In 1990, at age 16, Ocean Robbins was co-founder of YES!, (yesworld.org) which he directed for 20 years. Ocean has spoken in person to more than 200,000 people and facilitated more than 50 week-long gatherings for leaders from 65+ nations. He serves as an adjunct professor in the Peace Studies department at Chapman University. Ocean is author of Choices for Our Future and of The Power of Partnership, and has served as a board member for Friends of the Earth, EarthSave International, and many other organizations. He is a founding member of The Turning Tide Coalition, co-founder of the Leveraging Privilege for Social Change program, and founding co-convener of Leverage Alliance. Ocean is a 2008 recipient of the Freedom’s Flame Award, and of the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service by an Individual 35 Years Or Younger.
Ocean lives in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, with his beloved wife Michele, and their identical twin boys, River and Bodhi (born in 2001 with autism). Ocean, Michele, River and Bodhi live 100 yards from Ocean’s parents, Deo and John Robbins.
In this interview, Ocean reflected on his founding of the Yes organisation.
When you founded Yes in 1990 at the age of 16, what was the catalyst that motivated you to do so, and what made you resume it in your adult life?
I started YES! in response to parralel realities: massive problems in our world, many of them being driven by the actions of human beings – and a generation of young people who felt overwhelmed with cynicism and powerlessness to make a difference. I felt that if we could awaken a sense of meaning and purposefulness in young people, a vital difference could be made in their lives and in the world.
Yes is defined as an organization that “connects, inspires and empowers young changemakers to join forces for a thriving, just and sustainable way of life for all.” What do you see as being a sustainable way of life?
Ecology tells us that everything we do sends out ripples. We’re merely a strand in the web of life, and whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. Ecology is the interconnecting of all the issues we face in the world today. We must keep broadening our definition of the environment: not just the trees, water, air, ozone layer or global warming; it is also people, and the social climate of our times. To be an environmentalist means to cease being a helpless victim of problems we didn’t create and become a participant in the transformation of our world. Each of us has the capacity to become an environmentalist, one who cares for the commons, for that which surrounds and protects us.
There is a myth in our society of the separate self, that we are somehow individual, disconnected from one another, that we can enrich ourselves, become “wealthy” materially or socially or spiritually, at the expense of other humans or other life forms. It is a lie we must challenge at its roots if we are to create a world that our grandchildren deserve.
The truth is that we are far more interconnected than we most realize. Around the world, tropical rain forests are falling and indigenous peoples are loosing their homelands and their entire way of life. In the United States, three out of five African Americans and Latinos live in a community with a toxic waste site; it’s called environmental racism. As long as we create pollution, it has to go somewhere. As long as certain communities are being marginalized or exploited and people don’t have the money or the time to speak out, polluters will have a place to deposit toxins. The issues are all interconnected, and we cannot just solve one problem without recognizing that we must solve “the totality.”
How does Yes inspire youth to create positive change in any fields of life? What are the essential elements of what is conveyed to youth to empower them to create and manage change?
The problems are connected, and so are the solutions. I am a father, with identical twins born early in 2001. I believe that a world based in love, solidarity, justice and sustainability is a part of the birthright of every child that’s born. And those of us born into the world we now face came in, I believe, with a mission for our lives and a prayer in our hearts. We all hold a vision of the way this world could be. A vision, utterly precious to us, of a world where people and the Earth are honored and respected. A world of diverse cultures and universal human rights. A world where starvation, poverty, war, racism and ecological destruction are things of the past – a world that calls forth and brings into being the highest aspirations of humanity.
YES! believes that by connecting the dots between people, issues and movements, we can help to catalyze a more unified, synergistic, and powerful movement for positive change in the world. At the World Jam in 2000, Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous Cree activist, held a piece of sweet grass and then snapped it with ease. Then he braided a cluster of sweet grass, and it became an almost unbreakable rope. Our movement can be like that cluster. Bring us together, across the lines of race, class, gender, region, and area of focus, let us unite and together pour our hearts and lives into our unique pieces of our common vision, and I believe that we can participate in the transformation of our world.
How do you define leadership? What style or theory of leadership do you advocate others to follow to create change?
To me leadership is taking a stand, with our lives, sometimes against all odds, for a belief that hope is alive and it is possible to turn the crises of our times around. Leadership is following the beat of our own drummer, not the rhythms that have been ready-made for us by the cubicles and plastic packages of the world around us. Real leadership means trusting what we know inside, and being willing to listen and learn new things, rather than being ruled by the status quo. I don’t believe that “leaders” must have “followers”, but rather that leaders can at time function as catalysts that help others to also find their leadership. More like sparks that ignite the flame in others, than like a CEO that tells the organization what to do.
I believe that real leadership is about hope. Hope is not a spectator sport, something that comes while sitting on the sidelines, calculating what’s going to happen in the world. Hope must come from the prayers and the dreams and the commitments that move through our lives; we must find a way to live hope, not as a noun, but a verb, something that must move through us, an action.
What is the best success story of Yes thus far?
YES! has held more than 90 week-long gatherings, which we now call Jams, for young leaders from 65+ nations. Each Jam brings together 30 young leaders from diverse places who are doing exceptional work on behalf of a thriving, just and sustainable future.. Our alumni have started more than 400 businesses and organizations designed to work for positive change. A recent survey of our alumni found that 100% of our alumni feel that Jams are a unique space for young changemakers to engage with each other, and 96% say Jams foster deep inquiry, healing and well-being.
What is your involvement in the Yes foundation as its Director? How widespread is your organization and how does it operate in other countries?
I am the director of YES!, working in tandem with a staff of 7 and a global community of organizing partners on 5 continents. Our team is currently organizing events in New Zealand, India, Senegal, Brazil, and across the United States.
What do you see as being the most crucial aspects of our life/world that need change?
We must be open to the painful realities of our times, the tremendous madness in our world today. Every day on our planet we have less ancient forests, every second we lose more than a football-field-sized chunk of tropical rain forest, every day we have more air pollution, water pollution, every day tens of thousands of people die of hunger, every day we have more guns, bombs, madness on this planet.
At the same time, we must be open to something that is precious and sacred and beautiful, worth fighting, loving, living for, the beauty of humanity, of this earth. There is something so precious about this world, about this world’s people. That a child dies of starvation on this planet every two seconds is so numbing and overwhelming, because every child is so precious. As a father of four-year-old twins, I am moved by the preciousness of every life because I know how much I love our little munchkins and that all children deserve to be celebrated, supported, upheld, to be who they are, to give their gifts to this world. Everybody has unique contributions to make to this planet. There are more than 6.5 billion parts to play in the transformation of our world, each a unique path, coming out of our histories, our struggles and devastations, and our dreams for the future. Whatever love, nurturance, opportunities and privileges have been given to us, they’re ours now. In this precious and wild and crazy thing we call our lives, what choices will we make? What will be our impact upon this planet? and upon those with whom we share it?
What qualities do you admire in other leaders and what qualities would you like to strengthen in yourself to enhance your leadership?
I admire people who have a sense of perspective. I’m 33 years old and have been working for social change full-time for more than half my life, and I know I’m just beginning. I want to be around to see what’s going to happen, and I want to be nourished and fulfilled along the way. I also realize this thing called humanity is going to be around for a long time if we do our job right. We have roots that go way back, and we truly stand on the shoulders of giants as we move along our path, some of them famous, most with names we will never know. Without them, we would not be having this conversation today, and women, people of color or even people who don’t own land would not have the right to vote in many countries. We would not have so many freedoms or opportunities to express ourselves, to make a difference. We might not have those eco-systems that still sustain us. We would not have those trees left standing that do provide the air we breathe today. So we must give thanks for all who have gone before us, who have made possible the expression and the lives that we live today, while also realizing that there is much left to be done.