What I Said at the White House

"If It's Not 'Clean' Energy, Don't Call It That"

Kirin Kennedy, a fellow Energy Action Coaltion (EAC) Steering Committee Member, was talking about the kind of work that young people are doing all across the country to address the threat of global climate change when President Obama burst into the room and said, "Hello, everybody!"

I caught the eye of my friend Maura Cowley who is Co-Director of EAC, with a mutual look of, "What is happening right now??? Did the president really just drop in on our meeting???"

photo of US President Barack Obama with young people at a conference tableCourtesy, The White HouseEnergy Action representatives meeting with President Obama. Shadia Wood is sitting left of center,
with chin in hand.

The funny part is, just an hour before, right before going through White House security, we had been role playing the scenario: What do you do if the president walks in? All of us laughed and said, "The president is not going to walk into our meeting."

Then he did. The president walked around the room shaking all of our hands as we introduced ourselves. (And just to brag for a moment, Obama did mention that he liked my name. Just sayin.) Almost all of the youth present, including me, were people of color from communities most impacted by dirty energy. We were the people from the very communities that had imagined how different our world might be under the Obama administration.

One of the first things that President Obama brought up was the Washington Post article that had been published that morning. If you haven’t read it, the article discusses the disillusionment with the President and his policies that is settling in the hearts of young people all over the country. This is serious. Young people not only elected the president, they were the engine of his campaign and turned out millions of voters. The president brought up the Post article by reminding us that while he and his office have a lot of power, our efforts should focus on pressuring congress.

Which is exactly what we plan to do. For the next two years, Energy Action organizers will be in every congressional district pressuring their representatives to be a climate justice champion.

But we also need our president to be a climate justice champion – which was the main point of our meeting. We know his values are on our side. We need his actions to be as well.

Unfortunately, right now his actions aren’t. There is a difference in having to walk the fine line of partisan politics and opening up thousands of acres of land in the Powder River Basin to new coal mining. This new coal will spew four billion tons of C02 in the atmosphere, cause avoidable birth defects, and kill thousands of people each year.

There is certainly a difference between finding points of political compromise, a principal our country is based upon, and compromising the lives of millions of people around the world, as President Obama did when he sat on the sidelines while our only piece of federal climate legislation was being drafted. He should have been an active player inserting his beliefs and our beliefs into that bill.

At the White House meeting, President Obama told us we have power, that this is why we were at the table. That big intimidating table where the administration was intimidated by us. Because they know that we believe we are more powerful that any corporate handout. And because they know – if they were truly listening – that if they use their power to be a climate justice champion, we will put our lives on the line to campaign on his behalf.

We told the president stories from our communities and how they are bearing the burden of his energy policy. For 25 minutes we urged him to be our champion. He looked at his watch and said he must have been enjoying this conversation so much because he was currently really late for another meeting.

After President Obama left, we had 20 more minutes with his staff. The Post article was brought up a couple more times, and it became clear that the White House staffers were missing the point. I finally found my voice and chimed in, saying: "The story of Courtney’s [EAC Co-Director] disillusionment is not a unique one. Thousands of young people all over the country are becoming disillusioned with the president because when you create a "Clean Energy Standard" that includes coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, we know that isn’t clean. We come from communities where thousands of people all the time are dying from these energy sources. Call it what you need to. Call it a "necessary transition." But don’t call it "clean." You lose young people every time you call it clean. It is a lie every time you call it clean. So just stop calling it clean."

It was quiet. They scribbled something in their notebook.

The meeting ended with them congratulating us on the accomplishment of getting 10,000 young people to attend the largest grassroots organizing training in the history of organizing trainings, PowerShift 2011. They told us they’d be watching our development. We said the same.

So what does this mean for our movement?

Eleven young people got a meeting with the president and he spent 25 minutes with them. One of the last things he said was to keep pushing him and his administration. This shows that what we have been doing is working. That the most powerful office in the world had witnessed us and told us to keep doing what we’re doing is huge.

It’s especially important given how much time – and money – the Big Green groups have spent telling us to not criticize the President. And here he is telling us that he needs us to do that. Seems to suggest either a lack of political imagination, or a failure of political courage, on the part of Big Green. Either way, it’s time for young people to be the true leaders of this movement.

Thomas Jefferson said, "Every generation needs a new revolution." The struggle for our collective survival is my generation’s revolution. As PowerShift 2011 brought in 10,000 young people from around the country, it really felt like our revolution was coming alive.

And just like our meeting at the White House, we need that revolution to be lead by those who are most impacted by climate change and dirty energy.

Other youth leaders in the room were:
  Jasmine Cortez of Communities for a Better Environment,  Sandra Garcia of the Southwest Workers Union,  Courtney Hight of Energy Action Coalition,  Carolina Marcias of Little Village for Environmental Justice,  Lilian Molina of Energy Action Coalition,  Gabriel Morgan of Bowling Green State University,  Kim Teplitzky of Sierra Student Coalition,  Miah Ward of Detroit Youth Energy Squad.

The White House Staff that were present:
  Nancy-Ann DeParle, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy; Jon Carson, Director of Public Engagement;  Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy And Climate Change;  Amy Salzman, Associate Director for Policy Outreach, Council on Environmental Quality; Kalpen Modi, White House Liason to Young Americans.

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