Inspiration from the 2014 Connecting For Change Conference
by Mike Gioscia
Twenty years ago The Marion Institute, a non-profit organization in Marion MA., was created to “work with individuals, schools and communities to inspire change in the areas of health and healing, sustainability, green economics, environmental education, spirituality and much more”.
After ten years of prodigious work with various campaigns both local and world wide, like the Zero Emission Research Initiative, Welcome Home Project, Green Belt Movement, and Yoga Kids, the Institute decided to hit the streets of New Bedford for a special gathering of artists, farmers, activists, speakers, students, and more, for a fantastic conference and street fair called Connecting for Change.
This past weekend was the 10th anniversary of the Connecting for Change conference (CFC), and the optimistic vibe of the gathering still has me feeling hopeful about humanity. While the challenges of the current state of the planet, such as climate change, GMOs in the food supply, endless wars, etc., can feel burdensome, and downright depressing at times, when you spend a couple days with progressive, strong individuals, you can’t help but feel that we can indeed make our world a better place to live—by the strength of our own actions.
The key word is indeed connecting. You have to get out from behind your computer, log off your screen, meet some people, and talk face to face to make this connection with others who also want to effect change.I recently interviewed Janisse Ray, food activist and author (also a Keynote speaker at CFC) for a feature article in edible South Shore & South Coast magazine, and I asked her specifically why it’s so important for folks to get together face to face, and she replied “because when people with vision are in the same room, the momentum is palpable and incredibly inspiring. We’re all able to return to our places filled with new ideas and eager to go on.”
That’s the perfect description of what happens when you step onto the streets of New Bedford for ‘Connecting’; the ideas generated by the conference just keep spilling out.
Here are some highlights from #CFC2014:
Tem Blessed, local hip-hop artist from New Bedford, emceed the weekend activities in the gorgeous Ziterion Theater, along with Desa Van Laarhoven, Executive Director of The Marion Institute. Tem connected with everybody in the house, from the 14 year old New Bed High School student, to the 70 year old hippie gardener, often with off the cuff hip-hop poetry. Connecting to such an assorted audience is no easy task, and he rocked it! Desa closed the theater events on Saturday with hearfelt words about how growing up in a racially mixed family led her to the Marion Institute (their win!).
Alan Palm from Alliance For Climate Education (ACE) gave an inspiring presentation about Climate Change, aimed directly at the large student body gathered, about the choices we make, the space we use, and how ‘living large’ means that the average US citizen uses 3x the resources of any other population. I’ve already contacted ACE to speak at my daughter’s school because this message is critical to impart on the future stewards of our natural resources, and ACE has a way with kids that isn’t too preachy, and very upbeat and provoking!
Bill Stewart, a Dorchester native and Boston Youth Probation office, talked about youth empowerment, urging the students in attendance to make the right choices, and to take responsibility for their own path. He hammered home the point that everyone, including himself, needs help, and to ask for it! He also commented that ‘only babies in wet diapers like change’, and I thought that quote could apply to many of the environmental topics today.
When Janisse Ray took the stage, I was expecting a presentation about the importance of seeds; after all, her latest book is titled ‘The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food’. Instead, Janisse stepped to the microphone, and without even saying ‘Good Morning’, launched into a stunning passage she’d written about the adoption of her niece, abused and neglected for years by her own father, and the two year journey she’d been on along with her husband to raise her, right up to the point of Connecting For Change. The audience was dead silent as the words, many hard to hear, filled the room. Tears flowed freely. Everyone was gob smacked with not just the tragic story, but the amazing truthfulness and openness of the storyteller. When Janisse was finished, she exited the stage quickly and quietly, and the theater burst into an ovation, that led to everyone standing and cheering. Tem Blessed had her come back on stage to see the reaction of the crowd, and I think she was surprised. I think we all were. Wow. That’s the kind of moment you can only get when you CONNECT.
In the foyer just minutes later, I met local seed saver, from The Ivory Silo Seed Project, Bill Braun (featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of eSS&SC here). We were each left amazed by Janisse’s words, and Bill eloquently commented, “Leave it to Janisse to tell a story that’s a metaphor for the importance of caring for a seed”. Bingo.
80 year old poet and human dynamo Sonia Sanchez closed the keynotes for day one, grabbing everyone in the room, and holding them hostage with her patois. “How can I bind you to responsibility in a non-responsible world?” she started, and continued with an awe inspiring verbal barrage that only a Poet Laureate could. The crowd stood yet again as she triumphantly walked off stage. Did she know how much she helped a room full of passionate activists who sometimes feel helpless about the work they do? Of course she did, she was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Listen to part of her rousing speech here.
And that was just the first morning!
Day two started with the story about local sailmaker Jay O’Hara and his friend Ken Ward, who used a lobster boat to block a shipment of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset MA, the largest coal plant in New England, and thusly the biggest CO2 emitter in the area. Enter Bristol County DA Sam Sutter, who decided, after researching and reading Bill McKibbon’s Rolling Stone Climate Change article ‘A Call to Arms’, he wouldn’t be prosecuting the men. “I joined you in this fight right then and there” Sutter told the crowd as we erupted in cheering. Now that’s a good morning!
Climbing PoeTree stepped up the microphones right after, and crafted a live social awakening, in stereo, as the two women’s voices wove together in a poetic hip-hop multimedia experience. Work at a college or high school? Book these ladies!
My own ‘Ah ha!’ moment came next, when Nipun Mehta hit the stage. A successful silicon valley businessman, he took off with his wife for India for a thousand mile walk across the nation, eating when food was provided and sleeping where there was a flat surface provided. He spoke about ‘giving’, and asked why we thought, as a whole, we needed things in order to be able to give? That meant that ‘we were born bankrupt’ and that didn’t seem right. Inspired by Ghandi, Nipun also believed it was “the love, not the stuff”, and started his inner transformation. Right then and there I said “I don’t care about monetizing The Green Dad, that’s not why I’m doing this’. Boom! How about that? I’d been struggling to ‘pay the bills’ with my newly formed Green Dad concept, and now I see it, it is the love not the stuff. Pressure off. Thanks Nipun!
Then a sweet 7 year old girl named Milaka came on stage, and told her story of wanting to give to a charity instead of getting presents for her birthday. Are you kidding me!? She of course had picked The Marion Institute for her charity, and again the crowd stood and cheered. Hard to feel bad about the future with such thoughtful and generous kids like Mikala out there.
Candida Rose, a stunning vocalist from a local mission, stepped onto the stage next without introduction, and laid down the most beautiful Amazing Grace you’ll ever hear. Really? Is this happening? I just sat there transfixed. Thank you New Bedford!
Diana Duarte from MADRE spoke about increasing visibility of women’s rights issues around the world, and how women are not only climate change victims, but also supply climate change solutions. A guy I shared lunch with was moved, “I had no idea of the scope of the same women’s issues occurring in so many different countires” he said, and I could just feel that he was going home motivated to help the cause.
Closing the show for day 2 was Joel Salatin, rockstar farmer, author, and one of the featured food fighters of the documentary, Food Inc. Joel, with the energy of a carnival barker, encouraged us all to embrace the term heretic, and to keep fighting against the orthodoxy of the day, because the heretics believed the world wasn’t flat, that slavery wasn’t a good thing, and we will be rewarded in the end for knowing the food system was a mess. He spoke, and got many laughs, portraying the US as a culture suffering ‘domestic culinary ignorance’, and confused in our belief that growth, like the US GDP, is always a good thing. He reminded us that cancer was a growth too, and not all things that grow are always good. Talking for a few moments about chickens with him later, as he signed some books, was a highlight for me.
And these Keynotes were just the morning activities, which then opened up to the streets, filled with tents that hosted a myriad of local non-profits, businesses, green causes, and a farmers’ market. Lunch was served: local, organic, and vegetarian.
There were over 15 Youth & Family Programs that were free to the public, featuring urban rock climbing, a city birds walking tour, live reptile demonstration, drum circles, tai chi, and more.
Workshops went on all day Friday and Saturday, with an amazing lineup from yoga and meditation, to starting your own climate action team, to learning about GMOs, slow democracy, evolution of corporate rights, compost, healing, sense of community, and so much more!
I could keep on writing, but let me wrap up by saying this:
You MUST attend Connecting next year! Get it on the calendar; get a group of friends, family, kids, together and Connect with New Bedford and this awe-inspiring event.
It will change you. It changed me.
Mike Gioscia is a writer, filmmaker, drummer, food activist and chicken wrangler. Find out more about his ‘Sustainable Consulting’ business at thegreendad.com