The USCAN 2016 Conference
Author: Keya Chatterjee, Executive Director
From June 13-15 in Miami, Florida , climate leaders from all around the United States (and the world) came together for the USCAN National Conference. On the eve of a crucial moment for the climate movement, our meeting had five goals: Solidarity (to build relationships and trusts across the movement), Equity (to put equity & justice at the core of how we approach climate), Alignment (build shared understanding of the ‘big picture’ strategy challenges facing us all, and how we can work separately and differently, but together, in facing them), Power (to build capacity, energy and power in our network in a critical year) and Miami (to lend strength to the work of local climate activists in Miami and the Southeast). In those three days we saw some tremendous work from our members, that led to some really impressive results. Conference attendees have access to the full notes from each session, along with 100s of photos. What follows is my report.
Solidarity: Who Showed Up
Building on the success of our 2015 national conference, this conference was our biggest and most diverse conference yet, with over 280 climate leaders from over 120 organizations and over 30 states. We had delegations of staff and members from national groups such as NAACP, Sierra Club, SEIU and Moms Clean Air Force, as well as from grassroots organizations like the New Jersey Organizing Project, the Colorado People’s Alliance and EEECHO from Gulfport Mississippi. What set this year’s conference apart from last year’s was that we did not co-host this year — everyone in attendance was a member of USCAN, or a member of the Miami Climate Alliance (our awesome local partner) — reflecting a network that continues to grow broader and more diverse. We also had even stronger participation from green groups compared to last year, with groups like Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Greenpeace, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, Union of Concerned Scientists, the Climate Reality Project and 350.org bringing teams of staff. If you’d like to know more, check out the photos below, and see the full list here!
Alignment: Working Together in New Ways
The conference did not have an official theme, but one of our 5 goals was to build more solidarity, and there was a clear desire through the week to work together across the full breadth of our movement. The tone was set on the morning of the first day when Rev Dr Gerald Durley, Mary Kay Henry, and Selwin Hart spoke in different ways to how our struggle for climate justice is and can be connected to the struggles for racial and economic justice in a broader movement for justice. This theme of working across silos within our movement, and intentionally advancing climate, economic, racial and gender justice, was continued in breakout groups across the week. One of our key learnings from this week is that this network really wants to come together and work in new and deeper ways for a broader kind of climate justice. At the same time, conversations surfaced that many members also have a long history of working with the center-right and business leaders, and this intersectionality may challenge their base.
We also learned some important lessons about the role of conflict in togetherness. The first panel of the day brought leaders from across the movement onto the stage to answer the question, “how do we get action at the scale needed in the next 5-10 years?”, and saw some honest disagreement between Will Lawrence from the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network, Rev Leo Woodberry from Kingdom Living Temple, and Jeremy Symons from EDF, amongst other speakers on the panel (a conversation that was echoing amongst participants on Twitter, and visible on blog posts presented in advance of the conference). Our learning from this is that surfacing conflict in an honest way can be an important step to greater togetherness, but that it requires thoughtful follow up — are we inviting conflict for conflict’s sake, or do we have a plan and a process to work through that conflict together and coming out stronger together?
There was plenty of learning, sharing, and ‘taking stock’ in the five strategy panels. Each of these five areas were designed and led by ‘co-chairs’ from our membership, in an attempt to capture the big ‘streams’ of work happening in our movement in five areas: Racial & Economic Justice and Just Transition; 100% Renewables; Keep It In the Ground; Adaptation and Preparedness; and International Policy. You can read the full notes here. Each of these panels were designed and led by its co-chairs to encourage participants to think of the breakout sessions they might like to propose and lead in open space, leading to action & concrete next steps.
When we made space for our members to self-organize through the open space breakouts, they delivered in some powerful ways. You can read the full notes from the breakouts here. One group organized a team to build support for a pro-solar referendum in Florida in August, and got half the room to commit to ask their organizations to support the measure. Another breakout group of coastal frontline communities from NJ to LA to FL launched a campaign and team for a flood insurance program that actually works for frontline communities. The climate & trade justice group built strategy between activists from youth, frontline and big green constituencies, and secured a large number of commitments from those present to record video messages asking the DNC platform committee to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Miami: Spotlight on Frontline Leadership
We were thrilled to hold this year’s conference in Miami: a unanimous decision from our steering team of members, and graciously hosted by our partner(s) in the Miami Climate Alliance. As a city on the frontlines of the climate crisis — facing an urgent threat from sea level rise, with increasingly extreme weather, and where ‘climate gentrification’ sees climate-racial-economic injustice combine as rich coastal developers displace high-elevation low-income communities of color in neighborhoods like Liberty City, Little Haiti and Overtown — Miami made the climate crisis very real and present for us. One of our five goals was to lend support to this movement.
We kicked off on Sunday with coverage in El Nuevo Herald, earned by our local partners. We were delighted to hear from several Miami-based and Miami-focused speakers on Tuesday, as Nicole Hernandez Hammer, Xavier Cortada and Caroline Lewis laid out for us the challenge that they’re facing and how they’re building to face it. We were even more excited to take 200+ people to the streets later that day, to join in an action led by the Miami Climate Alliance and our awesome steering team member David McDougal from The New Florida Majority. We caused quite a stir marching through the Intercontinental Hotel with a giant turkey-on-a-stick (to mark the water contamination from the nuclear plant at Turkey Point)! The action made the challenge of heatwaves on health real, as it was very hot outside. The way that 200+ leaders showed up despite that heat, and donated over $300 on the spot when asked to fund a climate justice summer camp in Liberty City, I think that shows how ready our network is to get behind Miami. Our learning from this is that our national conferences can be powerful moments to support local climate justice activism, if we are intentional about supporting and giving space to those leaders.
Equity & Power: Building Members’ Capacity
Two of our goals for this conference were to build more power and equity in our movement, and we built member leadership and capacity-building into everything we did. Most of the heavy lifting in planning the conference was done by our members, through the 9-person steering team, the 3-person facilitation team, the 20-person training team, the 12 members who co-chaired panels…not to mention the 10-person team from the Miami Climate Alliance that led the action. All told, over 45 members took not just volunteer roles but leadership roles in running the conference, many of whom did so for the first time and were able to gain usable skills and experience, share and learn from each other, and teach us a lot as staff. One of our key learnings from this is that member-led processes don’t just lead to deeper engagement and more learning, they actually lead to better outcomes for the network.
For the first time we also built in a climate organizing workshop for 96 organizers, as part of the USCAN Organizing Hub. With a training team of 16 member organizers who worked through the weekend to prepare, led by a core team of Aura Vasquez (CPD), Ife Kilimanjaro (Greenpeace), Jake Waxman (LCN), Liz Pallatto (Sierra) and Belinda Rodriguez (EAC), we ended up on Wednesday morning with a long wait-list and having to turn people away, from a workshop that participant surveys identified as very useful, leading us to conclude that our members want more resources and support for organizing. The focus of the workshop was on three organizing practices — story, strategy and the Jemez Principles — around ½ of participants said that they would take what they learned back to their communities and organizations, and ¾ said they would be willing to help continue this kind of Organizing Hub workshop in future. Several people made specific commitments to build the Jemez Principles into their organization and their work, leading us to conclude that having organizing and action spaces attached to conferences works.
What’s Next? What Can You Do?
As a USCAN staff, we will be checking in with members working on five of the ‘working together’ breakout groups that developed clear next steps and identified people to lead them: the Carbon Pricing and Renewables group, the Funding for the Grassroots group, the Flood Insurance group, the International Climate Policy group, and the Intersectionality group. We will also be working with that group of 96 organizers to explore ways to keep the Organizing Hub and workshops like this one going in the future on a more medium to long term basis.
If you’d like to take action to keep building from this moment, you can:
- Volunteer to lead/support one of those five working groups above, and click here!
- Reach out to the individuals you met at the conference and strengthen your connections. Attendees have access to the conference list here.
- Join USCAN list serves and engage in conversations that support one another. USCAN members can request more information about lists by contacting email@example.com
- Register for our webinar about USCAN’s strategic planning process