At the age of 22, Ryan Eliason already has done a lot. He’s worked on desert restoration in India, founded a thriving environmental group [Youth for Environmental Sanity], and travelled around the US talking to young people about the environment.
Ryan’s drive for this kind of involvement was a dormant seed until 1988, when he signed up for a Peace Trees program run by the Earthstewards Network. Peace Trees is a prototype for a global environmental restoration corps, which organizers envision as an alternative to military service for young people. Ryan’s team of 40 people from the US, the USSR, and India planted 2,000 trees in the southern Indian desert.
Context Institute co-founder Diane Gilman first met the quiet, self-assured, young organizer at an Earthstewards training session and was immediately impressed by his list of accomplishments and thoughtful demeanor. Ryan’s focus on young people made sense to her; young people are disempowered, disenfranchised, and they have the biggest stake of all.
Diane: How did you first get involved with Peace Trees, and what drew you to it?
Ryan: I was kind of a closet activist for a long time through high school and for about a year and a half afterward. I was looking at the world, seeing so much that could be changed, and feeling the potential for healing and transformation. I read a lot of books that really resonated with me around those kinds of things. But I never did anything about it until Peace Trees came along, which resonated with something deep inside me so strongly it was like, yes! I have to do this! I was totally sure this was for me because it combined traveling to a Third World country, and doing service to the Earth, the environment, and to humans in a way that was promoting peace on the planet.
Diane: What happened when you went on the two week Peace Trees trip to southern India?
Ryan: I really felt alone a lot of my life, really different and alienated from my peers. When I met these other people my age, I found out that I’m not the only person who thinks the way I do, who cares about the world so deeply and is concerned about these things.
Diane: It sounds like a key part of giving you hope was finding these other people.
Ryan: Community, too; I don’t have to do this alone. And if I don’t have to do it alone, maybe I can really enjoy it. And if I can really enjoy it, then why not do it, why not become active?
Diane: What happened when you returned from India?
Ryan: I’d made some really good friends. My heart opened really big and wide. I can remember riding home on the plane, writing in my journal to each of the people that I’d connected with, with tears streaming down my face.
I took a lot of slides. I remember that people were very moved by my slide show. I was able to share my experience so well that I surprised myself. I had always been really shy in groups. I found out I can really communicate with people, and that was a big shift for me.
Diane: Because you were sharing something from your heart.
Ryan: Yes. I got to talking about ecology, and about peace, and that the Soviets are just like us. That’s such a cliché among the peace movement, but I really experienced that they’re human beings – I got to feel their love.
The other thing was that in order to go on the trip I had to raise a bunch of money. I raised it all myself, my parents didn’t pay for any of it. I wrote letters to lots and lots of my friends and family, and to my parents’ good friends, and asked for $25 or whatever they felt like giving. I told them that I would share with the world what I got out of the experience, so it would be not only a contribution to me, but to the planet.
I got a lot of support by doing that, and then I did a massage-a-thon that raised $500 and a benefit dinner. I’d never done any fund raising before, but just getting ready for the trip with all this community support was really empowering.
Diane: After you got back and shared your slides, what lead you to do more and what were your next steps?
Ryan: I got involved with a group called Creating Our Future. It was a group of adults – activists from the ’60s with a lot of social change experience – and young people. There were spiritual-minded people as well, like Ram Dass, but it wasn’t a religious organization. Its purpose was to empower youth to do social action in a way that recognized that the means are just as important as the ends, and that being involved in social change is a spiritual path.
I went to their summer camp, a totally incredible experience, similar to Peace Trees in the way that I connected with other young people from the States who shared similar values.
Before and after Peace Trees, I can remember praying a lot to connect with a group of young people whom I could share some deep friendships with, and at the same time be of service to the planet. I remember visualizing this – and it happened! I was blown away that it worked for something that was so important to me that it really changed my life.
Creating Our Future was focused on the environment too, especially on rain forests and global warming. One of the things I got from that experience was leadership skills: tangible training in how to facilitate a meeting, how to lead in a way that includes everybody, how to communicate in groups, how to keep relationships clear.
Diane: How long were you involved with Creating Our Future?
Ryan: About a year. Ocean Robbins and I really wanted to get involved, so we both got onto the board of directors. We came up with the idea for a speaking tour. We manifested this vision of a group of four kids touring around the country, giving presentations for high schools and junior highs about the environment. Three or four months later, Ocean and I, along with Ivy and Rachel, were on the road.
Diane: What happened that caused you and Ocean to split off from Creating Our Future ?
Ryan: Creating Our Future was supposed to be youth-run, but actually, it was run by adults. It wasn’t that there was something innately wrong with adults helping to run the show, but Ocean and I really wanted it to be youth-run. The Creating Our Future tour was four or five months long, and it reached 30,000 people. We wanted to do a tour that was the whole school year and would reach a lot more people, and have it be all youth-run.
Diane: So you set up this new organization, Youth for Environmental Sanity?
Ryan: Right. We thought we had to raise $30,000 the first year and it ended up being $60,000. But even $30,000 seemed like a big scary number to us since the most any of us had raised before was a few thousand. We spent the summer raising money and finding local organizers, and gathered together a small group of people who shared our vision. We seem to have a knack for drawing incredible people to us. We totally surprised ourselves the first year.
Diane: What was the primary vision for YES?
Ryan: Part of it was just wanting to bring like-minded youth together, because magic happens. We brought kids from all over who never knew each other before, and linked them up. And we learned from them and from each other.
Diane: I understand that YES has received rave reviews. What follow-through has happened for those kids/schools/communities that have hosted YES presentations?
Ryan: We’re working on improving our following up. It’s like scattering a whole lot of seeds and praying that they’re going to sprout.
We do have some feedback, like San Lorenzo Valley Junior High, in Felton, California. It was actually with the Creating Our Future tour that we first spoke there. A year later we went back with YES.
In that year they had:
- started a new environmental action club,
- convinced their school cafeteria to have a vegetarian burger option,
- persuaded the local Round Table Pizza and Straw Hat to switch from styrofoam to paper take-out containers,
- convinced Mead and Stewart Hall paper companies to stock local stores with recycled paper products,
- raised money and bought some rain forest,
- set up their whole school to recycle just about everything, and had recycled several tons of paper already, within that year.
Diane: Well that’s quite an accomplishment!
Ryan: Yes, this one little group of junior high kids! We also get tons of letters all the time, like fan mail, saying, "We love you, thanks for coming through," and, "You totally inspired us," "I’ve become a vegetarian."
Diane: What were some of the important learnings from being part of YES?
Ryan: What happened to me through YES was partly that I learned a lot about how planetary transformation is a direct result of personal transformation – that those two things are so interconnected. And I feel like there are a lot of people out there who really care and really want to make a difference. People just need some basic skills on how to communicate, how to organize projects, and to know that they are not alone.
I’ve discovered that one of the main things that holds people back from acting on their values is feeling like it won’t be enough, it won’t even make a dent in how big the problems are. And if one takes an attitude of "I’m making a difference all the time no matter what I do, I might as well do my best," then it’s wonderful.