Twenty-four of us representing the Jasper Sustainability Club set out in the early-morning hours of April 30 on a SunDog bus headed to Portland, Ore.
We were on our way to attend and present at the Living Futures Un-Conference – “where the green building movement’s leading thinkers and practitioners come together to share their deep expertise and dearest hopes.”
The conference is put on annually through the collaboration of the International Living Future Institute and the Cascadia Green Building Council, likely the most cutting-edge green designers in North America.
This would be our group’s third straight time attending the conference that changes locations annually throughout the Cascadia region. The goal of the Jasper kids was to inspire, motivate and entertain this group of influential architects, engineers, entrepreneurs, educators and government employees.
We’d been successful at this in the past, but that only worked to create more pressure on this year’s group of students. We wanted to live up to our billing, but it wouldn’t be easy considering the work of past Jasper students.
Going from Alberta to Portland symbolizes a much greater distance than the 1,189 kilometres that Google Maps quotes. Portland represents the heart of the sustainability movement. Residents’ identities and lifestyles are shaped around the type of change that we here in Jasper often talk about. In North America, if you are interested in how cities can function better and have such an attitude be reflected in transportation, food, activities and culture, then this is the city to take a pilgrimage to.
The thing that amazed most of us about this trip was just how excited Portland and its design community were to have us there. Before coming, we’d been approached by architectural firms, local school boards and even the Oregon Zoo to meet with them and share our experiences.
Our hostel in the “Alphabet” district of Portland, a former industrial warehousing zone now being converted into liveable spaces, really captures the essence of Portland. Things aren’t newly constructed here, just reconstructed to be more people-centered.
Our visit to the offices of Opsis Architecture – located in a converted 19th-century hay loft, complete with old barn beams and doors – gave us our first taste of this. They tell us that they, and the rest of the businesses in the area, hold an open house once a week where anyone can come in and check out what they’re working on.
The next day, we took in the Oregon Zoo before presenting at the Living Future Government Confluence – a one-day meeting of government officials to discuss sustainable change. We’d been billed as the keynote address on creating economies that enable groups like ours to realize our long-term visions for sustainable change more easily. We gave a presentation about our attempt to build the most sustainable school in Alberta and then the discussion was thrown out to an internationally acclaimed panel of experts in sustainable change from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.
Judging by the tears in the moderator’s eyes, we seemed to have struck the right chord.
Then we were given some very practical advice as youth hoping to make a difference. The best advice, we were told maybe cynically, might be to have at least three in our group become accountants. At the end of the day, we’re told, no matter how good the idea is, no matter how much sense it makes, the accountant gets to say whether an idea can be afforded or not.
On the move, we jumped on the street car and headed downtown to the conference headquarters to register and to hear the conference’s keynote speaker: Dr. Vandana Shiva. Most of us had never heard of Dr. Shiva before, but it didn’t seem to matter once she opened her mouth. We were struck by the fact that she has a doctorate in both quantum physics and philosophy, is part of the International Forum on Globalization and calls herself an eco-feminist activist.
It becomes clear that nobody in his or her right mind would ever win an argument against her. Without looking at notes, she explains the history of ecological destruction as a pattern related to the destructive nature of colonialism and our male-dominated societies. She explains the injustice of patenting basic seeds that have been the staple of cultures for thousands of years. Then, she links all her points together to tell us that the way we treat the environment is the way we treat each other. Our little Jasper minds were officially blown.
The next night it was our turn to fill the same stage that this world leader did only hours before. Our presentation, a mixture of hard-hitting speeches, storytelling and a musical performance of Coldplay’s Paradise garnered us the second-biggest standing ovation of the entire conference.
In our presentation, we reflected on how Alberta could improve the design process of new schools by not only involving youth, but by seeing the building as a teaching tool itself. We also reflected on why we felt more sustainable change wasn’t happening, despite the long-term health, economic and educational benefits, and what the keys might be to creating more change.
The feedback we’ve received since telling our story in Portland has been uplifting and promising. We’ve been asked to speak at the Council of Educational Facility Planners AGM in the fall which will give us direct access to those that build schools across Western Canada.
We’ve also been contacted by a prominent Seattle-based architect about a potential project here in Jasper. But you’ll have to wait a bit to hear about this exciting news, so stay tuned.
As for now, we feel that our trip to Portland may have put us Jasperites in an even greater leadership role both in education and sustainable change. Before the end of the school year, we will be finishing our sustainability audits of local businesses and holding a gala night to thank all of our supporters. We will be performing our presentation here in Jasper, 1,189 kilometres away from Portland, with the understanding that often the harshest critics are the people closest to us.
Timothy Pigeon is a Grade 12 student at Jasper Junior/Senior High School and a member of the school’s Sustainability Club for Youth. Adam Robb is a teacher at the school and leader of the Sustainability Club.