Bioneers: a conference that brought me full circle and cracked me wide open

I blame Bioneers for turning me into a changemaker.

In 2007 I heard Paul Hawkens’ 2006 Bioneers talk about “how the greatest movement came into being and why no one saw it coming”. I had just graduated from University and was confronted with a fork in my path. That talk, along with his Univeristy of Portland commencement address, sent me down the road I chose, and I have spent ten years feeling a part of the movement that he described.

About a decade later, in 2015, I was finally able to attend the Bioneers conference in person. Bioneers’ mission is to be “a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with practical and visionary solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges”. In my experience, it’s rare for a conference to so fully live up to its mission statement. The 26th annual National Bioneers Conference was a magical convergence of activists, storytellers, social justice fighters, poets, researchers and more — all working at the intersection of the world’s largest social and environmental challenges.

Awesome humans, awesome stories, wicked problems

Pure and simple, the humans who graced the stage, weaving and sharing their stories, were awe inspiring. Magic came in many forms: drumming, a million powerpoint slides, a crafted script, or a story freely told. It was clear the Bioneers speakers had been selected due to the power of their storytelling craft. Here are a few that touched me the most.

Paul Hawken

Of course, I had come to hear Paul Hawken, to bring it full circle. He described his current mission: Project Drawdown, which is about turning the tide and causing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to decline.

“You would expect there to be an agreed list of the most effective solutions to address reducing the amount of Co2 in the atmosphere. Well, there is not.”

His team are testing and researching to compile that list. I love this initiative, as it focuses on what can be effectively done, and aims to build consensus in a largely disparate climate movement.

Ben Knight

Ben is a dear colleague and friend of mine, so this made it even more powerful for me. I got to witness him stepping, with humility and grace, onto the main stage to tell his story. Ben shared his journey as a cognitive science researcher working with monkeys in the US, through to being a part of the Occupy movement, meeting Enspiral and co-founding Loomio.

“If humans are getting smarter with each generation, why are our institutions getting dumber?”

Fania Davis

Two young people came onto the main stage and were brought to tears just due to the privilege of introducing Fania. She started her talk by focusing on her appreciation for them, and then told the story of bringing Restorative Justice to Oakland schools. Mutual respect and co-mentorship in action, witnessed before my eyes.

Fania brought in the word “Sawubona” to the stage. This is a Zulu word that I was first introduced to in Los Angeles by Orland Bishop (as he describes here). It is the practice of seeing not just the person in front of you, but the whole being and who they are becoming into the future.

The interaction and respect between Fania and the two young people who introduced her was Sawubona made visible.

Michael Meade

Paired with John Desmore (founding drummer from The Doors), these gifted storytellers bathed us in rhythm, words, and beauty. They carried us through a myth of an elder women weaving in a dark cave. She needs to stir the cauldron of seeds of the future, and while doing so a black dog is able to unravel her woven creation, the creation of all that is around us.

Are we going to pick up a thread and join in the reweaving of the world?

Simone Campbell

How do we allow ourselves to care so much that our heart breaks and then we work out of the cracks of that experience?

Simone is a nun. Her work in answering this question gave me new appreciation and insights into how working out of religious practice can have true impact. I found out they are making a movie of her work which can be seen here.

Intergenerational connections

Working within Enspiral, I am predominantly surrounded by 25–35 year olds — thus it felt like a privilege to be in a space spanning generations.

There were awesome younger people, like the Earth Guardians, who were a force bringing so much presence and power to the stage, and so many beautiful elders, such as Joanna Macey, who gave us the following question in a world cafe: “How do you face the uncertainty and adventure of the Great Turning?”

Let’s not ask what kind of future are we leaving our children, what kind of children are we leaving our future?” — Eriel Deranger

Social Justice, Racism, Sexism, Indigenous Rights

At Bioneers, social justice was confronted face on. Not just in a workshop on the side, or in one panel, but woven throughout the the conference.

One very rich and visible way social justice was addressed was by who was present and who and what was featured. Real diversity was supported through scholarship tickets, in lectures on the main stage, and in artwork and in design principles. My journey of discovering the impact of racism is still quite new and fresh — so I felt invited to really open myself and ask some deep questions.

I had never been as confronted by the history of the United States as during Bioneers. There is an invisible legacy of theft and deceit that this country was built on. Our patterns of white privilege want us to smooth over the ruptures — but how do you open yourself to the truth so that you feel the pain?

Rinku Sen: Focus on the impact of your work and not just the intentions of your work… Equity, not diversity, needs to be our goal
Nina Simons: Let’s acknowledge all the edges that emerge around any binary system”
Malik Kenyatta Yakini: “Social justice is a prerequisite for food sovereignty
Eriel Deranger : “We have always been here, we were never discovered”

At Bioneers, I was reminded of the real work we need to do. I was reminded of the great people in the greatest movement of our time. It opened up my eyes to what I have been seeing, and challenged me to truly witness it. It gave back to me the inspiration I had found so many years ago in Paul Hawkens talk, and by connecting me on a heart level to the people doing this work, helped me re-commit to playing my own role in the movement.

Thank you.

Thanks to the Enspiral Foundation and the NZ US Embassy for supporting my trip.