03/08/2009 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

12,000 Students Skip School for Green Jobs/Climate Change Solutions

On February 27th to March 2nd, 12,000 students and recent graduates left their homes and dorms, put on their green hard hats, and headed to the Nation's Capitol to advocate for green jobs and clean energy solutions at PowerShift09.

Despite driving snow and bitter winds, students lined the West Lawn to rally for PowerShift09

I was one of the 14 percent who attended PowerShift07 just 15 months before, where 6,000 of us came to speak to our Congressmen and women about our demands. PowerShift07 was considered the largest lobby day on climate change in the history of the United just 15 months later- Energy Action- the group behind much of the organizing, was able to double the number and make this the largest lobby day on any issue in our country.

Students gather in the D.C. Convention Center for state breakout lobby training sessions

Standing Room Only

There is power in numbers. You don't have to convince me on that...but it goes far beyond the "Standing Room Only" signs that hung outside so many of the workshop doors- from "Creative Activism" to "Climate Justice" to "Building a National Movement to Power Past Coal." There is an electric energy that circulates when humans come together- especially when we are there to unify our voices. That energy is undeniable and unreplicable. It builds ideas, it builds confidence, it builds spirit. It's the stuff that movements are made of.

Standing room only in much of the rooms

Now I'm not the type to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," but there is power in standing in solidarity. I was there once again at our testimony to the Select Committee on Climate Change & Energy Independence, the second time that young people would go on record to encourage, if not implore our Congress to take bold actions. In 2007, I sat behind Billy Parish. This year, I sat behind Jessy Tolkan, the newly anointed Executive Director of Energy Action. It was calmer this year - or maybe a bit more serious. Edward Markey, the Chairman on the Select Committee addressed the crowd first: "To truly launch a renewable revolution," he began,

"Congress must pass climate legislation that will cap pollution and invest in the technology of tomorrow. It is a moral obligation to the children of the generation testifying today."

Juan Renosa, a member of the New Mexico Youth Organize - a green jobs program in his state, remarked that the job growth in his area relies on the prison industry, the uranium extraction industry, and the gambling industry. "It puzzles me," he said to audience, "because New Mexico is #2 in the entire nation for solar potential, and #12 for wind potential. We are literally having an opportunity shine right down on us, but we are letting an opportunity blow right past us."

Youth delegates testify to the government on climate change and green jobs

Kandi Mosset, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations in the state of North Dakota and a representative of the Indigenous Environmental Network, emphatically spoke to the uranium mining and tar sand extraction that happens on and near her native lands. She also spoke out on the rare form of cancer (that is not so rare in her homeland) that she was diagnosed with at the tender age of twenty years old.

"Over the last year there have been over 30 cancer-related deaths that I know of on the Forth Berthold Reservation...and I'm here to tell you that I don't believe that is a coincidence," she said fighting back her tears and finding her voice. "Indigenous peoples have been systematically targeted by the fossil fuel regime for years...Because our cultures are so dependent on our relationship with the land, we ultimately become economically dependent on our own cultural destruction."

"There is a wealth of renewable energy on indigenous lands," she continued, "Wind capacity on our reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota alone are equal to 200,000 megawatts. That is enough energy to produce 1/3 of America's energy demands. The solar electricity potential generation on Indian lands is 4 1/2 times greater than the current U.S. annual generation."

It's this type of emotional upheaval that hits you right in the back of the throat. And the type of information that when you hear uttered from a strong, sensible young woman makes you wonder how on earth we got here - and where in fact, we are all heading...

Erasing the borders

My grandmother had placemats - in fact, she still does - with the North American map confined to it's 12"x18" plastic blue borders. The state and national borders were distinctly defined, outlined in solid black lines, each state flaunting it's own bright hue to show it was different from the next. I used to eat a bowl of spaghetti-o's and look down at that map, analyzing the different state shapes and learning the state capitals. I would look up to Canada - just a shaded map of gray with no provinces listed - or let my eyes head down south to Mexico - another land body awash in some other tonal color. That's how we're taught to think about the world, isn't it? In a piecemeal fashion - confined by borders, when really, our environmental issues, rights and responsibilities operate in a borderless environment, hitting on the fact that we do not represent just our interests and our rights, but the interests and rights of all beings.

This became much clearer to me upon speaking with our legislative assistant to one of our Senators in the State of Pennsylvania. This year we had the second largest delegation and we spanned from inner city schools in Chester County to rural areas in Bradford County; steel towns in Pittsburgh to old coal mining towns in Scranton...It was a diverse mix of people - something I think we could be very proud of.

A large international delegation came to represent PowerShift09. Since PowerShift07, many other youth-led conferences have cropped up all over the world. Considering that we had such a representative contingent on American-soil is a testament that shows what we do will greatly affect - and matters - to everyone else on the planet.

Some of us were still in a meeting with Spector, our other Senator, but about thirty of us made our way over to Russell Hall to request a meeting with Casey. We couldn't get an initial scheduled session, so a few of us went to the secretary to request one. Alexander, the Legislative Correspondent, came out to meet us. "Sure I'll be happy to meet with you three," he said with gusto.

"Actually, there are a bunch of us waiting in the room over there," I said pointing.

"Oh," he said with a hint of surprise. "Did you clear the room with the secretary?" he asked.

"There wasn't anyone in it, so we just camped out there," we replied. "And we're expecting about a hundred more."

I have to say that our conversation with Alexander was quite amicable. He engaged us with questions for at least twenty-five or so minutes. I looked at him and saw a spark of young, hungry, realistic idealism balanced by the sensibility of the political sphere he works in. He agreed that coal is dirty, but "How -" he asked, "Are we to stop coal production in Pennsylvania, a state that is disproportionately reliant on it? We are not like California. Fifty two percent of our energy demands come from coal," he remarked...and I can say he was genuinely interested in an answer.

I have to say that we didn't have all the answers. Here we are asking for bold legislation - cutting carbon dramatically, investing in green jobs, renewable energy investments and representation of the U.S. at Copenhagen's climate meeting in December - and we don't have the exact road map on how to get there.

Rainforest Action Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network helped organize a strong voice on tar sands extraction. Most tar sands tailings are just 500 yards away from 1/4 of the clean energy water sources that supply North America. Areas are stripped-mined and piped to be refined.

"I think it will be wise for us," I began, "to get a number of us here together in this room to form a council that will help research and inventory Pennsylvania's renewable energy capabilities and help advise and guide you for those answers," I said.

"That would be extraordinarily helpful," he remarked. "As you know, we're not scientists here, and Casey knows this is important and where we need to head," he said. " Alexander asked if CO2 is listed as a pollutant by the EPA - whether we would even need to pass legislation. We chorused back that we would need legislation to help with job creation and ensuring we have a cap-and-auction mechanism that provides revenue for clean, renewable energies and job creation. "It's a good start but it's not good enough." He cocked his head towards the ceiling - and nodded in agreement - as if he hadn't considered that. "And by the way, what do you all think about nuclear?" he asked us all.

I felt a lump form in my throat. The same lump I had in 07 when the last legislative correspondent asked us about "clean coal." It was the same fist-sized rock that hit me earlier that day when I heard Kandi's impassioned talk about uranium mining on North Dakota's land.

"As you know," I said. "We're here at PowerShift representing 12,000 young people from all 50 states, every Canadian province, and over a dozen nations. We are here representing a much larger movement - and those of us who couldn't be with us today. Our environmental issues know no borders. We want clean, renewable energy that is safe for all. The uranium mining that is happening on indigenous lands is causing great sickness - and how we store that waste - is expensive and contentious. We prefer to concentrate on realistic, clean renewables, but we need to the appropriate legislation - and your support to get there."

Within the next 3-4 months, important climate legislation will be sent to the House and Senate for approval, but our voices need to be heard.

We need more than you vote

For so long, the entire legislative process was enshrouded in mystery for me - and remains that way for so many of us. Of course I would go to the voters booth and cast my vote - sometimes never knowing who the people were on the ballot - and just voting by party lines. I've learned however, that our vote doesn't begin - or even remotely end there. We often talk about our rights - as voting citizens - but much less so on our responsibilities. I firmly believe that it is our individual and collective responsibility to continually be engaged in our democratic process, to learn about the issues that affect us, and to help guide those that we helped put in office. If we do not speak up, those that we hired to speak for us will be silent. And in this case, there is no honor in silence, only missed opportunity.

See you in Copenhagen,

In solidarity,

Summer Rayne Oakes

The video above is a highlight of PowerShift09

Cutaways from the testimonies to the Select Committee on Climate Change & Energy Independence