Students from across Michigan convened at the state’s capital for PowerShift, a three-day environmental summit promoting green technology and clean, alternative energy sources.
Events included workshops, musical performances, and keynote speakers, such as Jerome Ringo and Jessy Tolkan. The conference culminated with a rally on the steps of the Capitol – with students holding signs that read, “Senators Stabenow and Levin: Bold Climate Action Now,” “Obama: Michiganders Want Climate Solutions!” and “Coal Kills.”
The Energy Action Coalition, a network of organizations which support youth environmental movements, organized regional conferences.
Michigan and Indiana were the first two states to host regional conferences. Nine more regional PowerShift events are set to occur in by early November.
The summits promote bold climate legislation, both nationally and internationally. “PowerShift is a campaign, and the conferences are just a unit of the campaign,” said Scott Meloeny, one of the five PowerShift Midwest organizers.
The conferences are staggered around climate legislation in the United States Senate – specifically, H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Securities Act of 2009 (ACES). The legislation, written by Ed Markey (D – Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D – Calif.), would establish a type of cap and trade system. Under this system, the government would limit the total amount of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – that could be emitted nationally. Companies could then buy or sell permits to emit these gases. The government would steadily reduce this limit, or cap, between 2012 and 2050.
Participants also want “to let President Obama know that, when he attends the United Nations Climate Conference of 2009 in Copenhagen this December, the youth of America want the U.S. to lead the world toward a fair, ambitious and binding global climate treaty,” said Meloeny.
“We wanted to … create this coalition, this movement, of young people who can come up with one voice calling for change in environmental policy,” said Steve Ross, another Midwest organizer.
Yet within Michigan, the conference held even greater significance. Michigan’s failing economy allows the state “to really restore its economy based on a sustainable method, based on green jobs, based on clean energy,” said Meloeny.
The first PowerShift conference was held in November 2007, in Washingon D.C.. Another national conference was held in March of 2009.
This year, eleven regional and state-wide conferences replaced the national conference. “These smaller regional movements are kind of a microcosm of the national one. They have a lot of the same content, same voice, same ideals,” explained Meloeny. Yet these regional conferences build upon existing infrastructure within communities – such as local businesses and environmental organizations – to push the movement forward.
PowerShift regional organizers and campus coordinators had less than six weeks to plan the conference. “There are things that I’m already thinking about improving for next year,” said MSU campus coordinator and international relations senior Neeharika Tumati. “As the MSU coordinator, what I could do better with student outreach, student retention. I think maybe more time is needed.”
The smaller size seemed to have no impact on the conference’s quality.
Environmental policy junior Kris Martin attended both the two national and Michigan’s regional PowerShift conference. “[Michigan’s PowerShift] is on a smaller scale, of course,” Martin said. “But the workshops I attended today all had something different, so I don’t think just because it’s smaller scale means less information.”
Moreover, the locality allowed students like Martin to easily network with others in their own community. Martin had the opportunity to re-introduce himself to Ingham County drain commissioner Patrick Lindemann, who spoke to Martin’s class two years previous. “It was really cool to speak with him, and kind of refresh his memory,” Martin said. “I may be doing an internship with him now.”
I attended PowerShift 2009, toeing the blurry line between objective journalist and active participant. Admittedly, after watching videos and hearing testimonials from previous participants, I had expected crowds of energetic students parading throughout the streets of Lansing. Yet instead, I was greeted with a partially barren warehouse, with poster boards sitting dejectedly upon fold-out tables and handfuls of students making small talk with one another.
Washington D.C. embodied a certain level of exoticism and sexiness that Lansing simply could not replicate. “It was something about a trip to D.C. to learn more about the environment that was exciting,” recalled Tumati. “Going with a bunch of college students, staying in a church basement, just hanging around D.C. during one of the biggest snow storms of the year…that was pretty cool.”
In short, I felt as if PowerShift had lost the grandeur and passion that I admired. Despite my initial shock and disappointment, I soon discovered that size was the only drawback to the event. The engaging speakers and informative workshops, along with subtle networking, helped participants cultivate a strong sense of community identity.
“I really like how students are sitting around and talking and playing basketball, just interacting, going into the community, grabbing food, things like that,” said Tumati.
Instilling a sense of political activism on the local level demonstrates that “you don’t have to travel twelve hours to go make a difference, you can do it in your own backyard,” Martin said.
While PowerShift may be over, “There are lots of things that are happening at the federal and state level,” Tumati said. “I think it’s easy for students not to pay attention or not to really know what’s going on and get lost in the various media outlets.”
Tumati encourages participants to continue spreading PowerShift’s message. “I think it goes back to the fact that we should not be a democracy every four years. Just keep going, continuing.”