Extraction Has A Human Face
Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl
At Power Shift 2013, thousands of young people gathered to talk and learn about justice in the environmental movement. Held Oct. 18-21, the latest edition of the biannual conference focused on the the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality with fossil fuel extraction and climate change. And as the problems with racism and environmental justice issues continue to be prevalent in Washington, D.C., this conference couldn’t have come sooner.
As an environmental reporter focusing on justice and as a past Power Shift organizer, I was eager to attend the conference’s newest iteration. It’s no secret the environmental movement is deeply divided. Environmental justice (EJ) advocates have long said mainstream environmental activists focus on politics and policy at the expense of people. Mainstream environmentalists argue some sacrifice is necessary for progress. But sacrifice for whom?
“We don’t think of the people who are sacrificed to make our lives easier,” said Yudith Nieto, one of the conference’s keynote speakers. “I am one of them.”
With panels such as “A Cage or a Classroom?: The School-to-Prison Pipeline Affecting EJ Communities,” and “Economic Justice and Empowerment: Challenging Classism in Our Communities,” attendees were introduced to the impacts felt by frontline communities by people from those communities. “People, not policies,” is an uncomfortable reality, but one that needs to be faced.
Nieto lives in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, Texas, one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the U.S. The community is surrounded by the Valero, Lyondell Basell, and Texas Petro-Chemicals oil refineries, and residents suffer from elevated incidence of cancer and asthma, among other disease. Now, the community is preparing for an onslaught of tar sands from the Southern half of the Keystone XL.
In addition to Nieto, activists traveled from frontline communities in states ranging from Louisiana to California, and Indiana to Utah. The keynote speakers included Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village, Chicago, Josh Fox, director of Gasland, and twelve-year-old Ta’Kaiya, singer-songwriter of the Sliammon Nation who performed to thunderous applause.
Power Shift 2013 wasn’t without its controversies, including a counter protest and pamphlet handed out criticizing organizers for using empty words. “I wasn’t sure if this was the right space for my voice, my community,” Wasserman told the crowd at her keynote, explaining she her tough decision. She decided to attend Power Shift, she said, because, “…the reality of our movement calls for tough conversations.”
If the conference had a theme this year, it was a simple one: Extraction has a human face.