Young woman rides from the US to Paris on climate justice storytelling journey

The following is a guest blog from Morgan Curtis, a storytelling cyclist on a six-month, ten-country Climate Journey to COP21 in Paris. She is working to share stories of individuals and communities mobilizing for climate justice, in the belief that only when we talk about why we do what we do, do we get to the question at the heart of the movement: who is it we want to become? She is also a youth delegate at COP21 with SustainUS. You can follow her @climatejourney.

I was sitting, knitting, by my wood stove last winter when I decided to take a journey to Paris for COP21, the United Nations Climate Conference this December. It was January 14th in the late evening, and I was in a small cabin on the coast of Maine, surrounded by drifts of heavy snow. I had been teaching Environmental Issues and Renewable Energy Solutions, living and working alongside thirty-two young women and nine young men that had taken the courageous step to leave behind their regular lives for a semester and immerse themselves in environmental thought, living out newfound values in this northeasternmost corner of the United States.

When not long after my housemate returned, a few rows later in my knitting, I had already decided that I was going to ride my bicycle as far north as I could, following the curve of the continent eastwards, hopping ship to the Arctic and onwards to Europe. I had six months to seek out stories of climate change in the far north, and hoped to arrive in Paris emboldened to speak out about the impacts I had seen first hand. Many doubted my plan, speaking plainly on what they perceived as risks to a woman traveling alone by bicycle. I poured over the Women on Wheels Wall, a celebration of solo female touring cyclists, and connected with the inspirational Devi Lockwood, a climate-poet-cyclist on the road in Australasia. I had no doubt I could do this alone, but knew the project would be stronger with another storyteller along.

Months later I was on a ridge in the Green Mountains of Vermont with Garrett Blad, a collage artist, dreamer and climate activist. We had met for the first time just two days before, after weeks of video calls, and were getting to know one another, contemplating the next six months we would spend cycling and story-gathering together. We had so many questions still to answer. Why are we doing this? What stories do we want to tell? How can we best contribute to the movement? Garrett described the Spectrum of Allies to me, and we thought about the fact our followers were most likely to be passive allies of the climate movement: the recyclers, the dinner party talkers, the organic food shoppers. How we could move them to be active, to organize in their community, to build power, to implement broader solutions? Our vision evolved from focussing on the devastation of climate change in the far north to highlighting those that have taken the critical leap from individual to collective action. We would connect with those mobilizing for climate justice all along our way, seeking out the seeds of their activism, all in the hope that their stories could inspire others to do the same.

Picture below: Morgan and Garrett in Hyde Park, London (photo by Micha Theiner)

Soon enough came October and I was stood before a crowd of student activists and friends cozied together in the Shrub Co-Op, a reuse hub in Edinburgh, Scotland. We were three and a half months into our journey, with many stories to share. I looked over the group of people sitting all together on the floor, on cushions and couches, bookshelves and clothing racks around us, waiting for story. I heard myself say, for the first time: "let us tell you about just two of the many powerful women of our journey."

Picture below: Lynaya Astephen

Lynaya Astephen lives on the coast in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada with her two cats. Her modest home sits at the terminus of Transcanada's proposed Energy East pipeline, the largest ever proposed in North America. It would carry 1.1 million barrels a day of diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta to the field opposite her home for export. A representative from Transcanada visited Lynaya when they began buying up property in her neighbourhood, just to let her know that they had no interest in purchasing her home. Initially devastated she would have to stay put as her community was razed around her, Lynaya began to read into the tar sands, to learn about climate change, and realized that her position in her house at the end of the line connected her with both suffering around the world and a global movement to relieve it. "I now think it was fate that put me here to fight this," she says. Lynaya dove deeply into organizing for climate justice: attending marches and rallies, writing editorials, organizing actions, leading meetings and connecting with other activists working on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and processing around the world. She was instrumental to organizing the 700 person-strong March to the End of the Line in May that demonstrated the blossoming resistance to Energy East in a community so controlled by the oil industry. There is no such thing as un-knowing in climate justice work, and Lynaya can't imagine slowing down anytime soon. "I want to be able to look my two nieces in the eye in twenty years and tell them that I did absolutely everything I could."

Next came the story of Louise Graham, an artist from Darlington, England, starting with when we first heard her voice on an artivism conference call organized by while we were in Sweden. We listened to her talk about her project, Waking Up To Climate Change, a grassroots collaborative art project to sew quilts portraying our feelings about climate change. On mute, Garrett and I exclaimed to one another just how much we loved it, and a few weeks later, we pedaled into her driveway. We asked after the seeds of her activism and Louise pointed to a shift in her life within a few weeks of her son being born. Realizing she had to protect his future she began to dry her clothes on the line, attempted to grow vegetables and rode her bicycle everywhere in a town where that's very much not the norm. With her daughter on the way, she was still working as a psychology consultant and finished a two-year report on access to government services for the elderly. She watched it be filed away and saw nothing change at all. "I didn't go back to work after Charlotte was born," she told us, "I realized that we were being told climate change is our fault, that we have to change our behavior, but it's not. We need to come together and change the system. I was hit with a wave of creativity, and began to make art." The idea for the quilt came along a few years into painting and making, connecting with other artists and activists in the UK. Having knocked on every one of her neighbor's doors to talk about climate change, Louise now goes into schools and youth groups, teaching about climate change as Captain Climate, a superhero wearing a quilt as a cape. Rory, her husband, is taking time off work to take care of Charlotte and Dan while Louise is in Paris with the quilts. "I've not been away from the children since they were born, but I know this is right. This is so much bigger than any of us; I have no choice but to devote my whole self to this moment in history."

Picture below: One of Louise's quilts (patch in center by Morgan)

Our evening in Edinburgh ended, as they often do, in a circle of powerful voices for change. Jaye Albraich, one of the founders of the Shrub Co-Op, spoke to the feeling of realizing a vision for a better world. Flick Monk, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland, told me of her role in the United Kingdom Youth Climate Coalition's delegation to COP21 in Paris: "I'm the mother. I'm there to make sure everyone flourishes amongst it all."

I am now writing from London, with just weeks to go until COP21. We already know what the official outcome of the conference will look like: a treaty that doesn't go far enough to curb dangerous temperature rises, provide justice for impacted people or financial support for renewable energy. What we don't yet know is the little moments that will go down in history. The alternative media moments. The people, stories, women, indigenous people, youth, frontline activists and courageous actions that will demonstrate the strength of our movement to build the world we need in 2016 and beyond. We all stand on the shoulders of those throughout history that have worked with an eye to the future, that have forged community, which have worked to connect rather than compete. As Willi Nolan, a Mi'kmaq grandmother-elder and lifelong community activist we met in New Brunswick, tells us,

"All violations of the lands are a violation of the life-givers, of women and Mother Earth. We are part of Mother Earth. As women, as Clan Mothers, it is our solemn responsibility to respect, honour, nurture and protect Mother Earth in the same way that we respect, honour, nurture and protect ourselves, our children, grandchildren, families, communities. We welcome our sisters to walk with us as we guide our men, our communities and our families to healing, to balance in harmony with the natural world."

Picture below: Morgan and Willi laughing

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