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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pick Up America... Transforming Communities (and picking up their trash too!)

     For some reason last year, Pick Up America decided to make their way through Ohio and Cincinnati, rather than to continue along what probably would have been a more deliberate route through Kentucky, on their (yes) coast-to-coast trash pickup. The first trash pick up to attempt this insane goal started with two visionaries named Jeff Chen and Davey Rogner.

     Their vision is a lot of things. It is, of course, that we become zero waste. But if being wasteful is just a symptom- then consumerism, distracting media, and irresponsible corporations might be the actual diseases. In their vision, we are communities that stand together and don't let these entities confuse and distort our moral fibers. The entities of mass media and corporations might exist, then, only to encourage social responsibility and ecological stewardship.

     Whatever the cause, the effects of this group are unmeasurable. You could look up the ridiculous amounts of trash they have picked up on their website (oh my gawd, Cincinnati, way to embarass the crap out me by the way... the trash here is reeee-diculous!). What you can't measure is the particular ways that they've impacted everyone they meet along their adventure.

10/10/10 'nati work party, on the day that I met Pick Up America. That's me holding the 5.
     My personal experience with this group has transformed my life. When I met them at the 10/10/10 'nati work party, I was just beginning my work as a climate activist. I asked them to present at UC, and within a week student interest in my student group LEAP spiked. A few weeks after that, Danny Berchenko (far left in the pic) spoke to our group. Two months later, a group that once had as many members as it did officers (about 5) had confirmed over thirty students to go to Power Shift, the largest student environmental conference and organizational leadership training in the nation. Today, these students are organized in groups to fight climate action from several angles: Move UC Beyond Coal, get sustainable food on campus, and more. Maybe it's easy to look back on certain events and get nostalgic and have "butterfly effect" conversations, but lets make no mistake: there wouldn't be over 30 climate activists (that I know of) on UC's campus if it wasn't from the community building impact that people like Danny and PUA have had by bringing together people across this city that have common goals. Below is a great video about that day (did you know Michael Jackson is helping our city have fresh local organic produce?):

     Another example I have, though a little small, illustrates the power this group has. Pick Up America had teamed up with the Mill Creek Watershed Council to do a pickup along the watershed here in Cincy which is home to over 500,000 people. They invited me to join. I spent a day picking up plastics, cans, tires, buckets, a tent, even a chassis along the Mill Creek. That day, I met Wes Duren, a horticulturalist whose company Marvin's Organics is the largest composter in the tri-state. Later, I connected them with a student group at UC, Students for Ecological Design (SED) and he has been very helpful in helping design a system for UC to take on composting on a large scale. According to my friends in this group, this relationship has been very productive (thanks, Wes!). It's hard to imagine how far this could go, and if it weren't for PUA this very important working relationship probably wouldn't yet exist. Here's a great video about that day (and please excuse my poop talk in it)

      These are only two events of many that they had while in Cincinnati. There were countless concerts, an amazing Earth Day All Day Music Fest, and of course the trash pick ups. One of the coolest events they did (while I was in DC attending Power Shift) literally demonstrated the power of community. An "art from the sky event" at Cincinnati Earth Day at Sawyer Point. It was rainy and really cold, but people still came. Here's the amazing shot:    

     So, cheers to you, Pick Up America. You not only have catalyzed a community of environmentalists in Cincinnati, but you have invigorated my personal motivation to "pick it up". I absolutely hate having to say goodbye to each of you, but I am really excited for all of America west of Cincinnati along your route. They have no idea how epic things are about to be in their towns.

>>>If you would like to contribute to this incredible organization, you can visit their website at, buy gear or make donations. If you are looking for summer work or interested in a "trash-ternship", I guarantee that it is an experience which could change your life. You can contact them through the website.

>>>Photos and video courtesy of Jeff Chen and Pick Up America

>>>One last personal thanks to Jeff Chen, Davey Rogner, Mark Chavez, Lily Berman, Johnna Jackson, and Greg Katski. Each and every one of you are incredible and inspirational individuals. I am lucky to have had the time and opportunity to learn from you and grow not only as an organizer, but as an individual. Many many thanks, and many more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Larry Gibson: The Keeper of the Mountains

     Ohio Citizen Action is a group of people out there doing it. They are literally bringing the environmental justice issues to doors of the people who are being affected. Lately, they've spent a lot of time on the Rumpke landfill expansion. This summer, they turn to the nastiest of all dirty energies: coal from mountain top removal. (Looking for a green job in Ohio this summer?)

     I had a great weekend in Chicago a few weeks ago with leaders from across the midwest who were getting trained to be coaches and facilitators at Power Shift 2011. Among them was Nathan Rutz, a very well spoken and kind person from OCA. I had met him just a few weeks before on a night out with Danny Berchenko (who else, right?). Near the end of the conference, Nathan mentioned that OCA was going to see Kayford Mountain, the legendary MTR site where Larry Gibson, Keeper of the Mountains, lived. Seeing Kayford seemed like a "right of passage" for every person who organizes to stop coal. I hesitated and I squirmed, because I know it's not pretty.

     Bright and early the next Saturday, I met OCA at their Cincinnati office. I had a collection of writings and speeches compiled into Sierra Club's book "Coal Country" (thanks Lyndsay Moseley) which is a companion book to the movie with the same title. Along the ride, I read clips from Larry Gibson, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ashley Judd; just to name a few. There is no doubt that the coal business is destroying lives, reducing jobs, and wrecking appalachia to the extent that it may someday soon be virtually uninhabitable. This book couldn't prepare me for what I was about to see.

Organizers from Ohio Citizens Action stand with Larry Gibson (center) with the Kayford Mountain MTR site in the background

A scene of mass destruction. This used to be a mountain top.

    No pictures, books, or even this NatGeo article against MTR can prepare you for what this experience is really like. Larry has a hell of a story to tell, too. He's given thousands of tours of Kayford, and the coal companies have noticed. In fact, they've started piling up the fill near Larry's viewpoint so that it is harder for visitors to see the mass destruction. The problem is, the destruction is too big to hide.

    Much worse than piling up gravel next to his viewpoint, Larry has had to deal with mafia-like attacks at his own home. Besides blowing up the mountains all around him at all hours of the night, making his water undrinkable, digging up his family's cemetary, and making the local air virtually unbreathable with nitroxides and fine particulate matter (you can literally see the haze from it); Larry has had his life threatened, his own dog shot, another hung from his own porch, his cabin burned, gotten beat up- all in all over 120 acts of  violence. This is truly a man making a stand.

A very positive Larry and me. Just before this picture, I had told them that I was starting a campaign to get coal off of my campus. He told me to "keep it positive". In a speech Larry once said "You gotta tell people something positive, but you can't make it easy and tell them that nothing's gonna happen to them because there's always the potential." 
      Once, the coal companies had tried to buy Larry's land. An excerpt from Coal Country:

"The land'll never be for sale. You can have my right arm, but you'll never get the land."

So he said, "Well, you know, you're the island, and we are the ocean. You set in the middle of 187,000 acres of coal company land. You're the only thing we don't own between here and the Virginia border." I had my family members—seven of us —there for that meeting and it just didn't make no sense.

That man said, "We don't give a damn about the people up the holler. We don't care about anybody, anything. All we want is the coal and that's it."
     We made one more stop after Kayford. Coal slurry impoundments are the most foul and toxic waste sites you'll ever see. There are about 7,000 of them, all of which are millions and millions of gallons. One in particular has gotten a lot of attention because it is literally next to Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Photo courtesy of
     When you're looking at this from a van from that tiny road winding through the above pic and its raining buckets, it's even bigger and more terrifying.

     Thanks to OCA for the unforgettable experience. This will be a source of strength in fighting coal that I will always draw from.

     Junior Walk, from Coal River Mountain Watch, was at Kayford Mountain that day, too. He recently spoke at Power Shift about MTR and how it is destroying his community. Blair Mountain, iconic and historic site of the Coal Miners Union's struggle against the unfair practices of the coal companies during the Battle of Blair Mountain, is slated for MTR. Join Larry, Junior, and the people of Appalachia opposed to MTR during the week of June 5-11 for the March on Blair Mountain, and help them make history.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lobbying in Washington DC to Protect the CAA

     When The Sierra Club asked me if I would like to go to Capital Hill to lobby for the Clean Air Act, I could hardly contain myself from the excitement of a once-in-a-lifetime-kind-of-opportunity. Rallying, blogging, working with OSEC, and getting UC students organized to move our campus beyond coal has drawn a little attention from some folks at Sierra Club (thanks for noticing, MacKenzie Bailey!). Folks across the midwest were chosen to fly-in to DC at a very strategic moment to meet with their congress persons about the Clean Air Act.

An incredible team of lobbyers from across the midwest. In front, Lyndsay Mosely of the Sierra Club.

     It was certainly a diverse crew. Lance Weyeneth, a fisherman from Michigan, was there to express his concern of mercury from coal-fired power plants getting into his fish. Roni Kampmeyer is forced to live close to a coal slurry impoundment called little blue. Misti Wright Furr is a park ranger in Virginia who has had to fight coal plants from being built in her own backyard. Every one of these folks had an incredible story, and I was lucky to be among them.

     A video by the great folks over at Ohio Student Environmental Coalition about this issue.

     Here's a video from the Sierra Club office in DC, urging fellow students to call Brown and watch the video above:

     We targeted people on that "damned fence" about the issue of whether or not the Environmental Protection Agency should be allowed to protect our very own clean air from greenhouse gases, mercury, and other toxins. It is really a shame that this was even necessary. I found myself lobbying Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who was previously a champion of climate justice, but recently has caved to public pressure and the unpopularity of the EPA among corporate constituents.

Holding the Ohio flag in front of Steve Chabot's office. I delivered a "stickerback" pellet (manufactured by an Ohio company, which UC hopes to use as an immediate coal replacement) to Mr. Chabot, and left the message that energy alternatives can provide new opportunities to small business. This was aside from my main goal, but couldn't miss the opportunity.

     Mary-Ann Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign, gives the full story.

     The trip itself had several things noteworthy in my mind. Flying in, I could see toxic slurry impoundments from the plane. In DC, I was impressed by the sustainable transportation services, such as the DC Metro and Capital BikeShare. I saw solar panels over a parking lot within five minutes of being on the ground in DC. The folks in DC have a high sense of urgency. Lyndsay Mosely is one of the most impressive folks I have ever met. I'll never forget all of the amazing cherry blossoms that were in bloom while I was there.

Cherry Blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial

     I think the moral of this story is that there is a lot of work to do to protect the environment. If you are considering being an organizer or advocate in this field, we need you. There are plenty of jobs and a lot of organizations working on this. As far as my love for DC, well, I'll be there again in just a few days for the largest environmental conference in the world- Powershift 2011.

     Update on the Clean Air Act attacks which we were lobbing to protect: On April 6th, Harry Reid claimed that the 5 bills which attacked EPA funding of greenhouse gases (one of which was co-sponsored by Brown himself, released just days after I left DC) would not come to a vote. Later that day, President Obama made an official statement that not only would he veto any bill attempting to remove EPA's ability to protect clean air, but that he would veto any attacks on the Clean Water Act. This was most likely an acknowledgement to all of the great folks that were lobbing to end mountaintop removal that week. On April 7th, contrary to the statement by Reid, the Senate voted on all 5 bills regarding EPA funding for the CAA. To the delight of many, and if I may so so myself- the folks standing with me in the photo above, ALL 5 BILLS WERE VOTED DOWN. I was already proud to take my concerns to Capital Hill, but am speechless in regards to my feelings that I have when I consider that I was able to have a direct role in protecting the air of our future generations.