The Obama victory in November was supposed to herald a sharp break from the past. But, actually dismantling toxic policies is about as quick and easy as turning around an iceberg. It’s hard to be more than cautiously optimistic. On the other hand, I was excited about the 11,000 young participants of PowerShift 2009, who will demand immediate climate action tomorrow from their elected officials on Capitol Hill. Whatever happened to youthful cynicism? When I was their age, a growing distrust of those in power made it too easy not to care.
That sure doesn’t seem to be true with these young movers and shakers, who are the same age as my own kids. Life is a lot more precarious now than it was just a generation ago. And while these young activists are concerned, they are neither intimidated nor paralyzed. On the contrary, they feel powerful; they flex their political muscle, and it’s intoxicating, even for us bystanders.
They have gathered at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the only venue in DC large enough to hold them all. They are college students, graduates, and minorities - all committed to saving our environment, and coming from all 50 states. These four days are crammed with non-stop activity: workshops, panels, organizing sessions, an impressive roster of speakers, meetings scheduled with over 350 members of Congress, and a green career fair, as well as lots of informal networking. Somehow, perhaps against the odds, we Baby Boomers have raised a generation of impressively caring and capable young people. They have already begun to roll up their sleeves, doing what needs to be done, so that we all survive and flourish. This is one can-do group!
Merging Two Passions
I became aware of PowerShift 2009 in a round-about fashion. In January, my good friend, Nancy Tobi, emailed me a song written and performed by her son, Zo. I’m no music critic but l know what I like. I fell hard for In Their Time the first time I heard it. (Listen while you read this article, and judge for yourself.) The song instantly transported me back to the ‘70s, when so much of my favorite music had a political agenda. I immediately contacted the young songwriter/performer to arrange permission to post the song at OpEdNews. Zo is Northeast Organizer for the Sierra Student Coalition and an integral part of Power Shift 2009. So, this is the perfect moment to look more closely at Tobi, his work, and the issues he explores through his music.
In talking with Zo, I discovered that his connection with music has been deep and abiding. As a toddler, he was captivated by Raffi, the children’s singer and songwriter. He fondly recalls the red guitar he received for his second birthday. His mother adds that Zo then disappeared, guitar in hand, totally uninterested in the other presents she held in her arms.
Zo is more than just a talented musician. He has also been an enterprising one. While a student at Clark University, he took his guitar on the college circuit on weekends and “covered a big chunk of tuition.” The repertoire he plays is primarily his own. “I like to tell stories through song,” he says. In Their Time is a good example. Throughout college, Zo was a member of a youth clean energy group. About a year and a half ago, he temporarily put his music on hold in order to concentrate on organizing college students for clean energy. Organizing is something he’s become quite good at. With this song, Zo seamlessly fused two distinct passions - music and environmental activism.
Power Shift 2007 was the first national youth summit to solve the climate crisis. Organized by the Energy Action Coalition (EAC), more than 7,000 young people turned out that March. Half of the participants spent a whole day on Capitol Hill, in the largest lobbying day on climate change in American history. Zo was invited to perform for the conferees in a basketball arena at the University of Maryland, the largest venue he’s played in so far. He sensed a special connection flowing between him and the audience that night, which left him feeling energized, rather than overwhelmed.
Zo spent the following summer running youth-oriented educational events across New Hampshire. He helped organize a five-day March to ReEnergize New Hampshire from Nashua to Concord, the state capital. Hundreds of people of all ages took part. It was then that Zo committed to being in the struggle for clean energy over the long haul.
His skill at organizing has made him a real asset in working for change. His original plan was to get a master’s degree at Clark, but he decided to shelve that idea. He realized that the next two-three years provide a very small window to reverse global warming. And that he had a role to play in that effort. So, he asked Clark to defer his acceptance. The day his request was denied, Sierra Club NorthEast hired him, and his life officially changed directions. Which brings us to the present. Zo is in DC, part of the leadership unfurling PowerShift 2009.
Those behind this conference are convinced that the first 100 days of this administration provide a unique opportunity “to hold our elected officials accountable for rebuilding our economy and reclaiming our future through bold climate and clean energy policy.“ They intend to cash in the substantial political capital earned this past November when hundreds of thousands of youth helped mobilized a record 24 million young voters.
Zo is but one of this movement’s many, impressive, young leaders. Jessy Tolkan is the EAC’s executive director. I heard her at several of the Take Back America conferences; she was dynamic. Not that long out of college herself, Jessy has been a major organizer on campus and off, even running for the Madison (WI) City Council, while still a student. This is only the latest in a number of leadership roles within organizations committed to getting young people a bigger role in bringing about change.
In Their Time - the Music and its Message
Song lyrics, at their best, are poetry in motion. That is what Zo Tobi has achieved with In Their Time. Tobi touches on many themes: our mistreatment of nature, the consequences of our behavior, activism’s link to the past, and his vision of young people working together to save our environment. The song lays out its message, issuing a warning, and a call to action. The melody is simple, allowing the words to step forward to paint a vivid picture that is haunting in its gentle but insistent refrain.
There’s no shouting, whining, or cursing. Just a thoughtful take on what’s been going on out there and what we can be done about it. Or. more accurately, what young people plan to do about it. A lot is accomplished in just four verses.