Worldchanging Interview: Ethan Schaffer on Powershift 2009


Last week, I caught up with Worldchanging ally Ethan Schaffer, Director of Major Gifts and Grants at Northwest-based nonprofit Climate Solutions, to talk about his recent participation in Power Shift 2009. The epic event featured four days of workshops, speakers and music focused on mobilizing, networking, learning, teaching and lobbying Congress to make real progress on global warming. More than 12,000 people attended the event, which organizers are calling the largest gathering of U.S. youth climate activists in history.

Schaffer attended with coworker Bonnie Hemphill on behalf of Climate Solutions to talk with congressmen and senators from the Northwest Delegation to encourage them to support bold climate action. Scores of young people lobbied alongside them, many stepping onto Capitol Hill for the first time.

Between training some of the nearly 6,000 people who volunteered to lobby their representatives and talking to people about solutions to climate change, Schaffer managed to attended a few of the event's keynote speeches and workshops, which he called inspiring and exciting.

“It was more like a rock concert than some sort of policy wonk briefing,” Schaffer said. “Plus the energy was very different with a new administration in office. We could feel palpable support from the Obama administration.”

Sarah Kuck: What was unique about Power Shift 2009 for you?

Ethan Schaffer: For me I think it was amazing to see so many youth excited about this issue in such a big way. Each person there, each one of the 12,000 represented an entire group that couldn’t make it for travel or time reasons, and just in the past few years even from the time when I was in school, it’s grown so much. The interest has grown so much.

SK: What was the most informative or inspiring part of the weekend for you?

ES: I was running around and meeting with folks a lot, but I did get to attend a few workshops. And all day Sunday, I was leading lobby day trainings to get people ready for the lobby day. We broke up 6,000 people into teams of eight, then we prepared teams to go into meetings with representatives. We went over things like talking points, who would talk when and what they would each say, and helped get them ready.

SK: So what was it like training 6,000 young people?

ES: It was fun. Most of the people had never been in on a meeting with their representative, so they were pretty nervous, and asking lots of questions. But they were really eager and energetic. It really felt empowering, like we were helping to impart important political skills that they could end up using for the rest of their lives to make an impact on government and the world.

SK: What’s the benefit of being involved with a lobby day, especially a climate action-focused one?

ES: This was the biggest lobby day ever, for any thing, for any issue.

It’s incredibly important. I think anybody working on any issue knows that it’s important to be in front of your representative. As constituents, as people who got them elected, it’s important to let them know what you think. And it’s especially important right now with young people, since young people have so much political power. It’s really arguable that youth put Obama into the office and changed the entire administration. It was that same youthful energy and campaign tactics and really the large percentage of the voting block. And that was really a theme throughout Power Shift: The youth were exercising their political will. And making sure that the representatives know that this is something that they are really concerned about. And particularly I think climate change is the type of issue that will affect the youth more. The youth are going to be around longer on the planet to witness the effects of climate change -- beyond what we are already seeing now.

SK: What were some of your favorite solutions or big ideas that were presented?

ES: The biggest one on the table is whatever this new climate bill coming down the line is, some kind of market-based cap and trade system. That’s the biggest solution. Will need a number of solutions under that.

I think Van Jones and his push for more green jobs and investment in the green economy, is also very exciting; Investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency that will create more jobs.

They announced that Obama released his recommendation to shut down the Yucca Mountain site. So it was exciting to see the climate community coming together against the other impacts around energy like clean coal and nuclear...They are realizing that those things are related and they are making the connection.

SK: Did the young people show any sense of frustration about the economy?

ES: I think there was a lot of talk and energy around the need to use climate change and energy efficiency to drive the economy. The solutions to climate change are the solutions to the economic crisis; I heard that theme throughout the conference. And for the most part, the participants seemed very optimistic about the future. They see addressing climate change as very positive for the economy.


SK: What was the big take away message for you? Have you brought back any lessons that you are going to either share with your community or turn into action?

ES: We brought back more of an understanding of the grassroots youth movement, which is just growing like wildfire. And the power that youth have in this movement. As some of the speakers pointed out, in so many past campaigns and movements for large social change, there’s been a youth movement that was driving it. Whether is was civil rights or Apartheid in South Africa, there was a core youth movement that’s helped drive that change. I think we’re bringing that to Climate Solutions - inject a little bit that youth energy here.

One thing that stood out at the Power Shift conference was the presence of new media. The entire time. I’ve never seen such a full embrace of new media. Even the conference schedule -- they printed it well before they knew what rooms and things were going to be taking place in, there had to be some room shuffling, there were so many events and stuff to set up. In the conference schedule they didn’t have room numbers assigned, they just had a number where you text message and it would automatically text message back where the most recent update of where the room was. And then you could subscribe to all sorts of text feeds and they would update you with the things that were happening, and then if there were any special surprises, you get a text message. The whole thing was run by text. And then, you know, they had live Twitter Feeds and everyday they had YouTube videos, and you could share photos on Flickr, and they were doing live video of all the keynotes so you could watch them from anywhere in the country.

SK: The focus of the conference seemed to be teaching young people how to take a stand in government. How do you think government will be different 10 years from now?

ES: Obama's administration is going to have a revolutionary effect on government in general, just for instance, in how they utilize new media. It’s really not just coming from the administration, it’s coming from the youth who are influencing the administration. I think almost the entire Obama new media team was at Power Shift, and they were all in their early 20s, and they are all taking positions in the various departments inside the government now, and they are setting up all sort of more interactive new media websites for the actual departments. For instance, Ken Salazar mentioned that the Department of the Interior is going to launch a new website that will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before that will completely integrate all the new media and social networking functions. I think we are going to start to see a lot more youth participation in government and opportunities to engage and have our voices heard.

Those tools open up the possibility for new participatory democracy.

SK: Will your organization send you back? Will there be a Power Shift 2010?

ES: I know they don’t want to lose the momentum. But a lot of work goes into an event like this. I think the realistic next steps will be a push for some form of climate legislation in 2009. So, everybody who met with their representatives delivered a request to meet once the representatives are back in district, keep talking to them, keep the pressure on, and keep including more and more of our friends into the movement. So we can keep the pressure on to get the climate legislation passed so that they can bring that to Copenhagen and really negotiate an international treaty that will be a real solution.

A number of workshops specifically focused on Copenhagen and the international agreements, but I think also everyone recognizes that the first step is to show that the U.S. has some serious commitments, and that will give us bargaining power at the international level.

SK: Did you get a sense that the youth came to the table with a strong understanding of the issues?

ES: There were people there who were just learning about things for the first time, but the majority were pretty well versed in the issues, and I was just blown away by the level of sophistication and understanding -- often times well beyond of what my understanding – either of the policy, of the actual solutions or technologies, things like that -- people are really into this.

Image credit: Flickr/Powershift 09, Shadia Fayne Wood

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