By Marcus Lorenzo Penn

The 2018 Bioneers Conference ‘Revolution from the Heart of Nature’ was held from October 19-21, 2018 for the 20th year at the Marin Center and 29th year overall since its inception.  For nearly three decades, the conference has been ‘a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with practical and visionary solutions for the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges.’  The conference inspires us to find a solidarity in our own revolutionary and radical nature as human beings on social issues of today.


Arriving to the Bioneers Conference on Oct 19th 2018



The Marin Center grounds in San Rafael, CA largely reflect the vision of Bioneers: a setting of harmony in our natural surroundings with respect to First Nation native space as the venue is located on the homeland of the Coast Miwok people.  Visuals of green grassy areas with trees and a large pond surrounded tents and kiosks with scattered displays of native ceremonial dress flanking the backdrop of auditorium halls and showcase theaters to house the speakers and interactive experiences.  Our PWF Director Heidi Majano and myself attended the Conference on Friday October 19th.




Upon crossing the threshold of the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium entrance we were met with vibrant colors along a corridor of painted wall art leading us to the main auditorium where the sounds of heart thumping drumming and soul stirring ‘call and response’ filled the room.  We all were blessed to be guided by Deb Lane and Afia Walking Tree for this special initiation at the commencement of the 2018 Bioneers Conference.

The Opening Ceremony that followed was led by Vincent Medina, a Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Councilman representing his family’s lineage.  He was born and raised locally in his people’s traditional homeland of Halkin (southern Oakland/San Leandro/San Lorenzo).  He set a reverent tone for the day taking time to honor the strength of the ancestors, to encourage us to be good to the earth and to never give up honoring the healing traditions of the past.  He enlightened us by noting how more children of his tribe are seeing native languages spoken at home, oral traditions are staying relevant and a successful presence of the Ohlone people is supporting community driven work these days.  However, he also warned us all that some of the First Nation practices are still threatening to disappear or simply have ‘gone asleep’ and we need to ‘wake them up.’  We need to hear those voices and recognize they represent the ancestors within us that can heal our Earth home.




Following this powerful Opening Ceremony, conference attendees were graced by the presence of Bioneers co-founder and Chief Relationship Strategist Nina Simons.  She illustrated that these are frightening times and we need each other more than ever.  In her process to ground and strengthen herself, Simons expressed her need to look to the trees for help and guidance.  Trees mean truth and are deeply rooted, she shared, and ancient traditions equate trees with wisdom.  “We need roots!” she emphatically proclaimed to us in the audience.  Roots intertwined to endure and strengthening ourselves by honoring the roots that exist within us all.  She also mentioned her Jewish ancestors and how they learned to carry their culture and ‘root’ themselves wherever they went.  At this point and at other salient moments of her speech, Simons appeared to be brought to tears indicating how passionate she is about the issues addressed through the conference and everyone attending.


Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, Bioneers founders and Joshua Fouts,  Bioneers Executive Director


Simons went on to say that society needs to honor more ways of bringing the sacred feminine and masculine to unity in order for us to have a ‘re-oriented compass’ moving forward.  The woman’s perspective on freedom, health and justice are all to be reckoned with.  We are all born to Mother Earth.  Thus it pains many of us to know that much of the atrocities that have been done to women have also been done to the Earth.  From this perspective, as Simons puts it, women are the greatest resource for change especially in the areas of gender healing and coming together.  In addition and in partnership, she noted how our youth continue to exhibit a ‘fierce commitment to demand change’ and in solidarity with elders can provide a ‘mutual mentorship.’


Empowering Youth Performance by Climbing PoeTree


The energy and intensity of the youth were very much seen, heard and felt at Bioneers.  On stage it was best exemplified by the duo “Climbing PoeTree,” two socially engaged Brooklyn-based spoken word poets-artists-activists-educators-musicians-performers doing songs from their recent album called ‘Intrinsic.’  Snippets of lyrics from their songs reflected their consciousness on pertinent social issues…  We in the audience heard the duo speak to ‘safe streets’, ‘emancipation from oppression’, ‘shoulders of ancient ones’, ‘Black and Brown’, ‘humans on the earth in harmony’ and ‘be the change you wanna see.’

Before the afternoon break out sessions, there were a series of keynote talks by notable individuals speaking to the environmental, philanthropic, social, climate, health and consciousness issues of today. In the area of Health and Justice a dynamic speaker, who is a physician and an international musical performing artist, offered the audience an eye-opening schematic illustrating the interwoven ripple effects of colonization on supremacy to capitalism to genocide to trauma and ultimately showing up as inflammation in the body.  The innovative vision identified was to change the social structures around the body that create disease.


“Health is impossible when living in systems of oppression. We must simultaneously address the individual and upstream systems causing disease. We must reintegrate with the earth, with each other and with ourselves.”                    -Rupa Marya


One such example through a particular study showed how introducing self-determinism (explained as the opposite of colonization) helped to prevent and decrease diabetes in a select population.  Other solutions proposed included ways to ‘decolonize’ through practices of reconnecting to who we truly are, reintegrating self-determinism into our behaviors and dismantling oppressive structures of trauma.  Before the physician started their performance, they left us with the question, ‘How do we move forward in greater health if we haven’t healed the past?’



The final keynote speaker before the afternoon break out sessions offered a novel outlook on the use of psychedelics, particularly LSD, from their own experience.  The major takeaways shared from their experience pointed to being in a space that ‘brings flesh to ideas’, ‘all is connected’, ‘allows equanimity in self-consciousness’, ‘brings you to a place of being more open and less defended’, and ‘is the opposite of egotistical but rather profoundly spiritual’.  Given these seemingly enlightened ‘side effects’ of using LSD as a psychedelic, the speaker arrived at, ‘How to democratize this temporary loss of ego?’  There are some people who may have the thought that these ‘side effects’ could also be achieved through the consistent practice of deep meditation.  We in the audience were left to discern for ourselves.


“Healing is re-establishing wholeness.”  -Monica Gagliano


The multitude of thought provoking Bioneers afternoon break out sessions all happening at the same time was as much daunting as it was inspiring.  For that reason, taking a midday pause for lunch and debriefing with my PWF colleague at the conference and attending an outdoor group yoga class gave me the fortitude I needed for the remainder of the day.  As a person previously trained in the Western model of medicine, I was particularly drawn to a session entitled, ‘Revisioning Healing and Public Health in the 21st Century.’  The ‘revisioning’ process also brought a lot of redefining starting with ‘Healing’ as a collective worldview of health and how we collectively move and act.  Whereas ‘Public Health’ involves community mobilizing and health empowerment.  ‘Health Disparities’ involve differences in experience.  Whereas ‘Health Inequities’ involve unjust practices that are correctable.

The panel of speakers in this session confessed that many of our health care providers are ‘not trained to be creative thinkers in a capitalist health system’ and pleaded that ‘our healers need healing.’  Much research has indicated that ‘MD burnout’ is happening now more than ever.  However, one panel speaker offered to reframe and rename this phenomena called ‘MD burnout’ as ‘moral distress’ due to split loyalties of human nature to help and care for others versus a system construct for pharma/insurance/hospitals.  The vision, as was introduced, is to now embrace ‘Ethical Practice in Medicine’ with a return to the ‘Ethics of Caring’ through ‘Equitable Systems of Care.’




My final experience at the Bioneers Conference was a fun, however no less poignant, experiential session entitled, ‘Art, Power and Social Change.’  Pushing the envelope on critical social, cultural, structural, dominance and emotional issues we are facing at this time, the young adult facilitators of this session took to using theater performance, group inquiry, collective sharing, image analysis and storytelling as powerful tools for shifting consciousness.  The gift in the whole process was that we all were held in a space of safety, honesty, integrity and confidentiality no matter the cultural background, young or old.  One of the pertinent questions posed to us in the session was. ‘What does it mean to be healers when we’re struggling to know what it means to ourselves, while operating in systems that counter the healing we need?’




After being in the Bioneers environment, one cannot help but be moved.  Moved to tears, moved to anger, moved to action, moved to advocate, moved to initiate, moved to contemplate, moved to internalize, moved to mobilize, moved to walk and moved to talk…  With us all functioning as Bioneers, may we all be moved to grow into something greater than ourselves, blaze trails while doing it and raise others up along the way.