Power Shift; Where Youth Fight for Our Future

This weekend, the Woodstock of the environmental movement is on full display, not in a remote farm in New York, but deep in the heart of the nation's Capitol.

That’s where more than 10,000 young environmental supporters poured into the mammoth Washington Convention Center for three days of meetings, speeches and rallies, part of the Power Shift 2011 conference.

Rousing speeches by environmental human rights advocate Van Jones and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson were big draws. But the most important work was being done in the many workshops and discussions in the dozens of small conference rooms.

Over a hundred workshops led by environmental leaders who engaged the youth of America in subjects ranging from the nuclear crisis in Japan to environmental justice in poor communities. Many empowering connections and powerful stories emerged. 

Power Shift attendees protest natural gas fracking        All photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

One of those stories was told by Gulf resident Andre Gaines, 27, a single father of two sons. He rode a bus all the way from his hometown of Lucedale, MS, to help lead a discussion about his traumatic experience during the Gulf oil disaster. His story, like those of many others, has largely been ignored by the media and is unknown to most people in his own state.

After the Deepwater Horizon exploded a year ago, Andre jumped at the opportunity to work on the cleanup when BP contractors came calling in his small town. But Andre says things started to seem unusual after their training classes were cut from 40 hours to two and they were told to sign paperwork agreeing not to talk to the press. On his first day out on the water, Andre says he fell and cracked his teeth jumping from a boat. His $2,200 dental bill remains unpaid, he says. 

But the worst was to come, he told attendees. During the hot summer cleanup last summer, Andre says planes would fly overhead spraying chemical dispersants that would drift over the workers, burning people’s skin and making it hard to breathe. Andre says he watched workers collapse from exposure to toxic fumes of the oil. Soon, Andre says he succumbed himself and spent days in the hospital with “tubes and IV coming out of everyplace in my body.”


Tony Nguyen and Andre Gaines of Mississippi address thousands at Power Shift 

Later, Andre says BP promised him $21,000 to pay his medical claims, but when he followed up, the phone had been disconnected. Out of 200 people who worked with him on the oil cleanup, Andre says all have had medical problems and that he know of no one who has been compensated for their illnesses. But the future is what worries him.

“They came to the poorest places and took advantage of us,” Andre says. “If I knew what I know now I wouldn’t have taken the job. But people need to know. If I die, I don’t want my kids to go through what I did.”

That’s the message Van Jones had for thousands of young environmental activists in a speech the night before. “Shift the power,” he shouted as the young crowd roared and jumped to their feet. “You aren’t just the leaders of tomorrow. You need to be the leaders of today.”

Activist Derrick Evans drove his FEMA trailer the "Tar Ball Express" to the event 

Community leaders in the Gulf could use their help. Many are tired and worn out by an exasperating, emotional  year of anger, frustration and sacrifice after the nation's largest oil spill. But here at Power Shift, there was no lack of energy from the thousands of bright eyed, super-charged youth who bounded through the cavernous building like herds of gazelles. They appeared more than eager and ready to fight the power and shift the nation toward a clean and renewable energy economy.