Futures Not Freeways
Originally published in Grant Magazine (grantmagazine.com)
The bell rings at Harriet Tubman Middle School, echoing throughout crowded hallways as students rush to class. Footsteps, slamming locker doors, pencils and homework falling to the ground, lost in the chaos.
From the inside, the school almost feels normal. But zoom out, just a little bit, and you see an anomaly: a huge, polluting freeway.
The Interstate 5 freeway is unavoidable at Harriet Tubman Middle School. The smell, the sound, the alien-like air filtration system Portland Public Schools (PPS) paid millions to install before reopening the school in 2018. The windows are sealed shut to keep pollution out, but at recess, there is nothing but a flimsy, crumbling fence separating students from toxic diesel emissions.
Despite the freeway being so obvious, it was at times easy for me to pretend it wasn’t there. I was thinking about math homework and soccer practice, not air pollution or climate change.
But in seventh-grade, my teacher, Gerald Scructhions changed that.
He started telling us, with a bluntness that I had rarely heard from adults in my life until that point, the impact that I-5 had on our school community. Diesel pollution from the thousands of trucks passing by Tubman each day had been linked to health issues such as asthma and lung cancer, especially in young people. In the summer of 2018, a study conducted by researchers at Portland State University warned that because of this, students should avoid spending time outside.
PPS, and the city and state governments, knew all of this but didn’t seem to care. It’s difficult, in retrospect, to wrap my head around how the majority of school administration and public officials just acted like everything was normal.
Mr. Scrutchions was the exception. In spring 2019, he helped Tubman students begin working with the local environmental organization Neighbors for Clean Air, to pass legislation that would regulate diesel emissions in Oregon. For weeks, my classmates and I eagerly gathered in his classroom at lunch to research and write testimony.
Our preparations culminated on a rainy Friday morning in 2019 as we boarded a school bus to the state capital in Salem. We’d talk to our legislators about the bill, encouraging them to vote “Yes.”
There was no denying we looked out of place at the capital—our backpacks and sneakers and wide-eyed stares a stark contrast to the bureaucrats around us. We sat at a conference table too tall for my feet to touch the ground, rehearsing our comments in nervous, jumbled sentences as we waited our turn to speak.
As we walked from one office to the next, repeating our concerns to each legislator who had the time to listen, I wondered how they might vote as a result of us being there.
They seemed to be agreeing with the things we said, but then again, it would be difficult to dispute a seventh-grader to their face and say “No actually, clean air doesn’t matter.” How many of the smiles and waves were genuine? Come the time of the vote, would anything we had to say matter?
It did. When the bill passed later that spring, it felt like a huge victory. We had voiced our concerns to our leaders, and they had listened. For the first time, it felt like we were making progress.
But the celebrations didn’t last long. A few months later something we’d talked about in passing but never bothered to address became an unavoidable subject: the proposed $800 million expansion of the I-5 freeway. Several more lanes would be added, cutting directly into the hillside our school sits on.
As middle schoolers, my classmates and I understood what the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) refuses to admit: more lanes mean more vehicles, and more vehicles mean more pollution in the backyard of our school. We had succeeded in limiting future diesel emissions, but that was insignificant in comparison to the damage further freeway expansion would bring.
For me, this fight is no longer just about Tubman. What started as a matter of safety at recess for my classmates and I quickly became a much bigger realization: our current transportation system prioritizes profit over people, and that status quo is destroying not just our communities, but our climate.
In the U.S., 29 percent of our carbon emissions come from transportation. In Oregon, that number is closer to 40 percent. In the face of a climate crisis, we should be doing everything we can to decrease emissions— not expanding freeways and the damage that comes with them.
This is especially pressing right now: with the recent passage of Biden’s federal infrastructure package, Oregon will receive over $5 billion for road and infrastructure projects. If we are serious about meeting our carbon reduction goals, it is critical that the money is spent not on freeway expansions, but instead on transit, rail, bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
I’ve come to learn that in campaigns and social movements, success takes a lot more than one tactic. Attending task force meetings and speaking with legislators is part of it, but engaging our communities in direct action is just as important. We cannot stop the climate crisis by working only within the confines of the system that created these problems in the first place.
So, for the last 11 months, young people with the Portland chapter of Sunrise Movement, a youth climate justice organization, have led biweekly rallies outside the ODOT headquarters, demanding an end to freeway expansion.
The campaign name, Youth vs. ODOT may feel polarizing and extreme, but the situation really does feel like us versus them. ODOT has a choice to make: they can either join the youth in fighting for climate justice and equity, or they can continue following the extractive status quo that is destroying our futures.
At the first Youth vs. ODOT rally in April 2021, there were only a handful of people. Despite leading the project and enthusiastically promoting it to fellow organizers, I didn’t realistically see the campaign lasting more than a few weeks. We’d show up a couple of times, get some nice photos and maybe gain a few new followers on the Sunrise twitter account for our efforts.
None of us could have predicted that Youth vs. ODOT would end up where it has.
Now, almost a year later, we’ve had upwards of 70 people attending each rally, including multiple state legislators and journalists from major outlets. We’ve made local and national headlines, and gained the support of important decision-makers.
In August 2021, Metro Councilor Juan Gonzalez stated that he would no longer vote for any freeway expansion projects—a bold stance that has sparked conversation amongst other leaders as well.
In September 2021, Sunrise organizers were invited to meet with Governor Brown about our campaign demands, and later the newly appointed member of the Oregon Transportation Commission, Marcilynn Burke.
At the end of September, Portland’s youth climate strike of thousands of students marched past the ODOT headquarters in a symbolic display of people power, tying the Youth vs. ODOT campaign to a global movement for climate justice.
And in March 2022, the Oregon Transportation Commission expressed on record their skepticism about the several proposed freeway expansions around the state—finally echoing concerns young advocates had worked months to persuade them of.
It’s hard to comprehend these victories because, at a glance, it doesn’t seem to make sense how we could have an impact—ODOT is a massive, powerful agency with billions of dollars to pour into advertising and PR and lobbying. But despite this, they've found a formidable opponent in a group of passionate teenagers with megaphones and cardboard protest signs.
We’re consistent, driven and refusing to go away. As young people, we possess an urgency that ODOT in its current state will never understand. We are powerful because we have used this freeway fight as an opportunity not just for policy change, but for connectivity.
In the face of the climate crisis, it is easy to feel isolated and alone. But joining together every other week with people who care about the same things I do, who are willing to collectively fight for change, is what gives me hope. This unity is the reason that slowly but surely, despite all odds, we are winning.
But even then, it can still feel like nothing we do will ever be enough.
Changing one legislator’s mind is one thing—but radically transforming the way our society thinks about and acts on these issues enough to halt carbon emissions and stop climate change in the next 10 years is another. In the climate movement, it always feels like we’re a step behind, in a constant battle of trying to catch up. It’s a careful balance between celebration and urgency; the two aren’t mutually exclusive but it’s easy to feel like they are.
As a youth climate activist, I’m sick of being told I’m inspiring. Older generations often seek comfort in knowing that youth are taking action—that someone is cleaning up after the mistakes they made years ago. But I don’t just want people to be inspired, I want them to join us in this movement and do their part. Inspiration implies action.
I am fighting for a world where one day students don't have to worry about whether the air they are breathing at recess is going to one day give them asthma or lung cancer. A world where young people don't have to rally every other week because we're scared for our futures. A world where everyone has transportation systems that serve their needs and don't hurt the planet.
I believe this world is possible, and I need you to fight for it with me.