Energy Action Coalition

Stir It Up

Bring 10,000 young climate justice activists to Washington, DC for one of the largest organizer training sessions ever, and you’re going to attract some attention.

When the Earth Island-sponsored Energy Action Coalition hosted its PowerShift convergence in the capitol in April, the media couldn’t help but notice. The gathering grabbed headlines in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, and on CNN. But it was a story in the local newspaper, The Washington Post, that caught the eye of officials in the White House. The Post story – “Youth at environmental summit unhappy with Obama policies” – quoted Energy Action co-director Courtney Hight complaining that when she heard the president’s recent energy security speech, “it seemed like something BP wrote.” Hight, who in 2008 directed the youth vote for Obama’s Florida office, then said: “We need them to draw a line in the sand. We need him to stand up to the polluters.”

US President Barack Obama with young people at a conference table
Energy Action members meet with Obama at the White House. Photo Courtesy Pete Souza, the White House.

Aware of how crucial youth voters were to Obama’s 2008 victory – and how essential they will be for a re-election – White House aides scrambled to invite the PowerShift organizers to a meeting in the West Wing. Administration officials were in the midst of defending their boss’s record on climate change and energy when who should walk in the room but the president himself.

According to accounts of the meeting, President Obama brought up the Post article and said that young climate activists should focus their efforts on pressuring Congress. The PowerShift organizers listened politely, but they weren’t afraid to push back and urge Obama to be the clean energy advocate they thought they had voted for. At one point, a young woman interrupted the president, who, according to those present at the meeting, didn’t seem to mind.

To PowerShift organizers, the lesson of the White House episode was clear: If you’re willing to play political hardball – including withholding your sought-for support – the powerful will listen. As Shadia Fayne Wood, a member of the Energy Action steering committee who was at the West Wing meeting, wrote on the Journal’s blog: “This shows that what we have been doing is working. 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.

“At the White House meeting President Obama told us we have power, that this is why we were at the table.”

Power shift – accomplished.

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