The Right to Speak: for 60 Seconds?

The Right to Speak: for 60 Seconds?

Giving Indigenous People voice in the climate change debate

On Wednesday evening, the last night of the World’s People Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, before the closing ceremony, representatives from the United States and Canada gathered in the Biblioteca for a meeting of the North Caucus (as in delegates from the Northern hemisphere, or industrialized nations). The conversation started peacefully enough, so I was completely unprepared for the upcoming explosion.

Trouble started when the event moderator, who I’ll call Kris, convened the meeting without introducing herself. A member of the New York delegation stood up and said, “Excuse me, Kris, while I respect your efforts to lead this meeting, I need to know who you are before we continue!” Rather than introducing herself at this point, Kris said she was planning on introducing herself later in the meeting’big mistake. Another New Yorker stood up and talked about transparency and openness: “Who are you, Kris? Tell us who you are!” Finally she agreed, gave a brief introduction, then proceeded to present the group with an agenda’another big mistake. At the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, we’ve embraced fluidity, flexibility, and the right of all participants to speak their mind.
None of us knew where this agenda came from or who masterminded it. There was almost a coup’people were yelling, shaking their heads, and walking out of the room. Twenty minutes into the caucus, at least half of the white plastic chairs were empty, in a space that was packed when Kris first took the stage. In my opinion, the agenda itself was unrealistic.

We were expected to produce a North Caucus declaration at the end of the two-hour meeting’yet most of us were strangers when we entered the room, and we all came with our own interests and expectations. Everyone wanted to speak, but Kris had a plan; she told us that she hadn’t expected “to hear too many voices.” Eventually, we agreed upon a one-minute time limit for speakers, so each member of the caucus could have a voice, albeit a brief one.

Nancy Rober, of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, reminded delegates of the upcoming U.S. Social Forum in Detroit this June. Tanya Fields, from Mothers on the Move and the Black Project, reminded us that food justice is directly tied to environmental justice, and commented on the conference’s neglect of this issue. Jeff Jones, another member of the New York delegation, brought up the importance of building a climate justice tribunal that could hold individuals, corporations, and nations responsible for their environmental impacts.

The problem with one-minute time limits is that hardly anyone can say what they want to say in 60 seconds. As people ran over the limit, some audience members began shouting, “Time!” This led to another uproar’how can we have a civilized conversation when we don’t respect each other’s right to speak? I don’t know the solution to this problem’it’s rude to shout “Time!” but it seems just as disrespectful to speak for longer than the time allotted. I left before the end of the meeting, but my fellow delegates told me that it ended much like it began. Some of them said that they’ve been in the exact same meeting before’the inexperienced moderator, the rebellious participants, the walkouts. I certainly haven’t’and it was definitely an experience.

I think the best thing to come out of that meeting was the contact sheet that was passed around. Now, there’s a list of names and emails for everyone at the North Caucus, which will hopefully be used to connect and reunite us around the issues of climate change and environmental justice after we’ve all returned to the States. The most unfortunate aspect of this caucus is that not only were we unable to agree upon a North Caucus declaration, we didn’t even produce a single statement to release as the North Caucus. I wish we could have made one unified statement’even just one sentence’that we could take home with us, especially since this conference has had such little news coverage. I also think we need to ask U.S. President Obama why there aren’t any U.S. officials here and let him’and the rest of the country’know that the lack of a formal U.S. presence here was very obvious.

Photo courtesy of The City Project