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What I Said at the White House

What happened when eleven young activists confronted the president about his climate and energy policies.
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President Obama meets climate activists, photo by The White House

President Obama meets with youth climate activists in the White House. Shadia Fayne Wood is sitting left of center, with her chin in her hand.

Photo: The White House

We weren’t expecting it.

We were a group of young people, most of us people of color from communities disproportionately impacted by dirty energy. We had all imagined how different our lives might become under the Obama administration—and many of us had worked tirelessly to get him elected.

We had come to the White House to meet with staff from the Obama administration—to talk about the challenges our communities face, to tell stories of what young people are doing to address the threat of climate change, and to let the administration know what kind of leadership we expect from them. We had come to express our disappointment with the administration’s streak of timid positions and underwhelming policies on the greatest challenge our world faces—when President Obama burst into the room.

One of the first things that the president brought up was a Washington Post article that had been published that morning. The article discusses the disillusionment with the president and his policies that is settling in the hearts of young people—some of Obama’s most ardent supporters during the last campaign—all over the country.

The president told us that, while he and his office have a lot of power, our efforts should focus on pressuring Congress.

We agree, in part: For the next two years, organizers from the Energy Action Coalition will be in every congressional district pressuring their representatives to be a climate justice champion. But we also need our president to be a climate justice champion. This was the main point of our meeting. We know his values are on our side. We need his actions to be as well.

We believe a grassroots movement can be more powerful that any corporate bribe.

Unfortunately, right now his actions aren't. There is a difference between walking the fine line of partisan politics and opening up thousands of acres of land in the Powder River Basin to new coal mining. This new coal will spew four billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere, cause avoidable birth defects, and kill thousands of people each year.

There is certainly a difference between finding points of political compromise and compromising the lives of millions of people around the world, as President Obama did when he sat on the sidelines while federal climate legislation was being drafted. He should have been an active player, inserting his beliefs, and our beliefs, into that bill.

At the White House meeting, President Obama told us that we, the young people in the climate movement, have power.  This is why we were at the table, he said—that big, intimidating table where the administration was intimidated by us. The Obama administration knows that we believe a grassroots movement can be more powerful that any corporate bribe.

Tim DeChristopher, photo by Daphne HougardTim DeChristopher at PowerShift 2011: The Climate Movement Needs to Step It Up

Young people are already pouring our lives into solving the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.  Youth from the front lines of this crisis are already putting our lives on the line to fight climate injustice in our communities. If the administration were truly witnessing our power, they would know that if they use their power to truly champion climate justice, we will do the same to campaign on their behalf.

We told the president stories from our communities, which are bearing the burden of his energy policy. For 25 minutes, we urged him to be our champion. He looked at his watch and said he must have been enjoying this conversation, because he was late for another meeting.

"You lose young people every time you call it clean. It is a lie every time you call it clean."

After President Obama left, we had 20 more minutes with his staff. The Post article came up a couple more times, and it became clear that the White House staffers were missing the point. I finally found my voice and chimed in, saying: "The story in the Post article is not a unique one. Thousands of young people all over the country are becoming disillusioned with the president because, when you create a ‘Clean Energy Standard’ that includes coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, we know it isn't clean. We come from communities where thousands of people are dying because of these energy sources. Call it a ‘necessary transition,’ if you need to. But don't call it ‘clean.’ You lose young people every time you call it clean. It is a lie every time you call it clean. So just stop calling it clean."

It was quiet. They scribbled in their notebooks.

The meeting ended with congratulations for the accomplishment of getting 10,000 young people to attend the largest grassroots organizing training in history, PowerShift 2011. They told us they'd be watching our development. We said the same.

So what does this mean for our movement?

Eleven young people got a meeting with the president and he spent 25 minutes with them. One of the last things he said was to keep pushing him and his administration. This shows that what we have been doing is working. That the most powerful office in the world has witnessed our work and told us to keep doing what we're doing is huge.

The Big Green groups have spent so much time and money telling us to not criticize the president. And yet here he is, telling us that he needs us to do just that.

It's especially important given how much time—and money—the Big Green groups have spent telling us to not criticize the president. And yet here he is, telling us that he needs us to do just that. Seems to suggest either a lack of political imagination, or a failure of political courage, on the part of Big Green. Either way, it's time for young people to be the true leaders of this movement.

Thomas Jefferson said, "Every generation needs a new revolution." The struggle for our collective survival is my generation's revolution. As PowerShift 2011 brought together 10,000 young people from around the country, it really felt like our revolution—led by those most impacted by climate change and dirty energy—was coming alive.


Shadia Fayne Wood

Shadia Fayne Wood adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shadia is the founder and Co-Coordinator of Project Survival Media. She became an advocate for environmental justice at age seven due to a cancer cluster in her community, home to large amounts of toxic waste. She started off in an eight-year campaign to pass New York state legislation on toxics, which passed in 2003. In recognition of her efforts, she received the prestigious Yoshiyama Award from the Hitachi Foundation and the Brower Youth Award from the Earth Island Institute, which originally published this piece.

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