Power Shift BC puts youth in the driver's seat

A new way of organizing is spreading across the country, with Power Shift positioned to train the next generation of activists. Rather than beg support for a branded, top-down mandate, as many Big Green groups still do, Power Shift offers a toolbox to help committed young leaders to make change themselves. Early successes in the fossil fuel divestment campaign demonstrate that the horizontal, open-source model of "Green 2.0" is working. 

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Cameron Fenton with activists from Power Shift BC hold up Gregor Robertson's phone number at Saturday evening's keynote.

Power Shift is a global movement that offers training and resource sharing among youth climate justice activists. The latest conference, Power Shift BC, took place in Victoria over the October 4-7 weekend.

To get a sense of just how different the Power Shift approach is, picture the scene that took place at Victoria's MacPherson Playhouse on Saturday night.

In the midst of a panel discussion of First Nations youth leaders, a trio of university freshmen stroll onto the stage. Each holds up a placard with numbers.

“This is Gregor Robertson's phone number,” says conference organizer Cameron Fenton. “We're trying to get Vancouver to divest itself of its fossil fuel investments. Let's call him up right now and tell him to do it, ok?"

The phone, held up to a microphone, rings, and we hear Robertson's voicemail message. “Hi Gregor!” says fellow organizer Anjali Attadurai.

“I just have a couple of people who have a message for you.” She holds the phone out to the audience, and around 600 people shout in unison:

"Divest now!"

The room erupts into applause and cheers.

This, I think, is what empowerment sounds like. 

The phone call is more than a stunt. As part of the campaign to help the City of Vancouver divest its pension funds from fossil fuel holdings, the call is a simple demonstration of how easy public participation is, and a powerful moment of solidarity for the nascent environmental activists in the crowd.

Reaching out horizontally, not vertically


For the rest of the Power Shift weekend, little clusters of people can be overheard passing their iPhones around, leaving messages for the mayor. Welcome to the world of Green 2.0.

Organizer Cameron Fenton muses that "within social movements historically young people have always been at the leading edge of change.” He views Power Shift as an evolution of the unscripted opposition of the Occupy movement, consciously employing sophisticated strategies that reach back to the civil rights era. 

I am personally very inspired by stories like the one about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” says Fenton.

“During the civil rights movement, they were the force that consistently would break deadlocks by doing things that the rest of the movement thought was brash, often irresponsible—that was bold and forward driving."

Power Shift is at the forefront of a sea change in the environmental movement. The shift emerges out of frustration at the lack of climate progress made by many large environmental organizations.

“David Suzuki said it in his keynote on Friday night: the environmental movement has failed," said Mike Soros, a presenter from SFU. "It's not to discount the hard work NGOs have put in, but many of them have not delivered. "

Rather than beg support for a branded, top-down mandate, as many "Big Green" groups still do, Power Shift offers a toolbox to help committed young leaders to make change themselves. Breezing past the denialists who constrain the mainstream climate conversation, Power Shift teaches refined communication and advocacy skills that have been lifted from successful campaigns around the world: workshops have titles like “Creative Crowd Funding”, “Brand Jamming and Corporate Slamming”, and “Bird-dogging for the Win”. 

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