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Under the umbrella of the Three Rivers Bioneers conference, sustainability has many faces.

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Even if you've heard of Three Rivers Bioneers -- the local incarnation of the global Bioneers movement -- you might not get what it's all about.

Its mission statement, for instance, says the group is "fostering a local movement of citizens and organizations who strive to cultivate sustainable communities through actions revolving around social justice, ecological health and innovative solutions."

If that sounds all-inclusively vague, there's a reason: Bioneers' mission is pretty all-inclusive. But I got a better sense of what Three Rivers Bioneers does at its first-ever conference, held Oct. 16-18 and attended by some 200 people.

The conference was scheduled to coincide with other Bioneers gatherings, including the big one in Berkeley, Calif. It took place at the former Perry Hilltop church that's home to the Pittsburgh Project, a community-development organization. The timing allowed the conference to involve some marquee names, at least via satellite: Beamed-in speakers included Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, environmental-justice campaigner Kari Fulton and Amazon rainforest tribal activist Almir Narayamoga Surui.

What it all means for Pittsburgh is indeed hard to summarize. The message includes things as tangible as the chickens clucking in makeshift coops in a Pittsburgh Project courtyard, demonstrating sustainable urban food production. But there was plenty of consciousness-raising too, especially in the 40-plus workshop sessions.

The workshop run by the Regional Equity Monitoring Project, for instance, aimed to connect local folks with living-wage jobs in the new green-jobs economy. But the moderators -- REMP's Celeste Taylor and Fred Brown, of the Urban Green Growth Collaborative -- emphasized that it's not as simple as installing solar panels. Long experience has taught low-income and minority communities -- where people are just trying to survive -- to be wary of visionary schemes emanating from the white middle class. (Remember "urban redevelopment"?)

And indeed, workshop attendee Rob Baran, of the East End Food Co-Op, acknowledged that the Bioneers steering committee he sat on was all white.

"The community is hungry, and they're not interested ... in philosophy," said Brown, who grew up in Homewood. Real change requires getting real and immediate results for those "already on the ground doing the work," he added. "If you give them the resources ... it will have exponential benefits."

Another workshop illustrated such change. The Hill District's Ujamaa Collective, composed mostly of African-American women, began by practicing cooperative child-care. "We thought, 'We can formalize this,'" says founding member Celeta Hickman, who calls herself "a teaching artist and a composter."

Work-sharing includes arrangements like Hickman's trades of child-care for hands-on help with her artwork. The group is also developing alternate models for small-business financing -- like group micro-investments in each other's projects. It also plans to boost locally owned, neighborhood-serving businesses by starting an open-air marketplace on Centre Avenue.

All are paths to a lifestyle that's more economically and environmentally sustainable.

"We're really taking people through a process of transformation," said Ujamaa member LaKeisha Wolf. "We don't want people to just make money. We want people to grow."

The conference included small- and big-picture outlooks, ranging from an eco-art workshop to a renewable-technologies tour. One workshop found Pittsburgh's brand-new Citizens Climate Corps promoting new ways the community can cut greenhouse-gas emissions -- actions falling between the super-simple (changing light bulbs) and the semi-abstract (writing Congress on climate legislation).

CCC's Mark Dixon and Amy Jo Labi-Carando noted that many scientists now say that to prevent environmental catastrophe, we must cut industrial greenhouse-gas emissions much faster: not 80 percent by 2050, as the current climate bill proposes, but 100 percent by 2020. 

Regular folks, said Dixon, can help by pushing their towns to install energy-saving LED traffic lights, for instance, and working to popularize white roofs, which reflect heat. Or how about reducing our carbon footprint with Meatless Mondays? "There is low-hanging fruit," said Dixon.

Three Rivers Bioneers is one of many umbrella organizations for sustainability-minded groups. Like Ujama and the Regional Equity project, the CCC reflects its grassroots approach.

Says Labi-Carando, "People can lead the leaders."

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