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In the Desert Southwest, Young Leaders Are Reimagining What a Climate Conference Can Be

A dispatch from the fourth annual youth-led Uplift Climate Conference in New Mexico.
Young leaders rally in Albuquerque in support of the Frack Off Chaco Movement.

Young leaders rally in Albuquerque in support of the Frack Off Chaco Movement.

The sun set over rolling plateaus of piñon-juniper forest as Louise Benally, a Diné elder from Black Mesa, Navajo Nation, guided over 100 Millennials in ceremony. As the participants took turns gifting cedar and water to the fire they encircled, Benally asked other elders to share wisdom. Daniel Tso from the Greater Chaco region announced, "We are uplifting our spirits so we can take on the challenges we face."

This land acknowledgement opened the fourth annual Uplift Climate Conference, which ran from September 14th to 16th at the Cedro Peak Campground outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The word "conference" evokes images of adults in business-casual attire awkwardly networking in sterile buildings. At the Uplift Conference, however, youth of the Southwest have reimagined what a conference can mean.

Near the entrance, a giant "People's To-Do List" set the tone with items such as "Abolish Capitalism" and "End Sacrifice Zones." Participants camped under star-filled skies. Seeds of Peace, a radical catering collective that supports non-violent direct actions and mass mobilizations, prepared meals. Speakers—the majority youth themselves—discussed migrant justice, food sovereignty, and an end to extractive economies. Organizers centered creativity and vulnerability through an open-mic night, healing space, art build with banner and patch-making, and workshops on dance and music for social change.

All aspects of the program aimed to give young leaders skills and inspiration to build a movement. As Diego Martinez-Lugo, an Uplift organizer, said on the "Beyond Extractive Economies" panel, "We're radicalizing you all, and you're going to bring all you learn back to your communities and fuck shit up."

Uplift started in 2014 to unite and empower young people to act for climate justice on the Colorado Plateau—the high desert of the American Southwest. The name "Uplift" was inspired by the geologic process that led to the rise of the iconic red rock region. The term not only reveals the organization's deep ties to the land, but also its ethos: By creating a regional space for young people to come together, Uplift seeks to spark hope and resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

"Uplift is where I find hope that a powerful new movement might be growing," Ryan Beam, an organizer of this year's conference, said. "It is a community that stands a chance at bringing about true radical change."

This year's conference focused on resisting, protecting, and healing. Behind the main stage hung a giant yellow banner that read "Protect Chaco," a reminder of one of the Colorado Plateau's many federally designated energy sacrifice zones and the growing Frack Off Chaco movement.

Greater Chaco, just north of where conference attendees gathered, is sacred to over two-dozen tribes. Ninety-one percent of the land has been leased for fracking. The region is a checkerboard of tribal, state, federal, and private lands. Kendra Pinto, a keynote speaker from the eastern agency of the Navajo Nation, feels the effects of this checkerboard intimately. Federal land begins 75 feet from her home, and, last year, the Bureau of Land Management leased a parcel in her backyard. "All we hear is people don't matter," she said. But she also emphasized that people are rising. In contentious meetings with the BLM, Pinto has declared, "There's a movement that's started, and it's only going to get bigger."

Stories of resistance continued throughout the weekend. During the "Beyond Extractive Economies" panel, Nicole Horseherder, the director of the Diné non-profit Tó Nizhóní Ání (Sacred Water Speaks), highlighted the effects of coal mining on Black Mesa, a sacred region on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Coal mined at the Peabody Energy-owned Kayenta Mine powers the Navajo Generating Station, which keeps lights on in desert metropolises such as Phoenix. Yet the Diné and Hopi people who live nearest to the mine lack electricity and running water. "We have relied on springs and seeps for centuries. In addition to coal, they are mining water. The impact is tremendous," Horseherder said.

To reach coal deposits on Black Mesa, Peabody and the federal government have been forcibly relocating and impounding sheep from Diné and Hopi families since the 1960s. Nadine Narindrankura, a young leader with Tó Nizhóní Ání, discussed the different forced relocations the people of Black Mesa have undergone, including the Long Walk, federally imposed boundaries between the Hopi and Navajo Nations, and displacement for coal mining. She then concluded, "The fourth relocation will be from climate change."

This year, many families on Black Mesa didn't plant corn because of drought conditions. Most of the Colorado Plateau has been in exceptional drought since the spring, a new norm for a region experiencing heat waves, drying river beds, and massive wildfires.

By connecting the threats of climate change to past injustices, Narindrankura spoke to a common thread communicated at Uplift: The threats of climate change are linked to a long history of systemic oppression. Eva Malis, the Uplift coordinator, explained, "When we see indigenous peoples, people of color, poor people dying or displaced from climate chaos, we have to understand that the disproportionate impacts of climate change that oppressed peoples face today aren't accidental, but rather a result of societal inequity."

Throughout the weekend, participants not only learned about root problems and examples of resistance, but also gained skills to catalyze a movement in their home communities. Workshops ranged from "Indigenous Rooted Direct Action" to "Local Seed Stewardship," giving young people tools to dismantle unjust systems as well as create a regenerative future.

In addition to skilling up, participants found space for healing. "Action spaces are so important in providing tools, but there need to be places that nourish too," Danielle Austin, an Uplift organizer, said. "If we are only focusing on being 'productive' activists—and not on healing the trauma the Earth, communities, and individuals have experienced—then we're sort of perpetuating capitalist ways of thinking and being."

Workshops such as "Decolonial Healing Justice" and "Self Care and Resilience in a Chaotic Climate" addressed intergenerational trauma, community accountability outside of the police state, and the emotional weight of the climate crisis. During the open-mic night, young leaders embraced vulnerability as they shared poems, songs, and stories. In the dedicated art space, participants made protest art, using creativity as a tool for resistance.

The conference ended with a rally in downtown Albuquerque in solidarity with the Frack Off Chaco Movement, which organizers hoped would highlight how the injustices in Chaco reflect injustices everywhere. After taking down tents and packing up gear, 70 people ventured to the Albuquerque Civic Center. The "Protect Chaco" banner moved from behind the conference stage to the center of the rally. Young leaders held banners they painted throughout the weekend with messages such as "Protect Chaco, Defend the Sacred" and "Stop the Genocide."

Going into the weekend, there was no line-up of speakers for the rally. Rather, organizers called on the participants of Uplift to rise into their power, transforming from the conference audience into the speakers themselves.

Young leaders shared their stories and lessons learned throughout the weekend. Amber Benally, a young Diné, Hopi, and Zuni woman, spoke about the effects of uranium mining on her family. She grew up in Tuba City, a central hub of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. "Cancer has affected four generations in my family, all the way back to my great-great-grandfather," she announced. "For people to think that I wouldn't stand up for my community, they're completely wrong." Amber has been fighting for environmental justice since she was eight years old, when she participated in her first protest with the Protect the Peaks movement.

Marcela Mulholland, a Millennial who came to Uplift all the way from Florida, connected the environmental injustices in her home community to the stories she heard throughout the conference. "The oil-soaked seagull off the Gulf Coast of Florida is not so different from the poisoned waterway of Chaco," she said.

She concluded her speech with a quote from Aboriginal elder Lilla Watson: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."