Being Fearless: Thought Leaders Speak Out

“There are two things that we can not recover from, and only two: runaway climate chaos, which we are now seeing, and nuclear war,” said Van Jones, political contributor to CNN and president of Dream Corps, during a panel discussion at Omega Institute’s Being Fearless conference.

“The way we live can kill us and the way we kill can kill us all. Those are two existential threats that should more than anything focus all of our minds, get us very calm, get us very focused and start working to build the kind of movement that can win the country back over. Anything we’re doing that’s not that, as far as I’m concerned, is a criminal waste of time.”

I couldn’t agree more and was thrilled to be a part of Omega Institute’s annual sustainability conference in Rhinebeck, New York from Oct. 13–15 to hear from Jones and other thought leaders who shared their life’s work with more than 550 people on location and 3,000 enrolled online from 30+ countries.

Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and presidential historian Jon Meacham joined Jones on The Changing Role & Responsibilities of Media panel, which was moderated by co-founder of YES! Magazine, Sarah Van Gelder.

Sarah Van Gelder (far left) moderated the panel the Changing Role & Responsibilities of Media with (L-R) Van Jones, Amy Goodman and Jon Meacham. Photo credit: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck, NY.

“We need a media for peace for this country and around the world,” Goodman explained during her 45-minute keynote.

“‘We will not be silent.’ That should be the Hippocratic oath of the media,” Goodman told the crowd. And, quoting George Gerbner, former late dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, she said, “We need a media that’s not run by corporations that have nothing to tell and everything to sell that are raising our children today.”

As a long-time fan of Goodman and Democracy Now!, especially for the walk the talk business model they’ve been so successful at adhering to, I was glad to hear this specific question from a woman in the audience: “If you could create media that would not be clickbait, that would actually get information across to people that would be legitimate news that was not supported by advertising, how would that work?”

Goodman responded: “Democracy Now! is a great model, started 21 years ago. It was on nine community radio stations that was suppose to end after nine months, but there was more interest after the election. It was the only daily election program on public broadcasting, so we just kept going. It was only on radio till 2001, the week of the attacks. It went on its first TV station and it’s now 21 years later on 1,400 public television and radio stations around the country and world, and a station a week is picking us up. Why? Because it’s viewer, listener, reader supported, as well as fund foundations and network payments for the programming. It’s an amazing model and it’s global, so there is a large pool to draw from, and that kind of support of the people who are hungry for independent voices sending in their $5 and $10 is a very important model.”

Agreed! I think we owe tremendous gratitude to Goodman and her team who work relentlessly to provide access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the U.S. corporate-sponsored media.

Hearing from Jones and Goodman would have been enough to make the trip to Upstate New York worthy, but there was more, much more.

Provocative democratic intellectual Cornel West kicked-off the conference with a crowd-pleasing speech on Critical Thinking & the Profound Desire for Justice.

“You have to be open to make yourself vulnerable so you can be empowered in a way you may not have expected,” West said.

This quote was especially relevant to me due to recent decision I’ve made in my professional life. I’m confident it resonated with others too, especially those who understand the urgency we face as a people and planet. I encourage activists to heed those words as they contemplate how best to spend their time trying to make the world a better place.

“Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself,” was another critical point West made during his powerful 45-minute keynote.

Cornel West during his keynote address at Omega Institute’s annual sustainability conference. Photo credit: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck, NY.

Environmental activist and author Paul Hawken gave an enthralling talk, Drawdown: Transforming the Climate Change Conversation, which outlined the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. If you haven’t heard of Project Drawdown, you need to check out the organization’s website and its 100 solutions that can roll back global warming within 30 years.

“The idea that we want to mitigate climate change or global warming is the most underwhelming goal I’ve ever heard of,” Hawken said. “The only goal that makes sense is not to reduce, but to reverse.

“When you set bigger goals, everything opens up. Innovation. Creativity. Ingenuity. Genuis. Possibilities,” he concluded.

I’ve admired Hawken for decades and his book Blessed Unrest helped shape the work I do today. I sleep easier at night knowing people like Hawken are out there every day rolling up their sleeves to benefit people and planet.

Paul Hawken during his keynote address at Omega Institute’s annual sustainability conference. Photo credit: Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Rhinebeck, NY.

I was delighted to see David Orr listed as a top speaker at the Being Fearless conference. It gave me a feeling of camaraderie, as we are both from Ohio and have been working together for nearly 30 years, but more importantly the crowd got to learn about the incredible work he’s doing as founder of the Oberlin Project, an effort to improve the resilience, prosperity and sustainability of the Oberlin community.

His talk, The Way Forward: Strengthening Our Democracy, enlightened the audience on ways people can really make a difference. My favorite slide of his presentation was the “What to do?” slide, which stated:

“read, read, read …

connect … systems view

run for office … get engaged

communicate with representatives

organize, join the fight!

write op-eds, blog … VOTE!”

Special thanks to Omega Institute’s CEO Robert “Skip” Backus and his great staff for making mindfulness a big part of the weekend.

“This conference was unique in that we offered a blended approach to personal development and social change,” Backus said. “Mindfulness practices were taught as essential tools for being more grounded in the chaos. Our ability to widen our discernment is critical to seeing the interconnection between issues and how to make the kind of deep change these times demand.”

To help make sure we stayed grounded, we were led in meditation by Atman Smith, Ali Smith and Andres Gonzalez, founders of the Holistic Life Foundation. Through their work at the Baltimore-based non-profit, they have now served nearly 5,000 youth and 1,000 adults, focusing on underserved communities, with yoga and mindfulness programs. Meeting them was a high point of my weekend!

(L-R) Ali Smith, Amy Goodman, Atman Smith and Andres Gonzalez at the Omega conference. Ali and Atman, thanks to their parents, have been listening to Democracy Now! since childhood. Photo credit: Stefanie Spear

Inspiration was everywhere you turned throughout the weekend, including the walls. This quote by Baba Dioum on the back wall of the Main Hall was my favorite:

“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”

The conference also included book signings by the speakers who have acclaimed new works, including Paul Hawken’s Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Van Jones’ Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!: Twenty Years Covering the Movements Changing America’s.

Thank you Omega Institute for an unforgettable weekend!

Fighting the good fight for 30+ years working with people and organizations who are leading the charge for change.