Reflections from 2013 National Bioneers Conference

Day One:  “The opposite of nature is impossible.”

I’m sitting against a straw bale on a grassy lawn with the sun full frontal on my body—not unlike the weather we’ve been having on the island as of late, but much dryer, closer to the desert heat I’m used to from New Mexico.  I’m transitioning from “The Leading Edges of Design for a Regenerative World” session at the National Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, and wanted to capture the power of what has been shared.

The first person at the mic for the Q&A portion of the program was a young woman.  With a burst of both joy and fear she cried with arms wide open: “I am shaking.  This is exactly what I have been looking for.  Thank you for being here in front of me— this is what I’ve been waiting for . . . affirmation that I am not crazy.  That there are people in this world doing the things I’ve been dreaming of.”  I think she made the presenters blush. She continued, speaking on behalf of what I myself have felt and, based on the emotional reaction of the crowd, many others as well. “We all know what we are facing: there is no time for my generation to go to a four-year college to obtain an architecture degree to solve the world’s problems.  The schools aren’t teaching the kind of architecture to address these issues in the first place. Even if they did, my generation doesn’t have the money to do it anyway.  I am almost out of hope.” Her questions were real and poignant.  “How do I —me . . . the singular me—affect change?  How do I turn vision to action?”

Jason McLennan of Seattle (founder of the Living Building Challenge and winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge) was the first to respond. “I think you’ve already done the hardest part,” he said.  “First, find your tribe. Then, do the work.  And expect hard work. ”  The idea of finding one’s tribe deeply resonated with me; when I visited the Institute a year and a half ago, I had the same overwhelming sense that I’d found my tribe.  And indeed, there is something incredibly uplifting about finding a community to trust and build with.  What can we do together that as a young woman, I didn’t— and she didn’t —feel we could do alone?

Meg Wheatley spoke of the power of hope in Thomas Berry Hall at the Institute as our keynote speaker at last year’s Whidbey Bioneers Conference.  How do we cultivate hope, and trust that opportunity and potential are elemental to life?  There is no one truth at the end of anything.  But I am grateful, here (in San Rafael), and at my home at the Institute to explore with my tribe and try.


Day Two:  “We are the hard drive backup to your humanity”

The second day of the conference was equally stunning.  We’d been prepped the day before, and I understood that the design of the conference was now moving us into the depths of our time together . . . the murky swamp of paradox and challenge.  The presenters in the morning plenaries took me on a philosophical and emotional journey, again exploring the bounds of hope and possibility.  Janine Benyus, a long time Bioneer and student of biomimicry and Buckminster Fuller, reminded us that “the universe is competent” and “we are surrounded by genius.” Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins spoke about motherhood and leadership and how for the good portion of her life, she hated environmentalists (and “did it well,” she laughed).  She reminded us to know the story of the people you interact with, and that reverence is the essential baseline of any enduring social change.  The Pachamama Alliance, literally on the forefront of Amazon Rainforest preservation, shared the staggering fact that while only 4% of the world population is considered indigenous, they are the guardians of 80% of the world’s biodiversity their land nurtures.  My heart was overwhelmed.


Day Three: “The future is bright.”

Thank goodness for the uplifting tone of this final day together.  My personal passion in both renewable energy technology and community based initiatives had me drooling over Billy Parish’s plenary: 100% Clean Energy For and By The People. His work is truly inspiring and I can’t wait to share it with you at the Institute in a few weeks. I was also touched by the gentle way in which the other presenters infused their own sense of hope into their work and imparted to me a renewed sense of faith in our shared vision. Dekila Chungyalpa and her work with faith-based institutions (which also account for 50% of educational facilities around the world) called us to “do unto others because they are you.”  A special treat was the closing speaker, Joanna Macy, whom we were honored to host just over a month ago at our 40th Anniversary Festival. I won’t give away too much of this wise woman’s words, (there were many, and we will feature her talk here at our Whidbey Island Bioneers Conference), but the next day while exploring the bell tower of the UC Berkeley campus, I was reminded of a quote she had shared.  As I peered out over the Bay Area, both laughing and crying at the plight of our human experience, I heard Joanna recite Rainer Maria Rilke’s line:  “Let this darkness be a bell tower and you the bell.  As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.”  “Now hear THAT!” she cried.


I hope to share more stories from my time at the Bioneers Conference with you in our home at the Institute, and am excited to hear what song our chorus of bells will offer.  ~Allison



October 23, 2013

People & Partners


  1. disqus_cB29DnZUnJ says:

    Thanks for sharing these stories. I attended the Bioneers at the institute and it had a profound effect on me. Life changing.

  2. Allison Tongate says:

    Hey Dylan : ) PSU sounds awesome – Wendell Berry is such a great voice for this kind of work! To give a little more context, the young woman was speaking after a discussion regarding the “most sustainable building on the planet”…so, the bar was high! I think it also points to a hunger for our educational system to really push the edges of what we think is possible, so that we may begin implementing bold and creative solutions to address the staggering challenges we collectively face. I hope we can infuse your learning there in our site development. many thanks, Allison

  3. Dylan Scoles says:

    The schools aren’t teaching the kind of architecture to address these issues in the first place? Wendell Berry is assigned reading for ARCH 101 at PSU.

  4. Marnie Jones says:

    Allison, I love it. I can’t wait to join you at next weekend’s Whidbey Bioneers Conference.

  5. Heather Johnson says:

    Beautiful, Allison… thank you for this window into the experience of your days…