Reflecting on the Great Turning Unconference

It’s been almost a week since I, along with an impressive crowd of change-agents, attended the Great Turning Unconference organized by the Be The Change Earth Alliance. In past years after attending similar events, my motivation for and my thinking on what transpired generally petered out in the days following (much to my dismay). Perhaps direct calls to action were not entirely encouraged, or options to connect with others during and after said event were limited and dishearteningly difficult. Finding value in and participating more mindfully in dialogue through activities I’ve been better able to cultivate ideas. At the Great Turning I was forced to listen as my primary form of engagement (for lack of voice due to laryngitis…ah!) and I think it proved beneficial.

Almost full roster of the speakers at the Great Turning

The day opened with the charismatic Maureen Jack-LaCroix asking us to “meet at the confluence.” They were fitting words for the day’s events, and a reminder to approach each other with respect and awareness as we navigated topics ranging from emergency preparedness to oil tankers to living sans plastic. After welcoming the delegates, she asked the community leaders to introduce themselves and to describe their topic area in fewer than three words alongside a gesture or sound effect of our choosing. A creative bunch like us guaranteed some creative – amusing – gestures. Charming movement builder Ajay Masala Puri of RangiChangi Roots who I’d met at an event just two days prior graciously agreed to introducing me and my topic area of seed saving and seed sovereignty as I stood smiling awkwardly at a crowd of engaged and engaging delegates. The energy in the room was palpable and after a few snaps of our group, we were well on our way to listening to the day’s first brilliant speaker, Tyee Bridge.

Action: Tyee Bridge and the Wild Salmon Circle

“You are brilliant – and the Earth is hiring.”

Tyee Bridge, a Vancouver-based writer, introduced us to the concept of the study-action circle and spoke of citizen engagement as a missing part of the social change ecosystem. He stated the need for a way to deal with the structural apathy that has in effect steadily eroded activism since the 1970s and noted that the open, creative, and sharing nature of action circles could very well fulfill people’s needs to express and act on their concerns. This was the hook I’d been hoping for and I immediately took to the idea of how better to create both sustained dialogue and action. He described tongue-in-cheek his struggle with his personal “exploding head syndrome” and how out of a meeting with three others he had met at the Great Turning Unconference in 2009 (all of them, including himself, “non-activist types”) emerged the Wild Salmon Circle, an action circle which organized five rallies around the common thread and concern for salmon. Throughout Tyee’s presentation, I was pleased to hear him mention Joanna Macy, a renowned eco-philosopher and activist, author, and scholar on general systems theory, deep ecology, and Buddhism. The Great Turning initiative, essentially a shift from industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization, can be attributed to her and her work.

Tyee’s talk made for the perfect segway into the Dialogue Circles. Before reflecting on Tyee’s words, however, we were introduced to the “Community Agreements” which people seemed to embrace whole-heartedly throughout the day: (1) Listen to understand, (2) Be authentic, (3) Step up, step back, (4) Be concise, (5) Enjoy ourselves. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that that was especially true of the last point.

Turning Talks

After our brief but lively Dialogue Circle came the Turning Talks which afforded us the opportunity to hear from three to four community leaders. I was reacquainted with my colleague Ross Moster of Village Vancouver (VV) whose topic on “Neighbourhood Food Networks” was just as engaging this time as the last six or so times I’d listened to it. Ross has a way of engendering interest in everything that he’s passionate about and it was a treat to hear him speak on VV’s grassroots approach to negotiating the reality of peak oil with that of our communities – to not only adapt to the increasingly complex world we live in but to create resilient and cohesive communities as well. VV is a part of the Transition Town Network and works as a hub for bridging interests and working towards sustainable and thriving bioregions and communities through inspired action and shared leadership. Food is but one focus of VV’s extensive network and happens to be the most active one currently as members are, not surprisingly, aware of its relationship to health, economy, and all aspects of life itself.

Turning Talks in full force at the Great Turning

Our table also met with Jeff Chiu of BC Hydro whose topic on “Community Energy Conservation” harkened back to Ross’ talk: the community’s needs must inform the development of new projects, the improvement on existing ones, and the reimagining of systems and structures themselves. During the last portion of our Table Talks session, we were graced by Miriam Palacios’ presence, passion, and knowledge around women and global food justice. Miriam is the Policy and Outreach Officer for Oxfam Canada who I’d met several years ago when documenting Oxfam’s inaugural Music4Change fundraising event. To her mind, as well as mine, food justice is having the right to food. She described a global food system that is fundamentally broken as over one billion people remain malnourished. Key to the massive reform of this system, Miriam surmises, is the role of women as critical social actors; in Africa, for instance, women are responsible for 80% of food produced.

Before we could really digest all the new tidbits of information gathered from the Turning Talks, we were asked to reassemble for the morning’s Table Dialogue session. Not having yet been able to attend one of the Vancouver Food Policy Council meetings (members meet once a month) despite Ross Moster’s insistence – encouragement – I decided to meet with Joanne Bays who engaged us in discussion around local food in institutions.

After a fantastic vegetarian lunch and Buckman Coe serenading us with the line, “the apocalypse is not guaranteed,” the afternoon portion of the day was led by none other than Vancouver Deputy Mayor Andrea Reimer. Along with commentary on Vancouver as the “City of Destiny” (her favourite image of Vancouver) and community knitting together over food like marshmallow salad, chop suey, and Red Rose tea (all at the same potluck), during her lively presentation Andrea posited three questions to participants: (1) When you’re fighting against something, what is it that you’re fighting for? (2) Who is it that you’re fighting for? Are they standing next to you, especially as leaders? (3) What future is it that you’re fighting for? The only thing we know is that the future is inevitable. I thought that her expertise and insights into community resilience resonated very much with Village Vancouver’s work and it was heartening to receive confirmation of food as a means of connection.

Andrea Reimer and her favourite photo of Vancouver: Vancouver as City of Destiny

My afternoon Table Dialogue with Ajay Masala Puri of RangiChangi Roots paralleled Andrea Reimer’s talk in that it was chock full of enthusiasm, intrigue, and colour. RangiChangi Roots is an organization that aims to build bridges between the environmental movement and cultural communities in the belief that transformation to solve climate issues will not happen unless inclusivity is realized. Ajay believes that not only should connections be intercultural, but intergenerational as well as interdisciplinary. A common thread I’d been noticing all day was the idea of celebration and dialogue through food. One of the ideas that Ajay wishes to pursue with RangiChangi this year is the nomination of what he calls, “eco-champions”; he doesn’t simply want to include tried and true environmental activists, scholars and the like – he also wants to identify and celebrate those individuals whose actions can be described as sustainable, without necessarily intending to be so.

Our third and last keynote speaker of the day was Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International and Hollyhock Education Centre on Cortes Island. As the “Consciousness” keynote speaker, Rex asked us to consider the idea of the Shambhala Warrior as relevant to the present. In short, the Shambhala teachings were founded on the premise that there exists a basic human wisdom that can help to solve the world’s problems and that the intersections of fearlessness with gentleness and of mindfulness with action cannot be ignored. Like Tyee Bridge, Rex touched on the work of Joanna Macy who surmised that compassion which would move us to act on behalf of other beings and insight which would allow us to see the interconnectedness of all things would have to be considered wholly necessary. In acting with conviction but not aggression, Rex ended his talk by encouraging us to help our culture understand what it does not want to understand but not as individuals because we must realize that we aren’t individuals and I couldn’t agree more on the importance of this.

Action Circles

Finally, just as my voice started to return, I joined up with Chanel Ly and Peggy Lam (fellow community leaders whose talk centered around Windermere Secondary’s School Garden) in an Action Circle discussion on how to bridge intercultural and intergenerational gaps with the environment – sound familiar? Apparently Ajay and his colleagues haven’t been the only ones to ponder this conundrum and events like these speak to the importance of not only creating the dialogue necessary to move forward various issues and causes but to connect with those who may very well share your concerns. Chanel and Peggy’s Action Circle seemingly gathered all the “youth” in the room – all 10 of us. An exaggeration of course, but the group was indeed mostly composed of the youngest in the room. In the short time we were able to dialogue with each other, we shared our various challenges and experiences in trying to navigate the question of how to encourage thinking around the environment with our peers, our parents, and our communities. Thankfully, with the help of Metta, one of the key Be the Change Earth Alliance facilitators, we organized a contacts list for connecting again in the near future.

By this time (perhaps a few hours prior to the unconference’s end, actually), I was feeling completely knackered and ready for some bed rest. Having a voice would have been ideal for an event such as this, but I don’t and can’t regret my only option of listening and quickly chiming in via words scribbled on to note cards. It was incredibly valuable to have been a delegate at the Great Turning and I have such gratitude to Maureen and her fantastic team for having been invited to speak and participate. Given the sheer number of community leaders, delegates, topics, and talks, I thought the unconference was incredibly well-organized and well-executed, and what’s more, despite not being able to communicate verbally, I was able to make some important connections. Rarely has an event left me feeling refreshed and encouraged to do and be more, these sentiments still resonating with me as I write this.

Won’t you meet me at the confluence?

Amy (@amyyyyyt)
(Photo Credits: Paula Poortinga)

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