At the 1998 Bioneers conference, a spontaneous round of applause rang through the hall as mobile phone connection was made (when mobiles weighed half a pound). Julia Butterfly Hill was protesting the clear-cutting of old-growth forests from her 180-foot perch in a 1000-year old redwood tree. She electrified the audience as she described life in the canopy and reflected on her activism as a 25-year-old youth.
The next year after Julia descended from Luna and keynoted in person, she saw the need to expand the presence of youth and organized an impromptu session on the lawn with about 30 young people. She sowed the seeds of the Bioneers Youth Leadership Program and helped get it off the ground. Thank you, Julia.
We launched the program in 2001 because the values and skills young people gain in their formative years shape the rest of their lives and society’s future. Young people are often prime movers of social change and leaders in innovation. Youth movements do change the world.
In the early days, we had to actively seek young people and convince them to come. Today we cannot keep up with the demand. Entire school classes participate in the conference along with many educators working across diverse institutions. Bioneers media are being used in growing numbers of schools.
We prioritize the participation of young people from low-income backgrounds, communities of color and Indigenous heritage. Most young people don’t have money, which necessitates scholarship support. (Hint, hint…)
Youth Leadership builds alliances across race, ethnicity, age, gender, class and culture. It represents the most diverse constituency within Bioneers. The program continues to expand the consciousness of the Bioneers community on issues of privilege and oppression.
Much of the program focuses on conference participation and a host of youth-oriented projects and activities, such as Just Us for Food Justice and talking circles. Arts and media projects support youth to express their vision, passions and aspirations in venues such as the Poetry Slam, Singing Tree Mural and Trashion Show. Youth are prominent in the conference program, including daily Youth mini-keynotes and performances on the main stage as well as in panels and workshops.
By its very nature, Bioneers is a community of mentors, and in 2012, we piloted the Community of Mentors project to connect youth with Bioneers leaders across diverse disciplines, issues and backgrounds. Special youth programming and mentoring have included Chief Oren Lyons, Van Jones, Michael Pollan, Nikki Henderson and Charlotte Brody among many others. In truth, it’s a mutual mentoring process, and the Bioneers “mentors” get as much or more from the interaction as youth do.
As former Youth Leadership program director Kristin Rothballer recently said, “Youth are now defined by ecological crises in a way that past generations have not been.” The challenges are formidable. We are grateful to nurture, mentor and support the education and leadership of our youth as they carry forward the long struggle for peace, justice and a green civilization. Thank you, Bioneers youth.
YOUTH LEADERSHIP MILESTONES
- New Youth program hosts 200 youth including 20 scholarships, with help from Julia Butterfly Hill and new program director Kristin Rothballer. We create an informal space where youth meet, network and inspire each other about activism.
- Allies including young Canadian Cree activist Clayton Thomas Muller (soon a Board member) shape the vision of bringing highly diverse youth to conference.
- Dedicated Youth Tent with interactive programming designed for and by youth.
- Destiny Arts Center youth perform for the first time and become an ongoing partner and conference highlight.
- Ongoing partnership with Earth Island Institute, founded by legendary environmentalist David Brower, hosts Brower Youth Award Winners—extraordinary young environmental leaders—to share successes and inspire other youth.
- Just Us for Food Justice begins: Youth food justice activists from Boston, Bay Area and Costa Rica join in one day pre-conference intensive. Teen Environmental Media Network from Marin produces Bioneers radio segments that air on NPR.
- Chef Bryant Terry does healthy food demo in youth tent.
- Youth host the International Council of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers.
- Pilot Community of Mentors project promotes intergenerational exchange for movement building by cross-pollinating wisdom, vision, experience and accomplishments across ages. Youth meet in small groups with Bioneers presenters who provide guidance, and vice versa.
- We initiate daily Youth mini-keynotes. Youth of Color Caucus forms as safe space to discuss issues such as race and class, race and oppression, and environmental justice.
- Community of Mentors expands, forming mentoring teams facilitated by Weaving Earth, a nature-based mentoring group.
- A record number of 350 youth scholarships is awarded, including over 65 Native American youth. A formidable 89 youth participate in the Youth of Color Caucus, facilitated by author Luisah Teish, a spiritual leader in the Yoruba Lucumi tradition of West Africa.