Florida YES Coalition leader Ren Reilly opened the conference with her compelling story of how last year’s SSREC transformed her life: "I have the skills to be an effective organizer and the confidence of a great leader. This was sparked by SSREC.” Ren is now a lead SEN organizer and her story exemplifies the growth of the movement in the Southeast and the power of their organizing.
Saturday, Ellie Johnston of SustainUS – former SEN Steering chair – delivered an incredibly moving keynote speech. "Sadness about climate injustice is an expression of our love for the world,” Ellie shared, and she received a standing ovation for her brave honesty about her personal struggle to confront the reality and deep sadness of climate change impacts.
The weekend culminated in an energetic action to call President Obama to stand up to Big Oil and reject the Keystone XL pipeline. A year out from the election, it was time to remind him of some of the promises he made during his campaign.
To launch the action, Brinkley Hutchings, a student at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, gave a powerful personal testimony about the devastating impact Big Oil has had on her coastal Alabama home: “After the BP disaster you could smell the oil in the water. The red crude looked like blood for miles.” Fighting back tears she eloquently drew the connection between the cancerous effects on indigenous communities in Canada and how the dirty Keystone XL export pipeline would bring even more devastation to the Gulf.
Then the crowd headed to downtown Asheville for the main march. As Sunday shoppers looked on from store windows in the quiet mountain town, hundreds of youth leaders thundered through downtown with echoes of “YES WE CAN! Stop the Pipeline!” Creative signs and even a mock White House demonstrated Southeastern solidarity with the 12,000 people surrounding the White House at the Tar Sands Action on the same day.
The march made a pit stop at Bank of America (BoA) to declare them “Foreclosed” for being the largest funder of dirty coal. Todd Zimmer from Rainforest Action Network fired up the crowd with RAN’s new campaign to get people to close their BoA accounts in protest. The march then moved on to Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), one of the major bankrollers of tar sands oil extraction. A guerrilla theater skit called out RBC corporate officials for refusing to acknowledge their role in funding dirty tar sands oil and poisoning indigenous communities, and organizers executed a huge banner drop across from the RBC building. Elizabeth Goyer, SSREC organizer and student at the University of North Carolina – Asheville said,
“The reason we’ve demonstrated against Royal Bank of Canada is simple: as they continue to fund the tar sands and other dirty energy, they also fund the corruption of our politicians and fuel a dirty energy economy that puts people and our environment at risk. We need a 100% clean energy future for our generation, not one fueled by dirty tar sands.”
SSREC is just the beginning. Empowered with new organizing skills youth leaders from across the Southeast are returning home inspired to strengthen their networks and escalate campaigns for 100% clean energy. It took years of dedicated movement building before the Civil Rights movement reached a point of mainstream take-off. After a weekend at SSREC it feels like once again the South is approaching its place in history.