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Be The Change “un-conference” attracts Vancouver activists young and old

All photographs courtesy of and copyrighted by Paula Poortinga.

I never know about my assumptions until I hear myself (or others) speak them.

So when I listened to the conversation around our table last Saturday at “Navigating the Great Turning” -- Be the Change’s “un-conference -- I was surprised. And then curious. The topic of our conversation? Young people. The speakers? Men and women in their 50s and 60s. 

A high school teacher mentioned the apathy of his students. Another guy complained about his granddaughter always texting and tweeting. A woman lamented young people’s lack of concern about the future. I sat there, nodding (as in, nodding off to sleep). I’d been in this same conversation back East at the art college where I taught for 20 years: Our students were unmotivated, they were lazy,oh where were the good old days?

Then I woke up and said, “Wait a minute! Look around. This hall is full of young people. What do we imagine they’re doing here?”

Moments later, painter and community activist Melanie Schambach was describing a mural project in Latin America that raises awareness about labour practices of Canadian mining companies. And we listened, spellbound by her intelligence, poise, and ardour. Not to mention the power of the mural itself, which hung on a nearby wall.

This is what struck me again and again throughout the day —the energy and originality of the young people, and the overall sense of hope. True, the election results were still unknown, but this is an enthusiasm that will live no matter who is in office. It is truly grassroots. And what distinguishes it from the grassroots movements of 40 years ago is its moment-by-moment awareness of itself as an international phenomenon. However diverse the issues, an essential spirit seems to connect young activists in Canada and those in North Africa and the Middle East.

Whatever this spirit comes to be called, it is, I think, something that Vancouver Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer was relieved to find that day. Her life, she explained, is not glamorous. She spends a great deal of time in meetings in which she hears about why what she wants to see happen can’t happen. Here, she said, she could talk with others about what we can do.

As an example of our community’s resilience, she told the story of “the freeway that never was” — the plan to connect the Trans Canada highway to downtown through East Vancouver.

“The fight started at family dinners, people talking about their houses and schools being knocked down. People talked over fences, at the butcher shop, at their neighbor’s kitchen table. They crossed cultural lines.” One organizer said she knew that victory was at hand when she saw chop suey and a marshmallow salad at the same community supper.

The point of the story, said Reimer, is not so much that they were against the freeway, but that they were fighting “for their communities and a way of life. They were fighting for our future — what would be possible without a freeway.”

Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler reminded us of the immensity of the ecological challenges facing us. “We are nothing as individuals,” he said, “because we are not individuals. Nothing supports the idea that we’re individuals. We take the world in with each breath and give it back upon exhaling. We can only describe the interaction between things, the relationship between things.”

“If we’re going to solve it [the ecological crisis],” said Weyler, “we’re going to solve it as communities.”

The challenge, then, is to how to approach our own communities and convince each other and ourselves that we can, indeed, give up some of our “stuff”. No matter how conscious and well intentioned, we are still a part of the 15 per cent who consume 85 per cent of the world’s resources.

No one came away from last Saturday’s gathering with a quick fix. Most of us did, however, come away with a renewed sense of possibility, and quite a number of people connected to their neighbors and agreed to form informal or formal groups to continue the rich and potent conversations they had begun.

For more information about Be the Change Earth Alliance, visit their website:

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