People smiling together in a group.

My fellow environmental studies friends and I were lucky enough to have been provided free student tickets to the 34th annual Bioneers conference hosted this year in Berkeley. I had never gone to an event like this before, surrounded by so many people across generations, the country, the globe, to come together and share, strategize, and brainstorm a better future. There were about 2,000 people in attendance, and a wide variety of workshops for us all to attend. The mornings started with keynote speakers who blew us all away, followed up with panels, conversation groups, and lectures. I looked around and was met with smiles. It was incredible to see that there are so many people who understand these deep rooted issues, who are passionate about transformation and who want to see change. One keynote speaker was involved in Third Act, a group of people 60+ of age who are in their ‘third act’ of life and still seeking hands-on participation. This work is heavy and can make you feel alone, so this weekend was a much needed reminder that I am quite the opposite. I gained many insights this weekend, and personally I need a debrief. I want to solidify these takeaways in my brain, heart, and body, while also sharing them with those not in attendance, who seek to grow their knowledge and perspective.

We have to start with deep, radical understanding. Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage, was one of the amazing keynote speakers who introduced sub-minimum wage. Being from Missouri, I experienced being paid under minimum wage due to being a tipped worker. Saru acknowledged that we need to start with ensuring basic needs for our citizens before we get mad at them for not expanding their capacity of caring. When a single mom being paid a non-livable wage (tips are inconsistent and never guaranteed) is trying to put food on her table and spends all her energy working and caretaking, there is not much leftover space to care about environmental issues. If she doesn’t have a federal day off of work to go vote and hasn’t seen change in her life from past elections, how can we expect her to do time consuming research, take an unpaid day off, and advocate for others when she needs it herself? Yes, elections typically benefit white people over minorities, but they primarily benefit well-off white people. There are many lower class white people that do not see improvements in their lives via elections or have extra energy/time to learn, and as a result do not show up at the ballot box. We have to understand their very real conditions and not demonize these people for not caring. It’s not necessarily that they DON’T, it’s sometimes merely that they can’t.

Education is a big barrier for many, and it’s up to the people who understand these issues, and have had the privilege to study them, to help bridge that gap instead of pointing and laughing. This message was also discussed in a lecture I attended on Authoritarian and Anit-authoritarian movements. When it was time for questions, an individual approached the mic to share their upbringing in a Midwest apocalyptic cult. They knew what it was like to cling to ideas they did not truly believe or understand, but that the culture around them instilled. They eloquently stated that people, specifically the right, have deeper fears that lead them to holding tight to power dynamics, misunderstandings, and ultimately hate. These ideals are scary and hurtful but are the result of living in a world they are understanding less and less, due to the existing dominant culture, access to education, and an opposing side so strong in their convictions. I by no means am trying to excuse the resulting racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. I am only trying to offer understanding so that we may go forward in hope of bridging this divide. As we all know, left and right, the United States is incredibly divided and it’s really hard to pass environmental legislation in this polarized state. We need many, many hands on deck to fix the environmental crisis we ALL face, and this communion won’t be started with the right trying to meet the left in the middle. It is up to those with deep ideals of compassion, instead of fear, to make the big moves, to start open, kind conversations where we ask questions and look for deeper reasoning in the people we are confused by. They are people after all; the thing we all have in common is being children of this Earth, and to save her, to save us, that unity must be strengthened.

Two posters with messages against fossil fuel funding.We must listen, but we must not wait. Hearing from people who have been protesting since the 1960s was incredibly inspiring, and being able to access a life’s worth of information is a gift. It is so important that we listen to our elders and their wisdom, to learn, and to ensure we are moving forward in this fight. However, something I am taking away from this weekend is that our elders don’t necessarily have the answers. There were a few forums I went to that fell flat on the action and next steps portion of the conversation. After experiencing this a few times, my peers and I came together and had an open conversation about our experiences with Bioneers. We shared the hope we were getting but also the feeling of incompletion. I sat there, looking at all these incredible people and hearing their real, grounded, honest perspectives, and I ended up with a sense of empowerment. I have the most confidence in the people I work alongside and see change makers in all of them. It is ok that some answers aren’t out there! But a part of me needed to know that to evaluate how I myself will move forward. I will listen, and I will learn, but I will not wait. I am excited to bring my voice to the table, now knowing it is just as valid even though there is not a lifetime of work to back it up. We are all trying, and making mistakes, and coming from our unique perspective. We all belong in the conversation.