Posted - 08/26/2016
sustainus.jpgBy 2016 Invoking the Pause Grant Partner Morgan Curtis, SustainUS COP22 Delegation Leader

I’m dancing in a tree, hanging from an overhead branch, feet in the crook between branches. Music is shaking the earth, and my fellow youth delegates from COP21, last year’s UN Climate Change Conference, are throwing shapes with their bodies. The Vermont spring sunshine is awakening the grass, and our souls.

“Dance your journey through Paris,” prompts Catherine Cadden, visiting us with her partner Jesse Weins to support us in unraveling, healing and moving forward from our group’s experience last year with their powerful work in nonviolent communication. “In pairs. Bear witness to what one another went through.”

My friend Greenberg sits down next to me, and I begin to dance to the sound of a heavy beating drum. I rush to and fro, remembering the immense pressure of being inside the windowless halls of the UN. I look from side to side, trying to catch a gaze, remembering the resistance to human connection I’d felt in that frantic environment. I flicker my fingers, mimicking the hundreds of hours of typing, writing, tweeting, that we’d all undertaken. I don’t stop for a moment’s rest, echoing the long and sleepless nights of those early December weeks.

I end my dance curled up on the ground, heaving with tears, fists clenched. The weight of the world bears down on me, so heavy is the responsibility of being a U.S. young person in those halls of power during this time of global crisis. I cry, once again, for the lives lost from inaction, for the injustice perpetrated daily within and beyond those decision-making spaces. I cry, once again, for my own complicity. I cry, once again, for the dearth of the community needed to hold space for and work from this grief.

It was early January, a few weeks into attempting to slow my heart-rate and rebuild my faith in activism, when an email from Invoking the Pause came across my inbox. This, I thought. This could be so healing, so transformative. Our last morning in Paris we had sat together around a small table in our hostel and dreamed of what it would be like to spend intentional time together, to really work together for the long-haul. This was our chance.

The funding from Invoking the Pause enabled us to bring back together twelve of our twenty-person delegation at Mountain Meadow Farm on the end of a dirt road in Vermont for two weeks this May. It was something that had never been able to happen before in the history of our youth-led NGO, SustainUS - the intentional reunion of a delegation to process lessons learned and commit to one another for the longer term.

We came together to attempt to sit with some of the questions that never get enough time in our movements - questions of resiliency, sustainability, purpose. What did I learn from COP21 about myself, this group and the movement? What does sustainable activism look and feel like? How do we care for ourselves and one another in face of systemic injustice and suffering? What is my position within the climate crisis, and what is my gift in furthering social change? How do personal, interpersonal and societal transformation intersect and build upon one another?

We also, being the young organizers we are, brought with us a number of long-standing strategic questions: What is the strategic role of youth organizing within high-level political decision making? What are the most effective current efforts to stop fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States? What communities are leading the transition to renewables? Why? What does a “Just Transition” truly mean? What communities provide models for learning? What is the role of the UNFCCC within the transition? Federal policy? State policy? Local policy? Where does SustainUS fit in this broad movement ecology?

We began to arrive in Vermont the evening of May 15th, several of us coming from Break Free From Fossil Fuels, a coordinated global week of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. We were sore from sleeping on the floor of a church with other organizers, but grateful to have been able to put our media skills to work amplifying the stories of those living adjacent to explosive oil trains in the South End of Albany, NY. Another one of our group let us know that he’d arrive a day late, having just got out of jail after blockading a tar sands oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. Snow was gently falling as we drove in.


Our first week on the farm we focussed on deepening our connection to one another, to the land, and to this moment in history. Following the spiral of the Work That Reconnects, we used practices, forms and rituals that explored our gratitude, our pain for the world in this time, our deep interconnection with all life and ways to move forward together. Supported for the first two days by Jen Lazar, a community-builder and educator, we also used community-building and reflection exercises from YES! Jams.

Tuesday, we walked silently in the forest, then built our community norms, working to understand what it would take to create safer space for each of us during this time. Wednesday, we explored our comfort zones and reactions to panic, beginning to trigger reflections on our group’s breakdown in Paris. We challenged ourselves to hold them for the following week. Thursday, we dove into our personal and social identities, deepening our understanding of one another’s stories and perspectives. Friday, we undertook a grief ritual, honoring our pain for the world and recognizing how far we’d come in trusting one another to hold space for emotion.

On Friday night we welcomed Peter Forbes into our community for fireside storytelling and conversation about elders and mentorship. In opening our space to him, it helped me realize just how powerful it is that we as youth were holding this space for one another, offering up practices and stories in an attempt to remake the way we relate to one another in our movements. It also comforted me that these questions, of how to carry the weight of this time, of how to support one another in the face of injustice, of how to nurture community, have been carried by the generations of activists above us for a long time. I hope we can continue to forge connections with them.


I was tired the morning after we danced. Rain started falling as we woke up, and by the time we gathered in the barn at 9:30 it was pouring. We left the big sliding doors open to watch the rain quench the earth.

The energy in the group was high. After a week of groundwork we were fertile for discussion of what had brought us together - our shared experience in Paris, and what we might learn from it. We began with a circle of mourning - passing the soft-toy Tigger that Jesse and Catherine always use as a talking piece for the sharing of grief. I began, offering forth the words that would have accompanied my dance - the story of our journey together in Paris as I felt it. The highs, of feeling so deeply called to act, of feeling inspired, empowered... and the lows, of feeling voiceless, ashamed, divided. Once again, I shook with tears.

We went around the circle, beginning to tease out the different journeys each of us had been on in that time, revealing how diverse the understandings of what had happened were. As Tigger made his way around, I felt the power of holding space for mourning, for allowing us to air what was lost and is still being lost. And, as he circled back to me, up surged mourning’s natural counterpart - celebration. As we illuminated the pain, we celebrated one another, our commitment, the endless work we had each poured into this moment of international and historical significance. Pain and gratitude: two sides of the same coin.

We said goodbye to Catherine and Jesse the next morning by sharing with them the song we had sung many a time in Paris: The Same Thing, by Rachel Schragis, brought to us by Ryan Camero. It’s a participatory art piece, where a canvas scroll is passed around a circle of people, all of whom create the song while witnessing an illustrated story of community resilience and resistance. For me, it was the anchor of our fledgling community in Paris - the ritual that grounded us. Catherine and Jesse had helped us learn the tools to bring that magic to the rest of our interactions. For all of our grievances are connected.


As our second week continued our thoughts shifted to going forth. How might we take forward what we were learning about community-building, deep listening, honoring of emotions, the power of ritual and storytelling? We are a dispersed community, all living and working in different parts of the country, brought together by our commitment to climate justice.  What role should SustainUS play for us, and for future members?

We started by exploring the “myths” that we had disrupted through our first week together. Everything from “to be culture free is to be modern” and “there is no alternative”, in terms of ways of being together as humans, to “our generation has to do this alone”, “we have an enemy”, “we are fundamentally separate beings,” and the myth of “The Good Life.” As we allowed ourselves to shed the assumptions that had been limiting our work, we began to move out of an old story and into the developing of a new story.

Using four core questions, we began to craft a new story for SustainUS, one that could guide and motivate us to move forward with a more sustainable, empathic and heart-led organization. We asked one another: Why is this [crisis] happening? What is the urgency of the moment? What is the path forward? Who are we [as SustainUS]? Conversation echoed around the barn for days, as we poured the energy we had built up into creativity and enthusiasm for something new. In teams, we each crafted a story, identifying setting, characters, an inciting incident, a challenge, an “at stake”, a lesson and a bigger idea.

A bigger idea: To create deep cultural, political, economic change, we need to change the myths of our culture. Agreements [like the Paris Agreement] can't make progress because power does not flow from decision makers. To make our epic myth heard we must organize, use the media, become storytellers (in our advocacy, community, actions, media, and how we live).

We translated our stories into skits, using the patch of grass in front of the barn doors as our stage, and performed for one another. Laughter, applause, tears and cheers. The appreciative creative space was unlike any way we’d been together before. I’ll never forget the ending of one group’s performance - each of them walking into our small audience, crossing boundaries and re-introducing themselves: “I am a storyteller”, “I am a storyteller.”


The stories continued to flow in our final days together, as we stayed up late into the night, sharing tales of our lives: from first kisses to first protests. We committed to continuing them, creating a “Story Team” within SustainUS to keep developing our new organizational story. We each also crafted our own story for the future, a vision for our work within the world (see other blog post). We decided to dive into the idea of our ways of life as a storytelling tool, beginning to write a “To-Be List” for our community, maybe our movement, in the manner of the Birmingham Commitment Card from the civil rights movement. What is our quest for justice, for sustainability, if we can’t be just, be sustainable?

The impacts of our Pause will ripple in all of our lives for a long time - as organizers, as friends, as colleagues, as humans. One way in particular that this story continues will be at COP22, this year’s UN Climate Talks. I never imagined that I would choose to lead this year’s delegation, yet with all I learned from last year, and from the Pause, I felt called to put these lessons to work. I’m honored to be working alongside some of the country’s leading youth activists, all committed to one another and the climate just future we envision. We’ve just publicly announced the 15 young people that will be travelling to Marrakech this November, and with 4 of us from the Pause group going back, we are committed to bringing the purpose, healing and intention of that time back to the halls of power from which the need for them sprung. Follow us at