82 St. Mary’s Students Get Eco-Active at Power Shift

SEAC Co-President Shane Hall, a senior, meets House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on lobby day. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)
SEAC Co-President Shane Hall, a senior, meets House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on lobby day. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)

On Feb. 27, over 11,000 people, most between the ages of 18 and 24, congregated in D.C. for the largest conference on energy and climate change in the nation’s history.  Power Shift 2009, run by the Energy Action Coalition, was held at the DC Convention Center from Friday, Feb. 27 to Monday, March 2.

The College registered 82 students, the tenth largest number from any school in the country.  The majority were from the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC).

The St. Mary’s students arrived in a charter bus and some school vans on Friday in time for the keynote speakers, who were followed by a concert featuring Santogold.

Over the next three days, students were able to attend a symposium, workshops, listen to more keynote speakers, attend a concert by the Roots, march to the White House, protest at a coal plant, attend a rally on the West Lawn, and lobby their Congressmen.

The conference officially opened on Friday with several speakers, including Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Congressman Ed Markey.  One of the many speakers of the weekend was Van Jones, an environmental and human rights activist.

“He was my favorite speaker by far,” said first-year Elena Gross.  “What he said made so much sense.  That was the biggest thing about the weekend — tying the environment into other issues and showing how all these issues intersect.”

While Power Shift 2009 was primarily an environmental conference, a constant theme of the weekend was the interconnectedness of the issues of the world.

“We’re all working for the same thing,” said Gross.  “What happens if we have a healthy planet but we still have so many problems within our societies?  Then we as a people die.  They’re in a very large sense the same issue.”

Many of the workshops combined environmental activism with other issues. Sophomore Aaron French attended one called “Hip-hop and eco-equity.” “It was three MC’s talking about how they’ve incorporated their music and their work, their poetry into the environmental activism they’ve been doing,” he said.

The workshops and panels covered a wide variety of topics.  From holding corporate businesses responsible for their actions to learning about organization and leadership from the grassroots level up, students had the opportunity to choose to learn about what interested them most.

“I went to a really awesome workshop on Sunday about agrobusinesses,” said sophomore Rachel Buffington.  “I’m already really into food….but it really inspired me to organize a program here.”
Many of the workshops were student led, several by students from the College.

Although students were able to attend two workshops on Sunday, the rest of the day was filled with training for the lobbying that would occur Monday, which many St. Mary’s students stayed for.

Lobby day trainers ran the students through scenarios where they prepared their presentations for their Congressmen and helped students learn how to keep the politicians on topic.

Students woke up on Monday to a city covered in several inches of snow and a message from the organizers that lobby day would still occur.  Thousands of students converged in the Capital to attend their scheduled meetings.

St. Mary’s students had a meeting with House Majority Leader and Board of Trustees member Steny Hoyer himself, and were taken in the tunnels under the Capital to a room that fit 75 people.  At least 100 were crammed inside.

“The outcome wasn’t negative, but it wasn’t as positive as I think everyone had hoped for.  I don’t think he’s against us at all.  He’s very dedicated to the environmental movement, he’s just doing it from a politician’s standpoint,” said Gross.  While Hoyer listened to the students’ points, he kept trying to steer the topic away to other issues.  Students spoke up angrily when he insisted that they were not the public and not representative of his constituents, prompting him to call one girl ‘defensive.’

“I don’t think he did understand that we are the public,” said Gross.  “There were over a hundred people in that room talking to him.  We represent what the people want.  I think there was a lot of miscommunication between the lobbyers and Steny that I think will be fixed over time especially with him being on the board here and with Danny [Ruthenberg-Marshall] as the student trustee.”

Power Shift 2009 wasn’t just filled with organized activities.  On Saturday night, after the Roots concert and a long day of panels and workshops, students gathered on the front steps of the D.C. Convention Center.

“I was standing around, and a person said we should go to the White House,” said French.  “Someone got a bullhorn and shouted….fifty people just started walking, so we ran back and yelled at everybody, and more people started coming, just hundreds and hundreds of people.  At first we started on the sidewalk,” he said, but soon, “people were dancing in the streets, photographers were running everywhere taking pictures.  We probably took up a solid two to four blocks.”

The students ended up at the back of the White House.  “There was one cop when we walked up,” said French, but soon, “There were about thirty cops there.  It was all peaceful.”  In the end, the group of about a thousand, “hung out and partied outside the white house for like forty-five minutes.”

The march was representative of the spirit of the weekend — everyone worked together and took small steps towards a larger goal while having fun.

Everyone was helpful.  “Especially if you didn’t know something, they took the time to explain it to you, to explain what you could do to help.  They were genuinely interested in what you had to say,” said Gross.

Students could just set down their bags and find them again at the end of the day.  One student lost a reusable water bottle and had it returned to her by a group who found it the day before.

“It was really cool at Power Shift to see 12,000 people of this generation who really cared about something.  And that was just 12,000 people who represented larger groups,” said Gross. “There were intercity people, there were a good amount of women and men, different races, different religions.  There was a place for everyone at Power Shift.”

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