Puppets headline climate, food summit for youth

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Youth participating in Rooted in Community's annual food justice conference perform a puppet show focused on climate justice in Center City Park. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Under the partial cover of Center City Park’s wooden pavilion, youth performers steered colossal pole puppets — faceless gray suits symbolizing big oil, giant fists in shades of brown labeled “People power” and “El poder de la gente,” and vibrant flags representing wind, air and sun — but not before a proper introduction.

Last week, the NC Climate Justice Summit hosted the annual Rooted in Community food-justice conference for youth in Greensboro. The theatrical performance, an adaptation of the NC Climate Justice’s roadshow, marked the third and final day of the youth gathering and highlighted economic, environmental and social-justice issues. Expert puppet artists from Paperhand Puppet Intervention showed a different group of young people and families to how to create the puppets earlier this year with the goal of enabling them to use puppets to shape the narrative of justice movements.

Bevelyn Ukah is the youth coordinator for the Food Youth Initiative, the local organization that orchestrated the event. She was among the mentors and organizers who honored Goldie Wells, interim councilwoman and candidate for District 2, and Christina Young, professor and director of public health and education at UNCG, for their contributions to furthering environmental and social justice. The honorees emphasized the importance of young voices in movement building.

Two days prior to the show, youth led their own workshops, many of which focused on how the power of storytelling — and amplifying the stories of others — is key to moving hearts and minds on issues like climate change.

Ree Ree Wei, a 19-year-old youth leader associated with Transplanting Traditions Farm in Chapel Hill, attended a workshop focused on how to implement social media “as a tool to send a message to people that has a huge impact and leaves them thinking about others.”

As a Burmese refugee, she said that this type of training is an invaluable resource as she and others strategize for how to use writing and other creative practices to effect change.

Young people from as far away as the US Virgin Islands attended the Rooted in Community conference, and brought their stories with them.

Learn more about Rooted in Community at rootedincommunity.org and the Youth Food Initiative at cefs.ncsu.edu.

Event emcee and local youth leader Noah McDonald said he learned about a primarily indigenous Lumbee youth-led project to convert a prison into a sustainable farm, museum and recreation center in Scotland County.

“They talked about the history of chain gangs in North Carolina and how our road systems were built almost entirely by African-American and Lumbee men,” McDonald said. “You can go in the museum and learn those stories and feel what it was like.”

Though few participants knew one another when they arrived in Greensboro, they moved in practiced unison on July 22.

“The youth group performed this for the first time two days ago,” Alyzza May, a member of the local planning committee, said. “It shows we can learn things quickly together… to create solutions to climate change which, in part, is bringing down big oil and corporations that are extracting from our communities.”

To the pounding of djembe drums, hand-held xylophones and the rattle of snare drums, performers chanted, “We resist until we rise; We stand up for lives!” and proudly hoisted their battle flags. After several scenes in which the giant hands labeled “people power” met the suits, pipelines and methane gas, three immense-yet-elegant green giants with human-like faces graced the outdoor stage. Flowing clothes of various shades of green draped the oversized puppets effervescent leaf hands and large, pink flowers affixed to the flipside of the puppets’ faces seemed to symbolize hopefulness, if not simply a reverence for nature.

At the finale, youth performers paraded their puppets around the periphery of Center City Park while the chorus of djembe drums and chanting continued. The encircling march indicated to everyone within its path that they are now part of this story.

As one of the youth’s props urged, the time had come to “look, listen and decide.”