Uplift conference draws diverse crowd


More than 100 young adults attended the second annual Uplift Climate Conference. The represent communities of the Colorado Plateau region who are concerned about climate change. Photo by Michael Remke.

A group of concerned millennial citizens gathered in August to recognize the diversity they believe is missing in climate- change conversation. The second annual 2016 Uplift Climate Conference was held at Chris Park in the San Juan Forest, near Durango, to bring together the experience and concerns of young people living on or near the Colorado Plateau.

In geology, uplift is a vertical elevation of the Earth’s surface that occurs in response to natural causes. It exposes rocks that were once deeply buried. The group chose the name because much of the region was carved by the geologic processes that led to the rise of the Colorado Plateau. It was also chosen because of the metaphor.

The group alleges that their point of view and experience are not welcomed at discussions about environmental issues with decision-makers in the region, nor are the voices of indigenous communities.

“Millenials are incredibly aware of the Anglo, hetero-centric, older dominant culture. For us, the people who represent this region are the people of the region,” said Frankie Beesley, a student in the Northern Arizona University Sustainable Communities master’s program and one of eight organizers. “Diversity and inclusion was key at the conference. A lot of young people here know the reality of climate change, but don’t know the story behind the change.”

She joined Claire Martini to create the second conference. They estimate more than 100 people representing communities as diverse as Hopi, Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Grand Junction, Greasewood, Pinon and Tuba City on the Navajo Nation.

Climate change is the ultimate threat to the places they love, explained Martini. “It’s never far from our minds. Still, we don’t see anyone talking about the area specifically. We have organized young adults with personal experience and a lot at stake around the Colorado Plateau. The area is ground zero for climate issues.”

Many of the 28 conference speakers and the organizers were from marginalized communities. Keynote speaker Jihan Gearon, executive director of Black Mesa Water Coalition, talked about regional issues, navigating contradictions, and working toward just transitions in energy.

Other speakers and panelists included Lauren Wood, director of Green River Action Project; Janene Yazzie, senior planner, Little Colorado Watershed Chapters; Marshall Masayesva, program director of Adventures for Hopi, Andres Esparaza, adjunct professor at Western State Colorado University and Ambassador for Latino Outdoors, Anthony Ciocco, coordinator of the Southwest Conservation Corps Ancestral Lands Program and White House Champion of Change 2014.

Sixteen panels and workshops highlighted the “Story of Us,” said Martini. “One significant point is our need to know our roots and how issues relate to what we know from our own experience. As we explored natural-resource concerns, everyone agreed that water is the key issue in every Colorado Plateau community.”

Conferees agreed “different approaches may be required to get us heard,” said Beesley. “We should spend less energy on Colorado River policies and more on grassroots relationships to the water, for instance. Water is less about bending former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl’s ear and more about what can be done in each community at the grassroots level.”

Everyone knew the problems, but “the solutions are really hard,” Martini said. “The scale of politics in each area and water politics is so different. In some, we will need to attend, be heavily involved in city councils. Other solutions may require that we be loud, get louder, be critical of the normative narrative, and be aware that we are also part of the challenge. Who is represented at the discussion? Who is missing?”

Music and art were present at the conference, too. Performance poet, singer-songwriter Lyla June Johnston, co-founder of Taos Peace and Recon ciliation Council, N.M., explained in her address to the group that writing for peace is serving humanity, strengthening our capacity to love. “when we tap into this explosive force the muse can truly work through us.”

In a reflection on how visual art can increase consciousness, Salt Lake City Artist Alisha Anderson produced a conceptual work at the conference that weighed leaves found at the site against a lump of oil shale she brought from the Bookcliffs in Utah. She placed the shale on one side of a balance scale Anderson built for the conference project and then passed out needles and thread, asking everyone to sew together leaves found around the campsite.

The next day, conferees placed the leaves, one sewn package at a time, into a hand-made twig basket hanging opposite the oil shale on the balance. At the start, the basket hung high above the level of the heavy oil shale. Slowly, strand by strand, the leaves in the basket gained weight. Eventually, the oil shale rose higher and higher on the balance scale until the two were equal in weight.

“The leaves and the oil shale are both organic material, yet both have different qualities,” Alisha explained. “I hope to demonstrate that the accumulation of the small can outweigh the seemingly solid, entrenched large. The project was about the collective power in small acts.”

The young activists agreed that the most critical take-away from the conference was the need to bring Uplift back to their communities and find solutions, to speak out, to acknowledge the work of others. Since the conference closed, Uplift declared support for the recent Friends of Cedar Mesa [Utah] request of their community to, “Tell the Hole-in-the-Rock Foundation to include a conservation easement on a section of Comb Ridge. This is a special place, let’s protect it. Don’t sell Comb Ridge.”

Uplift also sent a letter of support for the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. “Youth of the Colorado Plateau are raising our voices in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation… in firm opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would desecrate sacred burial sites and pose a grave danger to the Missouri River, which is their main water source,” the letter states. “We stand in solidarity to resist the continued neglect of Indigenous rights. The Dakota Access pipeline isn’t a simple, risk-free energy development. The fact of the matter is, pipelines leak and we don’t have adequate technology to detect the inevitable spills.”

Uplift is operating under sponsorship of the Grand Canyon Trust and the Northern Arizona University Landscape and Conservation Initiative. Uplift hope sto be a stand-alone non-profit soon, Martini said.

Ethan Aumack, while not a millennial himself, attended the climate conference. He is enthusiastic about the work they are doing, “especially given the specter of global warming facing us in the Southwest,” he said.

As conservation director at Grand Canyon Trust, he is aware that many more supporters are needed, “especially younger folks who are concerned about and engaged in advocacy. Uplift has become an authentic way for the next generation of advocates to develop their own ideas, strategies, and actions around global warming.”

“A year ago, when we organized the conference on San Francisco Peaks, we really wanted to reach diversity among young people. We wanted to found a youth movement around climate justice and now we completed our second conference,” Beesley told the Free Press on her way back to Flagstaff.

“The result is a little bit intangible immediately after the conference. But we feel we have created a particular space that had not been available to us before we organized.”

From October 2016.