As dozens of vehicles pulled up to the Chris Park Campground, pouring rain transformed the parking lot into a shallow pond. People ran from their cars to the covered shelter while organizers of the Uplift Climate Conference frantically moved the registration table. In the middle of the chaos, one of the attendees reminded us that the rain was a blessing. With climate projections showing a much drier Colorado Plateau, these young climate activists were graciously welcomed with precious rain.
From August 18-20th, nearly 100 young people—or young at heart—gathered amid ponderosa pines in the San Juan National Forest outside of Durango, Colorado. For the past two years, I and a group of other young leaders have been organizing this radical space and community for millennials to collaborate, learn, create, and act towards a climate just Colorado Plateau.
At Uplift, we focus on the power of story. In this way, the mission of Torrey House Press and Uplift align. We feel storytelling is our generation’s most powerful tool to build empathy, forge connections, and inspire action. The conference was structured around the public narrative theme: Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now.
The first day, we dove into our personal stories. Storyteller and SustainUS COP22 Delegation Leader Morgan Curtis shared her experience collecting climate stories and exploring her own personal evolution from an engineering student at Dartmouth to a storyteller and facilitator seeking spiritual rather than technical solutions to climate change. With guidance from Morgan, we ventured into the surrounding forest to reflect on our personal climate journeys and then gathered in small groups to further venture into vulnerability by sharing our stories with others.
Progressing through the weekend we transitioned to the story of us, exploring the shared issues that brought us to this movement. Panels ranged from just transition to diversity in the outdoors, and a variety of workshops explored topics ranging from peace and reconciliation to creative direct action.
Alisha Anderson, the Torrey House Press Development and Community Relations Manager, lead a workshop titled “Art as Ritual.” Alisha shares more details of the workshop and her inspiration:
The poet William Stafford wrote, “It is important that awake people be awake.” Our workshop opened with this prompt: “Tell of an instance when you awoke to something you’d been blind to.” We each shared an experience and then discussed how the incessant flow of a hurried life can lead to our lives becoming automatic, so that without a heedful glance we become numb and blind to both beauty and difficult realities.
I read from the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky who astutely connects awareness and accountability, which is applicable in climate justice issues. To become aware is accompanied with the choice to act or not to act. Thus it can feel easier to remove our conscious from the difficulties that surround us. This is where ritual, particularly the ritual of art, becomes the jolt to awaken us. Through “defamiliarization” art removes us from the sphere of “automitization.” As Shklovksy wrote, “In order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.” We spent the latter part of the workshop in a hands-on exercise, by creating art from the environment around us: rocks, leaves, sticks, moss, even the pressure of footsteps folding grass. In that act of creating, we slowed. We slowed to see what we’d be blind to.
Also, we, as an entire group, participated in an art project. In the In the face of the climate crisis it is easy to feel hopeless and inconsequential. What can one life, one gathering do? But, if we consider how the seemingly solid and entrenched formed, we see it is by the accumulation of the small. So in this community art project, we made that visibly manifest: leaves sewn by Uplift participants outweighed oil shale from Utah’s Book Cliffs. Oil shale is partially composed of organic material, such as plants. So, as it was made, so should we combat: act, however small it may seem.
During the final day of the conference, the focus shifted to the story of now with regional action planning facilitated by climate adaptation specialist Britt Basel. After exploring the most pressing regional climate justice issues, all attendees joined in a circle to share at least one action they commit to complete in the next few months. Commitments ranged from leading divestment efforts on college campuses to supporting community gardens. After everyone shared their commitments, we joined hands, spiraled together like a cinnamon roll, and howled.
We then sat in a circle to close the space with poetry from Navajo activist and poet Lyla June Johnston. Lyla connected prayer, self-love, and women to the deeper spiritual and cultural crisis of climate change. In the end, the Uplift Climate Conference in no means saved the world or even came close to finding easy solutions to our climate crisis. However, we formed a space that more closely resembles the world all attendees hope to create, inhabit, and nurture—one that matches the emotional depth of the existential crisis we face.