Spotlight On: Bioneers

By Gina Malone

The 5th Annual Asheville Bioneers Conference will be held at Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU) Wednesday, April 5, and Saturday and Sunday, April 8–9. Presented by LRU and the Reese Institute for Conservation of Natural Resources, the conference is an event of the Bioneers Resilient Community Network, a nonprofit educational organization founded in 1990 that holds a National Bioneers Conference each year.

Keith McDade, associate professor of Sustainability Studies at LRU, first became involved with Bioneers when he lived in California and in Michigan. When he came to Asheville five years ago, he started a local conference that is now an official part of the Bioneers network. “One aim of this conference,” he says, “is to bring many community members and groups together to find ways to help each other make Asheville and Western North Carolina more resilient.”

The conference brings together many groups with environmental concerns and missions. “As we see sustainability,” McDade says, “we see it as not just grassroots-driven, but all-levels driven.” With a conference such as this one, he says, “the community learns about the community” in a sharing of ideas, concerns and solutions.

The focus this year will be community engagement. Topics include community and citizens’ rights as related to the natural world and the challenges communities encounter in claiming those rights; the intersection of social justice and environmental justice; youth activism and intergenerational engagement; and unifying movements as a way of connecting the community.

Amanda Strawderman is a Reese Institute Fellow and student in LRU’s master’s program in sustainability studies. She and other students help with the organization of the conference. “Bioneers was one of my first introductions to Asheville’s vibrant community,” she says, “and to Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies. The annual conference is an excellent way to build community and encourage dialogue on important and locally relevant sustainability issues.”

The local conference includes speakers, broadcast speeches from the national conference, panel discussions and conversations facilitated by the Center for Collaborative Awareness. “There’ll be a giant roundtable,” McDade says, as a way of bringing movements together. There are, he adds, many “opportunities for side conversations.”

One panel discussion will involve local youth activists. A speech by Xiuhtexcatl Martinez, a 16-year-old indigenous climate activist and youth director of the environmental group Earth Guardians, will be among those broadcast to conference participants.

Other participants in the National Bioneers Conference in California whose speeches will be shared include keynote speakers Thomas Linzey and Mari Margil of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Vien Truong of Green for All and Kenny Ausubel, a co-founder of Bioneers.

“In a time when communities, individuals and the natural world are being threatened by a range of forces,” McDade says, “it is important for us to come together to find better ways to work together to build a more unified effort that simultaneously addresses social and environmental justice issues.”

Lenoir-Rhyne University Asheville is located at 36 Montford Avenue. The conference is free to the public and will be held in the boardroom on the third floor. Times are 5:30–8 p.m. on Wednesday; 1–5 p.m. on Saturday; and 2–5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit 

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