Pioneering

Raising fists in salute; rising to ovation; feeling tears roll down the cheek; shaking hips to a universal beat: this was how I spent this past weekend at the 26th annual Bioneers Conference.

Although I was there nominally to represent North Atlantic Books and work our tent, in a truer sense I was present to witness and participate in one of the world’s most integrative interfaces for visionary thinking, planetary caretaking, and progressive politics.

Botanists have long talked about how ripe life is where one environment meets another; travel across a river mouth greeting the ocean and you will see the churn of species colliding, of fresh-water fish meeting salt-water creatures and even some species, like salmon, navigating both. This is what Bioneers felt like: a convergence of indigenous cosmovision, pragmatic environmentalism, racial justice, feminism, and youth empowerment all spiked with the spice of the eloquent spoken word. “Is-m” became “Is-ness.”

Not to say all was easy. There were challenges thrown down: from the indigenous to follow their vision instead of merely incorporating it; from African American leaders to investigate and unlearn the deep racism mainlining our systems and psyches; from young people asking elders to sometimes step aside and listen.

I had the great privilege of hearing some of the great orators of our time: Long-time civil-rights and racial-justice advocate Fania Davis talking about the indigenous practice of restorative justice as the key to ending the school-to-prison pipeline (“our species is so good at causing harm,” she said, “but history is asking us to be healers”); storyteller Michael Meade speaking of the power that lurks in our blackness and in the dark soil of this earth, the transformation that can come when we put aside our shiny masks and infatuation with the white and the bright and instead reveal our true faces; Canadian indigenous-rights activist Eriel Deranger asking the hundreds of listeners to consider that environmentalism is less a politics and more a view of the world rooted in the wisdom of our indigenous people, who at this critical juncture most hold the answers; open-source activist Shannon Dosemagen imploring us to share wisdom in a non-proprietary way and to use our intelligence to design a new commons; food-justice advocate Malik Yakini from Detroit reminding us that social justice is a prerequisite of food sovereignty, and that social justice can only come if we dismantle white supremacy, which sadly lives in all of us; and finally veteran civil-rights activist Tom Hayden, speaking via video due a recent stroke, retelling history, emphasizing that the “New Deal” our country is so famous for was not a program outlined by a pen but a movement that slowly coalesced because enough people worked toward collective solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Hope was served, but in a hard-earned way.

There were many more speakers, but these are the ones I saw — I had to tend the shop with my colleagues between these visionary holes poked through the shawl. By the end I imagine the collective tent was peppered with shafts of light; there we are in the shadows, pausing for a heavy, grateful moment before traveling down our respective roads with new life.

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