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My First Bioneers Experience, Part I

"For 25 years, the National Bioneers Conference has connected thousands of people with practical, visionary solutions for humanity's most pressing environmental and social challenges." This year was my first time attending the National Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, CA, and it was one of the most incredible experiences I've had in the realm of sustainability work. To capture why it was so incredible, I will start with a metaphor that continued to make its way into workshops and conversations throughout the weekend: Bioneers, for me, brought the many threads of "sustainability" - environment, people, ecology, biodiversity, diversity, justice, equity, celebration of difference, purpose, conversation, art, climate, water, community, etc. - into a beautifully, vibrantly, amazingly woven cloth that held all of us in its embrace for a weekend, bringing us in contact with new ideas and new people, encouraging us to smile and relax and sink into the realities of our world in their fullness. It was challenging to face those realities in their fullness but also necessary and also motivating. And some of those realities were beautiful examples of ways humans have brought justice and love and compassion into the world and into their work.

Eight year old Lorelei Browman hangs her wish "of black and white together" for the Singing Tree Mural Collective Project at Bioneers 2015. Photo via: Susanna Frohman Photography

Those realities--such as the truth spoken by panelists in the "Racing Up Your Movement" session, among other examples--also presented the opportunity for me to confront my own biases, assumptions, challenges, struggles, misunderstandings, suppressed passions, and unarticulated frustrations that have been buried but have been there all along, waiting for a chance to be acknowledged and addressed. I am still very much working through how I do my work in the world with a full commitment to equity, justice, compassion, creativity, self-care, community building, and presence. I know that I will always be working through my personal opportunities for growth and awareness; it is an ongoing process and journey that we each must walk and struggle to understand. But I feel like Bioneers turned something on to full blast in my sense of self that has made it really uncomfortable/challenging/painful for me to ignore the ways in which my work sometimes does not bring its most justice-seeking, conscientious, compassionate, caring, or purposeful self to the world. I can no longer simply turn away when I face something challenging or new and say, I'll deal with that later, or I'll bring writing and art into my life later, or I'll change how we do this so it is inclusive of more people later. And at that painful, difficult place where we face that choice between now and later is often where change does and must begin.

Since attending Bioneers, I continue to return to those hard places where I don't quite feel proud of my initial thoughts or comfortable with having particular conversations or motivated to be an artist/writer/creative being and I try to ask myself what's really going on. How can I learn something from that discomfort or sense that I am not the person who can do that work to create change?  Because I know that I can always learn something when I lean into challenge, and when I feel that discomfort or pain as a result, it probably means that I am the person to do that work, at least in some way. Otherwise, why would it be presented in my life as something so profound that it stirs things up inside me?

For those who don't know what kind of work I do and why these issues would be coming up, here's a brief description: I work in a University Sustainability Office as someone whose role is multifaceted: to support sustainability education through events, student outreach, and online media; to provide guidance to numerous students who are also working on sustainability education and outreach; to create space for student learning, professional development training, and growth; to support the day-to-day operations of our Office; and to do all of this while working to change the definition or perception or understanding of "sustainability" so that the environmental piece no longer overshadows the social and equity pillars. Inclusion, equity, social justice, and environmental conservation are all part of the "sustainability" that I want to support in my work, not only in the content that we discuss and work on, but in the methods and processes through which we do that work. We can't do good sustainability work if we are not critical of how our own privilege, the history of environmental work in mainstream consciousness, and our own biases get in the way of creating spaces for sustainability work that are inclusive, inviting, and open to the participation and ideas of all people. What I mean when I say there is pain and discomfort that I must lean into and work through is that I/we must be critical and conscious of where and how our personal / societal issues actually get in the way of doing collaborative, exciting, important work we want and need to be doing.

Here is one way to visualize the concept of "sustainability." There are many different graphs and ways of thinking about it, and I think this one is simple yet also goes into more than just the three standard "pillars." (Source)

After all, "sustainability" is about whole systems thinking, recognizing that what happens over there affects us here and vice versa... but right now, our work is largely siloed into "environmental work," "social justice work," "equity work." This process, the separated way we are doing this work, is not supporting the purpose or whole systems approach that is required for us to solve the many crises and challenges we face in the world. A reason why we are split up like that is because we are working in a society with very "western" notions about ordering the world into sections, and there are also ways that our economic system of capitalism does this, too. Once you stop to think about the many ways we split up life into categories, subjects, and orderings (and how "normal" that is to us) and then compare that with how life actually functions as a system, it becomes evident why we have such trouble working together across those boundaries: everything else in our society challenges truly interdisciplinary work. Yes, certainly there are many people and organizations breaking down the siloes and doing excellent work, but because we are told from day one in this society that things are ordered into separate categories, it can be hard to unlearn those imagined boundaries.

I want to return for a moment to something I said two paragraphs above, where I emphasized that I was talking only about mainstream consciousness regarding who is involved in sustainability work. I did so because we have this myth in our society that for various reasons, people of color, poor folks, and those who we don't see on the leadership boards of large environmental organizations (often old white men), are not interested in environmental conservation, protecting our planet and ecosystems, etc. While there are many people of color, people with lower incomes, and others who don't focus their attention on environmental conservation, the same can be said of white people and wealthy people. Right? And yes, certainly there is data that shows that higher numbers of white people have historically gone camping, perhaps, or participated on leadership boards for environmental orgs. Sure. But to say that all people of color and lower income families don't care about the environment because they have other things to worry about is a stereotype that, like all stereotypes, is probably true for some folks but not true for all folks.

This myth has been somewhat perpetuated by focusing media and public attention upon the white, often politically powerful, often wealthier environmentalists and environmental groups whenever we talk about environmentalism. Just because the media doesn't give them screen time doesn't mean there are not people of color and people in poor neighborhoods who are working hard to protect our air, water, and land. In fact, environmental justice work is explicitly about recognizing the disproportionate effects that environmental degradation and pollution has on lower income neighborhoods, which are oftentimes neighborhoods of color. I could write an entire blog post about this, but I'm certain there are folks out there with more knowledge and experience with this subject who have written extensively about it. In fact, there are most definitely people of color who have written about this, but oftentimes those articles don't show up on your Facebook feed or on NPR when we are looking for environmental discussions. For example, here's an excellent piece on this subject by Brentin Mock titled "Think people of color don’t care about the environment? Think again." Part II of this Bioneers Report, which I'll post later this week, might shed some light on the conversations that took place at Bioneers that have helped me to really see the problems with this myth.

Rinku Sen spoke about inclusion and social justice as a keynote speaker and as moderator of the "Racing Up Your Movement" session at Bioneers 2015. Photo: Josué Rivas Fotographer

In addition to the challenging emotions and reactions that Bioneers presented for me, it also opened up a huge channel of inspiration that I hope to be able to thrive on and regenerate on my own in the coming year before next year's Bioneers! For months, I have felt like my connection to sustainability work has been frayed through repetition, stress, lack of creativity, and lack of connection. Bioneers not only helped strengthen the frayed connection for me to this work, but it also found and exposed new connections that I didn't realize were quite there before. It showed me how to see the world and this work in new and revealed ways, as well as removed the dust and veils from ways of seeing that I had forgotten were there. It was what I needed so very much, and it gave me fuel for my work in ways I couldn't have imagined before attending.

"The deepest part of the human soul is imagination." - Michael Meade performs with John Densmore at Bioneers 2015 during one of my favorite presentations. Photo via Josué Rivas Fotographer

The most profound experience that I had at Bioneers was at the dance party on Saturday night, where I let go of all of my self-judgments and danced more freely than I ever have in my known memory. I moved with fluidity and openness, galloped across the dance floor, twisted and jumped and moved my arms around like a jelly fish. I stopped thinking so much and let myself feel the music, process the day through movement, and settled into a somewhat meditative and entirely relaxed state. I don't quite know how to describe it, other than to say that I became so entirely unself-conscious that I let feeling and movement take over, which was exhilarating, fun, and probably very good for my muscles and lungs. It might have been one of the greatest evenings of my life simply because I had never been that free in my body before.

I have an entire notebook of quotes, thoughts, insights, and ideas from the conference that I haven't had time to process yet, but I hope to do so this week. Those nuggets of insight that I gained will be shared on this blog very soon!

Thank you SO much to the Common Ground Center at UCSC for providing me, my colleagues, and fellow banana slugs with a scholarship that allowed us to attend this incredible conference! Thank you also to the Bioneers organizers and speakers and to everyone who attended and was part of the experience with me two weekends ago. I am so grateful that I had a chance to be there and experience something so catalyzing and important.

Learn more about Bioneers and the National Bioneers Conference here.


  1. I think I had the most fun at the dance party also! So fun! :-D


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