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Bioneers Conference Explores Sustainability & Social Justice

Rich Egger
Deborah Steinberg, Director of Campus Sustainability at Knox College, speaking with TSPR's Miranda Corbett.

The sixth annual Prairie Fire Bioneers Conference at Knox College explored the multiple meanings of sustainability.

Deborah Steinberg, Director of Campus Sustainability at Knox College and one of the organizers of the conference, explained, “Sustainability is a very interdisciplinary word in and of itself. It can mean a lot of things to different people.”

Bioneers is a national conference that celebrates sustainability and social justice. As a member of the “Resilient Communities Network,” Knox rebroadcasts some speeches from the national conference. The college also brings in locally and nationally known speakers to provide ideas on what sustainability means to them.

To Benjamin Farrer, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Knox, sustainability has a lot to do with politics. He spoke at the conference about his research on the politics of hydraulic fracturing. Focusing on landowner opinions of hydraulic fracturing in New York, he sees the study as also relevant to western Illinois.

“All around this area of America, or areas similar to this economic profile, have been the areas where hydraulic fracturing is happening. Even if it’s not likely to come to Galesburg in the near future, I think people are interested in hearing about what’s happening to towns like us and what we can learn from their experience—not just with hydraulic fracturing but with the politics of deciding a really divisive issue like that,” Farrer said.

Credit Rich Egger
Bioneers keynote speaker Al Eastman

Al Eastman also explored the intersection of politics and community activism within sustainability. Eastman, a Sicangu Lakota, is originally from South Dakota. He presented the keynote speech at the conference. He spoke about his activism efforts against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.

Eastman said the pipeline project is a case of environmental racism that violates human rights. To him, these are sustainability issues that community organizing can have an important role in deterring.

He said he wants to let people know that they can make a difference.

“You can start with grassroots organizing,” Eastman said, adding that community activism can be a catalyst for social justice.

“Look at the groups that are in your community, and if there isn’t any, there’s a lot of different trainings out there. There’s a lot of different websites you can look at.”

Knox freshman Sylvie Bowen-Bailey said that Eastman’s speech caused her to think more critically about the issues at Standing Rock. This was the first time Bowen-Bailey attended  Bioneers. She said she was inspired by Eastman and the other speakers.

“A lot of what it has made me think about so far is the amount that I consume and the all of the environmental costs that are associated with that,” she explained.

This mental shift seems to be how Steinberg imagined Bioneers might impact attendees.  

“I hope [the attendees] come away with inspiration in terms of having the power to do something locally, as well as hearing these exciting ideas and feeling like they have a new passion for these issues,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg’s definition of sustainability as interdisciplinary was evident in the diverse topics presented at the conference. She hoped that the excitement and innovation from the conference will last all year.