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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Focusing the Heartland on a Clean Energy Future

From St. Louis and Philadelphia, to Columbus and Denver, Focus the Nation's Clean Energy Town Halls bring youth, community members and elected officials together to find clean energy solutions and plan sustained action.

Forget Seattle and Berkeley. Move over Portland and Boston. When it comes to deciding America's energy future, it's place like Akron and Pittsburgh, St Louis and Detroit that deserve the spotlight right now. While many leading cities in the traditionally green bastions along America's coasts are showing what's possible, the American 'Heartland' is where the nation's clean energy future must be built. What's more, the Heartland is where the political fate of climate and clean energy legislation being debated in Congress will be decided.

It's good timing then that Nationwide Town Halls for Clean Energy Solutions are happening all around our country right now. In community centers, college lecture rooms, and church halls all across the nation this week and last, elected officials from all levels of government are joining young leaders and community members to focus on what it will take to build a clean and prosperous energy economy and tackle climate change. The ongoing Nationwide Town Halls for Clean Energy Solutions are sponsored by the youth-empowerment organization, Focus the Nation, and organized by hundreds of committed community leaders both young and old.

Focus the Nation events have been held in over 165 Congressional Districts, including dozens of town halls across Heartland states like Missouri, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio.

The nationwide town halls kicked off on Monday, April 13th in Philadelphia, where swing Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) joined Drexel University students, community members, and business leaders for a discussion on tackling climate change and seizing the opportunities of the new energy economy.

With the help of Focus the Nation's young and talented central staff, youth leaders around the country have successfully engaged over 70 members of Congress and scores of state and local elected officials in open discussions about clean energy solutions. [See video statements from several of those elected officials here]

Focus the Nation paid particular attention to members of Congress like Senator Specter, who still need to be convinced to back strong climate and clean energy legislation. The town hall events engaged 24 of these swing senators and representatives, mostly from Heartland states, according to Focus the Nation's civic engagement director, Alex Tinker.

"It's usually our leaders who call town halls on pressing issues," said Lindsey Berger, a student organizer of a clean energy town hall hosted in Springfield, Missouri last Friday featuring State Representative Sarah Lampe and local elected officials. "Well this time we're inviting them to our town halls because our generation knows we don't have time to wait to build a clean energy future."

The event in Springfield brought students from across the Show-Me State together. "A lot of us, a great combination of college students from across Missouri who rallied together at Power Shift 2009 in Washington DC, worked together to put together this big statewide town hall in Springfield," Berger explains.

Across the state in St. Louis on Saturday, another Clean Energy Town Hall kicked off, featuring State Senator Jeff Smith and a representative of U.S. Congressman Russ Carnahan. The event spotlighted local clean energy technology businesses, featured a question and answer forum with elected officials, and concluded with the development of community action plans to help transform St. Louis into a model of the clean energy future.

"We set out to find St. Louis businesses that are working in clean energy fields," explains Will Fischer, a student at Washington University and an organizer of the St. Louis town hall. "What we found was a number of small businesses working here to get set up in this new and growing field. This is really exciting because these businesses are working on exactly the kind of solutions we're going to need as a country to build a clean energy economy."

Fischer is hoping the new networks WashU students are building with local business and community leaders, and the sustained engagement and activism sparked by the St. Louis town hall, will catch the attention of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. McCaskill is a Democrat and a critical swing vote on climate and clean energy legislation this year.

"This can't just be one event," Fichser says passionately, "It needs to be the start of a collective, organized, and motivating movement." Focus the Nation's Alex Tinker echoes that sentiment, saying, "It's really what comes next that's most exciting."

"Focus the Nation Town Halls are catalysts for action," Tinker explains. "Organizers and participants will begin charting community action plans unique to their locality and will implement them with Focus the Nation's support over the coming year."

The community action plans will focus on overcoming roadblocks, sharing solutions from other regions of the country, and identifying opportunities to accelerate momentum along the path to a clean energy economy.

In Denver, Colorado, Eric Kornacki is helping organize a town hall event that will bring together college students as well as a diverse cross-section of Denver's communities, for a true multicultural event. This recent graduate of the University of Denver says the community is planning to regroup at a follow up event in October to gauge progress on the action plans they will draft at the town hall, chart next steps, and continue a dialog with elected officials.

"I think that this forum for dialog is so unique and it's really urgent right now, particularly in Colorado," Kornacki says.

He's right. In Colorado and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri, and states all across the American Heartland, it's exactly these kinds of conversations about clean energy solutions that are so urgent.

Led by committed and energized young leaders like Kornacki, Berger, and Fischer, the nationwide Focus the Nation town halls are just the beginning of the clean energy revolution that must quickly sweep across the United States and help catapult the nation into a clean and prosperous energy future.

Jesse Jenkins is the founder and chief editor of WattHead - Energy News and Commentary and regularly writes for the Energy Collective, and the Huffington Post. He is also a board member of Focus the Nation.

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