A Pep Rally for Change

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Image by Flickr user: boellstiftung / Creative Commons

Somewhere in the middle of last year’s Bioneers conference, wiped out from a packed schedule of sessions designed to, among other things, expand the organic food movement, revitalize urban centers, and attack global warming, I donned a swimsuit and padded barefoot through the hushed midnight corridors of our hotel in San Rafael, California, heading for the hot tub and relaxation.

In spite of the hour, I found five or six other conferees already assembled. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” one of them warned me as I slipped into the water. Another let me in on the rules: “If you’re coming in,” she said, “you have to tell us your name, your age, where you’re from, the state of your love life, and what cause you’re fighting for.”

Over the next several hours, I learned all about the trials and triumphs of editing a newspaper, making a documentary film, working with troubled kids, and, yes, the love lives of young activists. (What happens in the hot tub, stays in the hot tub!)

For the rest of the weekend, this after-hours story swap stood out as an embodiment of what makes Bioneers so inviting and inspiring. The annual conference, which now draws more than 3,000 activists of all stripes to Marin County every October, is an information exchange, an opportunity to network, and a chance to meet like-minded souls who dream of a better world and do their best to have fun along the way.

Kenny Ausubel started Bioneers (the organization’s official name is the Collective Heritage Institute) back in 1990 as an incubator for projects and organizations that conserve and restore the environment. The group’s annual conference has since mushroomed into one of the largest consistently edifying gatherings of grassroots organizers in the nation.

“This aspect of bringing people together is almost as important as our central mission to restore the earth,” says Ausubel, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who, before he started Bioneers, founded Seeds of Change, an organic seed company and research farm that specializes in diverse species and heirloom varieties. “The connections and cross-pollination that take place at the conference help build a long-term movement. It’s a central part of what we’re doing.”

The conference schedule is structured around morning speeches that are intended to rally and inspire as much as to convey information. This year’s speakers include a variety of voices (many of them Utne contributors), including biologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets, who wants to save the world with mushrooms; New York Times Magazine writer Michael Pollan, an advocate of local foods; Jungian psychologist James Hillman; Lois Gibbs, the environmental activist who made “Love Canal” a household phrase; and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Afternoon sessions often feature panels of organizers and activists who speak on related topics–organic and local foods, media freedom, and urban nature restoration, to name just a few.

The 17th annual conference also will include a film festival (one of the highlights of last year’s event was a low-key, off-the-cuff session with John Trudell, the American Indian Movement activist who starred recently in a documentary about his life).

“I remain as fascinated today as I was on day one,” says Ausubel. “It’s like a permanent graduate school. I get to learn and learn and learn.”

I’ll confess that I brought a degree of skepticism to the conference when I attended for the first time. I tend to be suspicious of the rah-rah, self-congratulatory atmosphere of such gatherings. And while there was plenty of boosterism (and, really, why shouldn’t environmentalists and forward thinkers celebrate their victories?), what ended up being most memorable were the people like those I met in the hot tub–3,000 hardworking souls who were involved in almost as many projects to make the world a better place.

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