Eben Bein on Working With Young Climate Activists & the Stories Worth Telling to Make Change

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

How does the idea of progress become reality? By sharing stories that encourage action, we can find avenues toward change together. On a new Stories from the Stage, three storytellers recount the times when they realized it was up to them to make a move that would inspire community action. Eben Bein, the Massachusetts Field and Education Manager for youth-funded nonprofit Our Climate, has often welcomed artistry in one form or another into his life, and now takes the stage to share how he made a necessary career shift 'In the Name of Justice.'

Bein, who was born and raised in Massachusetts and works with young people to get in front of their legislators to talk about climate policy, began as a high school science teacher. As we hear in his story, Bein decided to redirect his professional energy when faced with a question he couldn’t answer: What are we doing about climate change?

"There’s this constant weave in me circling back and forth between the revitalizing energy that comes from art and interrogating why it’s worth being alive, and the deep work of the tasks in front of me," he said.

WORLD Channel spoke with Bein about his journey to climate justice and the role of storytelling in fighting climate change around the world.

WORLD Channel: Tell us more about your move from teaching to activism. 

Eben Bein: Climate justice education is in a really rough state right now; sometimes we don’t teach about it [at all]. And when the education does happen, in many cases it amounts to: “Here are the various and manifold ways in which we are screwed. Please memorize them and recreate them on this assessment.” That was soul-crushing for me, and soul-crushing for the young people who came to me.

Now, my young people and I [with Our Climate] are rewriting and planning to lobby for an interdisciplinary climate education bill that would allow the work that we are currently doing to happen in schools. We’re trying to tackle this idea that education is neutral and would be biased if we were to bring current events into the classroom.

WC: What is the role of young people in climate justice?

EB: Young people know that systems are changing in a big way, and they are hungry for models, time and space to experiment with what a new system could look like. Those who show up talk about how, “This matters, and we can build power. And this is what we should be doing even though these systems are telling me I should be spending my time on something else.” 

Just asking the question of, “Does the thing that I do matter?” is refreshing and powerful. If we ask that of ourselves and model that in front of young people, that equips us older people to get out of the way of their vision. A writer I admire says, “Young people can see further along the curvature of the earth than we can,” and that always gives me [hope that] they're seeing a different world. If young people are quiet or seem disconnected, it's not because they're as jaded as we are; it's because they're searching for their pathway to fix the world's real problems. 

Youth have a special potential to be the mycelium for different parts of the movement. They see the purpose in it. That’s also the experience I most want to give young people, that feeling of, “Here is how this matters.” And celebrating the ‘mattering’ – the policy that gets across the finish line thanks to our work, the rally and sometimes a bill that went to committee and died there. Purpose-drivenness is rewarding.

WC: Why is storytelling central to your life and career?

EB: I tell stories to make meaning from my life. In the age of climate change, there’s so much change that we need to make sense of, and I can only do that when I’m telling stories. Whether it’s through storytelling, poetry, music or writing a good meeting agenda, storytelling has always been a sense-making practice that’s very grounding. We connect with and make change by telling stories – in order for that to happen, there has to be a direct link between the story we tell and the change that we want, and that requires being oriented toward a vision to the future. When people wonder, “How can a person be an organizer full-time? Is that even possible?” Or, “How could we as educators or as producers welcome climate justice into our work?” A story is step one. 

I’m learning about how important mourning is; if we want to direct our lives toward a vision for what we want the world to be, we will encounter a gap between reality and that [vision]. We can harden and steel ourselves, or we can find softness in our bodies and hearts just enough to reconnect with that vision, [rather than] continuing to reinforce the patterns carrying us there. I hope advocates who work tirelessly on climate justice give themselves the time and permission to mourn the gap, and I believe that storytelling can do that. 

WC: What are the climate change stories that need to be told?

EB: Much of climate justice gets buried in numbers and facts, things that feel far off or disconnected. Climate justice is about being human and being interconnected with the planet and with each other. When are the stories about disaster, and when are they about solution-building? When are we going to decide that telling a story in an objective manner is not the only priority? In our stories, [it’s about] allowing us to experience the disconnect between what we are taught in school about how democracy functions and how democracy actually functions, and then sit in that gap between vision and reality and name specifics. Right now, those are the stories that are the most important.

It’s my hope that we can let young people tell their stories: stories that ask individuals doing the work – particularly people with intersectional identities – what it's like for them to watch the government try to work. There are tropes that we come to associate with a compelling story, like the hero who overcomes a challenge, but I don’t need to tell a fairytale story in order for people to be motivated to join our work. The motivation and the desire to contribute is there. Maybe I’ll never grow out of being a retired teacher, but [I still love] the feeling that information is power. Sometimes that’s all the story that’s needed.

In the Name of Justice is now streaming.

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