Protest, Power, OWS and C2C

Eban Goodstein, Director Bard Center for Environmental Policy

Director Eban Goodstein in front of the White House

In Early September, I was sitting hand-cuffed in the back of a police paddy-wagon with two-dozen other guys. Everybody was in a good mood. We had all just been arrested in front of the White House, as part of a large-scale, peaceful civil disobedience action in which, over the course of two-weeks, more than 1200 people were sent to the DC city jail. Our intent was to convince President Obama to veto the construction of a pipeline that would bring oil from the tar sand deposits in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Houston, with much of the oil destined for export to China.

I was there out of concern that construction of this pipeline would lock in intensive development of these intensely polluting oil deposits, feed global fossil fuel dependency, and make our critical intergenerational work to stop global warming much harder. The protest was effective. The pipeline went from being a non-issue to the focus of serious national discussion, and the President has been forced to take notice.

There was a wide range of ages in the paddy-wagon, and a couple of the younger men were saying: “Come up to Wall Street next month—it is going the be huge”.  I gave them a knowing smile. “Sure it will,” I thought.  In 1980, some friends of mine tried literally to help shut the NY Stock Exchange down as part of an anti-nuclear protest—protestors encircled the doors, the cops busted it up, and nothing much happened.

I am, today, happily eating crow. It is a wonderful feeling when cynicism of the middle-aged is undercut by the accomplishments of the young. While small groups of determined people don’t always change the future, they are, as Margaret Meade famously noted, the only force that ever has.

So what’s next for OWS?

This takes us right to power. How can we really build a just and sustainable future? I teach a leadership class to my second year Masters students at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy. I ask them: “Do you want power?”

“Do you want to inspire lots of people to go where they otherwise wouldn’t? Do you want to run an organization, to set policy, to allocate money, to hire, to take your vision (or a shared vision) to scale? Do you want to be a powerful person, whose actions, words, decisions affect thousands or millions?”

“Or do you want a quiet life?”

Not an easy question for the students, or for any of us, to answer. Their first response tends to be: “I want to empower others”. A worthy goal, but ducking the question. When confronting power, the students fear the responsibility, and they know that power tends to corrupt. And of course, in their lives most of them will pursue some path in the middle. But, nevertheless, one of our central educational goals at CEP is to compel them to leadership, and to power.

Here we are following the age-old tradition of liberal arts education, established over 2400 years ago by Plato. Education takes students out of “the cave” of ignorance, he argued, but then, enforces an obligation on those fortunate enough to have been educated:

“It is our task… to compel the best natures… to make the ascent and see the good. But when they have made it, and looked sufficiently… we will compel them to guard and care for the city… and it will be governed, not like the majority of cities nowadays, by people who fight over shadows and struggle against one another in order to rule– as if that were a great good– but by people who are awake rather than dreaming”

The need for leadership rings true now more than ever. Over the lifetime of our students, if we continue carbon pollution at a business as usual pace, the world is going to heat up around 10 degrees F. To put that number in perspective, during the last ice age, when my office in New York’s Hudson Valley was covered by hundreds of feet of ice, the world was only 9 degrees colder than it is now. The current generation must rise to become the greatest generation, forestalling a swing in global temperatures of ice-age magnitude, only in the opposite direction.

To that end, Bard CEP is creating C2C Fellows: a new national network, an honor society for undergraduates and recent graduates aspiring to sustainability leadership in politics and business. C2C will build power behind a network of compelling messengers: young people who deeply embrace a clean energy vision, and who can create a post-partisan frame to advance concrete policy and private sector steps towards a secure, prosperous and ecologically sound future.

C2C Fellows is based on two ideas. First, as we all know, we don’t have much time. And second, today’s young people can change the world by the time they are 30.

The U.S. Constitution empowers citizens to become members of Congress at age 25. The founding fathers clearly believed in the wisdom of the young, a lesson we are ignoring at our peril. Today’s federal legislators are as gray as they have ever been, with senators averaging close to 60, and House members 55. Young people, if elected in numbers, could bring a game-changing dynamic to Washington. Yet few young people even imagine pursuing this opportunity.

Beyond politics, many students are inspired by the pioneering work of social entrepreneurs, but they face a very sterile ground in conventional business education. As undergraduates, they are thus failing to develop the leadership skills needed to become change agents in the workplace, either launching their own green businesses or transforming conventional workplaces.

C2C Fellows is launching with intensive leadership skills training workshops at Bard College in December, the University of Georgia in February, and at Oberlin College in Ohio in April.  Our team at Bard CEP will involve 200-300 students each year in this training, providing them with follow-up opportunities to help them take seriously their commitment to changing the future.

C2C stands for Campus to Congress, to Capitol, to City Hall, and also for Campus to Corporation. C2C stands for young people gaining control of their future. By 2016, C2C Fellows will be influencing politics and business at the community, state, and national levels. Our Fellows will help Occupy Wall Street, Washington, Main Street, and State Capitols from the inside, and we will do our best to help them avoid corruption on the path to power.

The first step to changing the future is protest. But the second, third and fourth requires protestors, on behalf of their deeply held values, to seek and exercise power, with wisdom, with courage and with grace.

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