Make Room for Youth at the Table
Young folks are thinking outside the box and building a broader, diverse, and thriving environmental movement
An excerpt from Brower Youth Awards director Anisha Desai’s speech at awards ceremony in San Francisco last week
There’s a lot wrong in this moment, but what is really right and on time and hope embodied — is that there are a whole lot more people, in a whole lot more spaces, building power. Now, many folks for a long time have been building this power. Sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, but let’s be honest, until recently — we haven’t given it a whole lot of notice or space.
Photo by maisa_nyc/Flickr
But lucky for us, people who have been building power aren’t waiting on the rest of us to catch up. Whether it is the thousands of brave frontline Native American activists near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota have been protesting for months against the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, or the bold activists of Black Lives Matter who have put their hearts and bodies on the line fighting for the humanity and safety of black lives, or the young people demanding to be heard in the halls of law-making institutions, willing to risk arrest, to ensure that their voices are included in determining their ecological futures—these folks have been at it all along. Building power, building analysis, strategizing, and dreaming of a brighter and more hopeful planet.
I’m happy to say that young folks are finding more and more ways to reach us — through technology, through their voices, through broader channels to share their perspective. We are now opening spaces so that the light can get in. And even when those spaces are not open, thank goodness, they are breaking in the window and coming in anyhow.
I happen to think, that the late David Brower may be both incredibly challenged by, and also incredibly inspired by, the current state of the social change movement today. Particularly, the role of youth in this great broad realm we call the environmental movement.
Challenged, because there’s a lot of discomfort in this present moment. People talk a lot about seemingly disparate issues coming together — silos breaking down. These issues have always been connected, but many, who had blinkers on for ages, are only now beginning to see the links. Those folks have no choice but to start thinking outside the box.
Photo courtesy Bay Area Wilderness Training
Youth, among others, always have to be resourceful, insightful, curious, efficient — forever dreaming outside the box.
For the rest of us, this idea of thinking or looking outside what we know is a leap. A really hard leap. Sometimes it means giving up power. Stepping aside. Not always saying what you know, or think you know. Sometimes it’s about building that longer table. And sometimes, it’s about knowing that there are only so many seats at the table so you may need to take a step back so that someone else can lead.
David Brower is credited from transforming environmentalism from a “polite cause” to an activist movement using creative strategy, unconventional tactics, and uneasy alliances. By making cultural shifts, by striving to make wilderness relevant to the every day person.
Although he led and founded many organizations, he was always resisting business as usual and got impatient with bureaucracy that stood between him and addressing important ecological crises.
What were once David Brower’s most extreme perspectives, perhaps contained in his famous and ever-changing sermons, have now become the norm. We have every day citizens that consider themselves environmentalists, activists, changemakers.
So, I believe that David Brower would have looked at the current state of youth organizing and youth cultural production and been supportive of a broader, wider, diverse, and thriving movement. He would have seen hope embodied. He would have said that we have a lot of work ahead of us, and that the movement is only going to be strengthened by all of us pulling for the same core values of dignity, humanity, and respect for our planet and its inhabitants.
David Brower may have also noticed something else about today’s youth activist movement. Young people are grinding — sending emails, giving speeches, developing strategy, raising funds — with barely any resources. Brower was no stranger to multitasking. He created pamphlets and disseminated them, he lobbied, he organized, he wrote, he made films, he designed ads, and saved great big pieces of the planet from further development and destruction. He was his own viral machine.
And all this hopefulness takes a lot of energy. Having a vision is lonely and takes a lot of effort.
I like to imagine what kind of organization David Brower would have founded if he was alive today. Perhaps he would have put his energy behind a retreat for hopeful, but weary young activists. Maybe he’d start the Sanctuary for Weird Ideas, or the Refuge for Rebels, or maybe the Fight-the-Power Colony — where we’d all live peaceably off the grid, having successfully fought the power, and living in blissful accord with likeminded folks who we’d never have to explain ourselves to again.
One thing is for certain. David Brower knew that it would take a lot of radical, brilliant minds to solve the crises in our planet. And he would be so inspired by the radical and brilliant minds of this year’s award winners.