11/17/2010 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Expanding Envionmental Cousiousness: Meet Nina Simons, Co-founder of Bioneers

Once in awhile, you find yourself in a moment when you realize, in the moment, that this is the moment that is going to impact your future. For me, the first time I sat in the audience at the Bioneers Conference was one of those moments. It's hard to explain exactly what the Bioneers Conference is, but lets say it begins with visionaries and leaders who share their ideas and practices for improving the state of the world, stir in indigenous culture and wisdom and ceremonies, top with a youth movement, stir gently with media wonks and a film festival, combine land rights and permaculture workshops, mix in leading scientists, throw in some more thought leaders and social entrepreneurs, roll in woman's leadership, mix with workshops on social, racial, and economic justice, sprinkle with music and dance performances, and now we're cooking with fire and talking about Bioneers.

While walking between sessions, I had the good fortune to cross paths with Nina Simons , who co-founded the conference with her husband and partner Kenny Ausubel. And so, I bring to you a few highlights from our conversation:

How did the Bioneers Conference originate?

Nina: When we first started Bioneers, in 1990, one of our main purposes was to help promote awareness of the effective solutions that already existed for many of our most pressing environmental and social challenges. We felt the more people knew about them, the more it would leverage the pressure for positive change.

We imagined that all of the innovators must know each other, and were shocked to discover that not only did they not know each other ~ but they were often operating in similar areas without sharing best practices or learning, while competing for scarce resources. We discovered that this factionalization, or false separation, was a key issue impeding our progress toward effective change. We learned there was as much to gain from cross pollinating their strategies and solutions and connecting leaders across disciplines as there was from promoting their ideas and projects to people through our conference.

The conference has shifted dramatically: when we first began, we scoured to find speakers, and over time, our own understanding of the different constituencies and communities that Bioneers serves grew. From the beginning, because we began Bioneers in conjunction with Seeds of Change, it has had food and farming at its heart, and focused on learning from nature how to heal nature. Bioneers also focused early on bioremediation, the use of natural systems to detoxify air, soil and water, as well as Indigenous wisdom. We came to believe that assembling and presenting these diverse stories and speakers who exemplify how much difference each person can make could help shift people's worldview, and so help inspire greater action.

Since then, new areas have emerged within the context of the larger environmental movement, like the birth of biomimicry and green chemistry. We were among the first to feature Janine Benyus' exciting work. Part of our joy is introducing people and emerging fields, such as green design and ecosystem and land management, permaculture, and more recently, the leadership of women, restoring the feminine in us all, and the importance of youth leadership and education. Since we reframe environment as the mother of all issues, all of our human activity and relations exist within that context, and are inter-related. That's why Bioneers sits at the nexus of environment, social justice, health, education, food and design, and very intentionally integrates the perspectives and participation of indigenous peoples, youth and women.

How has working on Bioneers shaped and influenced you personally?

Nina: One of the greatest areas of learning for me has been about confronting racial justice. As I have become closer to women and other friends of all ethnicities, I have become increasingly aware of the utterly unjust systems and biases they face. and as a result more mindful of the use of my privilege and my potential contribution in addressing it. In part as a reflection of that, that area of our programming has grown.

Over the years, it remains an organic dance to identify emergent trends, and to program them in balance with the various constituencies we serve and the amazing people and projects we encounter. Because Bioneers is a living system, it's alive and constantly changing. That's probably one of the main reasons we've remained committed to its vision, because we see it being effective at opening new possibilities for people and igniting them toward greater action. Also, it's never the same twice, and is always new.

At the beginning, it was hard to find speakers that represented the diversity of approaches we sought to feature. Now, we have so many possibilities for who to program, and it's painful how many we can't include each year. The 20 or so satellite conferences, which we call Beaming Bioneers, offer other communities ways to customize and localize their events, and can also feature great people and projects from their regions.

It's an interesting experience to move from being at the fringe much closer into the heart of culture. As these ideas become more mainstream and more people write about them, it pushes us to keep finding the leading edge, and stay discerning about what we call attention to.

It felt like a statement to open the conference with two youth leaders, can you speak to that?

Nina: I have been increasingly focusing on women's' leadership for the past five years, working with women to develop our capacity to reach across differences and recognize the value of divergent voices. Often those differences manifest most obviously among race and class...but they also separate us generationally. I believe we need each other, to change the world, and to do that, we've got to value the vision and perspectives of young people. One of the ideas I've explored is the idea of mutual mentorship, where it's assumed that a youth has as much to teach an elder as the other way around. The old idea of mentorship where elders are the only ones that have something to teach is riddled with hierarchy, and fundamentally untrue. In mutual mentorship, each has equally as much to learn from the other.

Since I first met Jess Rimington, who offered a plenary this year about her One World Youth Program, I have participated with her and 3 other women in a mutual mentoring circle. They have taught me so much.

The courage and capacity that I experience within the youth movement stuns me and leaves me breathless. I feel in service to their leadership, and I am also aware that they need us, too. To co-create the future we all want to live in, we can't do it without them. We need their energy, creativity, non-stuckness, and their faith that anything is possible. And they need our experience, love, and wisdom.

How do you handle spending so much time focusing on the realities of the environmental crises we are facing?

Nina: I've come to recognize where I put my attention as a choice, and as a choice I need to renew with intentionality all of the time. Joanna Macy and Alice Walker have both been tremendous influences for me. Alice was quoted in an interview as saying that she values feeling deep sorrow and grief, because it gives her greater capacity for joy. Joanna Macy taught me to appreciate feeling despair and grief, as well as outrage, because all of them strengthen my vision and commitment and resolve to be an agent of change, to help transform the destructive systems, myself.

I think that we are plagued by a consumer culture and a legacy of patriarchy that tells us that to feel too much is not good, that depression and sorrow are to be avoided and medicated. For me, it feels like a part of choosing to be really alive, is to stay awake to feeling. Feeling not only enlivens me, it strengthens my conviction and desire to act.

At lunch just now, I learned about the human illness and toxicity of the fisher people in the gulf. BP and the government are going into 8th grade classes in Louisiana and teaching kids that the fish are safe to eat. The government has created different standards of toxicity, allowing a ten times higher level of toxicity for fish that are being consumed in the gulf than they'll accept from fish to be exported to CA (due to CA standards).

As I was learning this, my blood was boiling and I became angrier and angrier. For me as a woman, I grew up believing that anger was unsafe and not useful, and that I should avoid it at all costs. I have since learned that anger enlivens me, that there is a useful anger that feels like outrage helps us transform the world. As a culture, I believe we banish the "negative" emotions at our peril.

It is no accident that those emotions are associated with women. In the early 20th century, women used to be given hysterectomies to cure them from having too much emotion. I think it is part of our recovery as a species, from cultural addiction and patriarchal bias~ to reclaim our capacity to feel everything. Our feelings can be our biological instructions for how to respond appropriately to the dangerous situation we're in. For we are in an emergency - a relatively slow motion emergency. I believe the way to respond is to engage with and be informed by all of our human capacities, which includes giving ourselves permission to fully feel.

I am constantly growing into my assignment, and standing at the crossroads of many worlds: environment, racial justice, women, youth, and consciousness. Part of my role is to offer connective tissue, and to help people make those connections themselves. As we're fond of saying about Bioneers: It's all alive, It's all connected, It's all intelligent, It's all relatives.

You can stay connected to Bioneers via their radio program, on Facebook and Twitter.