Youth of the Colorado Plateau Rise for Climate Justice
PHOTO BY Paper Rocket Productions
ESSAY BY BROOKE LARSEN
We opened the 2018 Uplift Climate Conference with a song, lyrics so familiar to me they feel like an anthem or an old friend: “People gonna rise like the water / We’re gonna calm this crisis down / I hear the voice of my great granddaughter / Saying climate justice now.” I have sung variations of this movement song originally crafted by the Peace Poets at direct actions and organizing meetings, mass mobilizations and intimate gatherings. Singing it with over one hundred budding climate activists at Uplift carries a distinct power, though. For many attendees, this was their first time singing the classic song. But by the close of the conference, it was one of many tools participants gained to build a movement.
For the past four years, Uplift has empowered and united young people for climate justice across the Colorado Plateau—the high desert of the American Southwest. The name “Uplift” was inspired by the geologic process that led to the rise of the red rock region. By calling ourselves Uplift, we sought to not only center connection to place, but also spark hope and resilience in the face of the climate crisis.
This year’s Uplift Conference, which ran September 14-16 at the Cedro Peak Campground outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, focused on resisting, protecting, and healing. I was among the original organizers of Uplift, and throughout the recent conference I felt humbled and grateful as I witnessed something I helped create transform from an obscure gathering to a thriving movement. I felt similar to the way I feel in the presence of red rock—insignificant yet interconnected, small yet part of a powerful whole. I felt hope.
Uplift starkly differs from traditional conferences. At this year’s gathering, participants camped among pinon-juniper forests under desert skies. Seeds of Peace, a catering collective that supports nonviolent direct actions and mass mobilizations, prepared nourishing meals. Speakers, mostly young people themselves, talked passionately about abolishing capitalism, decolonization, food sovereignty, and migrant justice. Workshops ranging from “Indigenous Rooted Direct Action” to “Stories and Skills for Local Seed Stewardship” gave attendees skills to dismantle unjust systems and create a regenerative future. An “Elders Night” emphasized the importance of intergenerational learning. Art and healing spaces centered creativity and vulnerability, because as Uplift organizer Danielle Austin says, “Action spaces are so important in providing tools, but there need to be places that nourish too. If we are only focusing on being 'productive' activists—and not on healing the trauma the Earth, communities, and individuals have experienced—then we're sort of perpetuating capitalist ways of thinking and being.”
Since Uplift’s beginning, organizers have sought to highlight the Colorado Plateau’s interrelated injustices. “Young people today are tracing the root causes of climate change to the long history of systemic oppression that this country was built on,” Eva Malis, the Uplift Coordinator, explains. “When we see indigenous peoples, people of color, poor people dying or displaced from climate chaos, we have to understand that the disproportionate impacts of climate change that oppressed peoples are facing today aren't accidental, but rather a result of societal inequity.”
Much of the Colorado Plateau has been federally-designated as energy sacrifice zones. In addition, the Colorado Plateau’s aridity makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Since the spring, the region has been in exceptional drought. This year, many indigenous communities striving to preserve traditional livelihoods were unable to plant corn.
Throughout the conference, a giant, bright yellow banner that read “Protect Chaco” hung behind the main stage. Greater Chaco—one of the Colorado Plateau’s many sacrifice zones—is sacred to over two dozen tribes. Ninety-one percent of federal lands in the area have been leased for extraction, leading to the approval of over 400 new fracking wells without adequate Tribal consultation. The eastern agency of the Navajo Nation sits in the middle of the mess, and a checkerboard of tribal, federal, state, and private land makes it so fracking happens not far from Diné people’s homes.
Kendra Pinto, a Diné millennial and Uplift’s keynote speaker, feels the impact of the checkerboard. Federal land begins 75 feet from her home, and, last year, the Bureau of Land Management leased a parcel in her backyard. “All we hear is people don't matter,” she exclaimed. But she also emphasized that people are rising. In contentious meetings with the BLM, Pinto has declared, “There's a movement that's started, and it's only going to get bigger.”
Uplift contributed to this growing movement by ending the conference with an action at the Albuquerque Civic Center. The “Protect Chaco” banner moved from behind the conference stage to the center of the rally, and participants raised signs they made throughout the weekend with messages such as “Protect Chaco, Defend the Sacred” and “Stop the Genocide.”
Going into the weekend, there was no line-up of speakers for the rally. Rather, organizers called on the participants of Uplift to rise into their power, transforming from the conference audience into the speakers themselves. Organizers from the Frack Off Chaco Movement wanted speakers to not just raise awareness about Chaco, but also share stories from their communities.
Marcela Mulholland, a millennial who came to Uplift from Florida, took on the challenge and shared, “The oil-soaked seagull off the Gulf Coast of Florida is not so different from the poisoned waterway of Chaco.” She concluded her speech with a quote from Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
I was reminded of the wisdom Diné elder Sunny Dooley shared the previous night: “You know what is best. Now, go and fight for it.” Like the vivid orange Globemallow that filled the Cedro Peak Campground, the youth of the Colorado Plateau face megadrought with resilience and beauty. We concluded the action with the same song that opened the conference. This time, everyone knew the words.