The extraordinary times in which we live call on people of faith to take action in service of those who are struggling the most under the weight of multiple crises: the crisis of empire and militarism at home and abroad, the crisis of a long-lasting pandemic awash with misinformation, and the crisis of catastrophic climate change already at our doorsteps far sooner than most imagined. The undercurrents of settler colonialism, White nationalism, and racialized capitalism have thrust communities of color, especially Black people, Indigenous groups, and Asian and Latinx communities, to the forefront of each and every one of these worsening storms. And yet, here in Oregon—where in the last couple years, journalists have raced in to understand our nexus of police brutality; far-right extremism; and worsening heat waves, droughts, and megafires—there is a deeper story of people quietly organizing to find ways forward amidst the smoke, tear gas, and virus in the air. Throughout the past two years, the two authors of this article, who are Friends in Oregon, have lived through natural disasters and social unrest, and they have also participated in co-creating emerging communities based on mutual aid, care, sustainability, and healing of human relationships with the land and other species.
What is the role of Friends in this time and place? We will share our perspective as two Friends working through our jobs in community organizing and public policy advocacy, as well as our personal time as volunteers and activists, to successfully pass some of the nation’s strongest clean energy legislation with a coalition focused on environmental justice. We hope it will encourage and inspire Friends in other places toward similar action.
Collective action will help us all survive and move past the hardships facing the global community of all life. Individual actions are useful and necessary, but to meet the need will take collective changes to our patterns and policies. In the same way that COVID-19 can spread widely despite many individuals’ ability to diligently stay home, wear well-fitting masks, and physically distance from others in well-ventilated spaces, no amount of whittling down carbon footprints by handfuls of households and organizations will be enough to meet the moment and sufficiently slow the climate crisis enough to preserve a livable future for all. Communities on the front lines of extreme weather, wildfires, and drought in Oregon are often the same people brutalized by police for the color of their skin or for not having a home to shelter in. So, the question that comes to us is: how do we best spend our limited time and energy to effect meaningful change in both the short and long term?
One answer is in lending support to systemic change grounded in justice for those most harmed. Over the past year, we both worked as part of a coalition effort to pass climate justice legislation in the state of Oregon. First here is some background about Oregon and environmental policy: In two past state legislative sessions in Oregon, Republicans with the backing of wealthy corporate interests made national headlines by fleeing our state capitol to block votes on climate policy that would have priced greenhouse gas emissions produced by big polluters. Efforts to craft legislation reducing emissions were led by longtime environmental advocates in Oregon who fought valiantly to protect old growth forests and their endangered wildlife species, such as spotted owls needing protection from industrial logging. Unfortunately, this long struggle has become a central focal point in Oregon’s culture wars between rural conservatives in most of the state’s land area and urban progressives in population centers. This framing also often leaves out issues of environmental justice, racism, public health, and the disproportionate impact of climate and economic policy decisions on low-income people and communities of color. But in 2021, the legislative logjam was cleared, and Oregon passed the nation’s most ambitious 100 percent clean-electricity standard with workers’ rights, a phase out of fossil-fuel power plants, and environmental justice at the center. What made 2021 different?
Artwork by Erica Alexia, for Oregon Clean Energy Opportunities Campaign.
This time around, it was environmental justice organizations led by People of Color and rural Oregonians who set the table for conversations between state lawmakers and the many different types of people who would be impacted by new laws about climate change. The table included a seat for anyone who was ready to engage in good faith with the process: Democrats and Republicans; nonprofit organizations and private utility companies; and experts in science, economics, health, and policymaking. Cherice mobilized people of faith, and Damon worked with health professionals to have frank conversations with lawmakers across the political spectrum in support of the policy favored by those on the frontlines of the issue. Having environmental justice leaders at the forefront of this campaign meant that the human impacts of extreme weather and fossil fuels as well as the human benefits of renewable energy and the jobs created by it were front and center in policy conversations. This coalition was called the Oregon Clean Energy Opportunity campaign (OCEO), and it consisted of 14 frontline community-led organizations as well as dozens of organizations representing allied advocates.
Damon came to this work from a Quaker Voluntary Service fellowship with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nuclear disarmament and climate action nonprofit that speaks out about the human health impacts of fossil fuels and climate change. Years of attending Spring Lobby Weekends with Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) during college led Damon to feel drawn to community organizing and politics in order to get at the largest contributors to the climate crisis. Childhood projects of vegetarianism and implementing composting and recycling at their home meetinghouse in Denver, Colorado, felt woefully insufficient when compared to the fossil fuel power plants and oil and gas pipeline proposals crisscrossing North America. Over the five years Damon spent organizing with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, they were a core part of steering the organization in the direction of using its credibility and privilege as an organization of trusted health professionals to support the priorities of communities of color regarding climate justice policies. That included putting significant time and energy into gathering signatures, getting out the vote for the successful Portland Clean Energy Fund ballot measure in 2018, and training health professionals to lobby for the OCEO campaign in 2021.
Cherice leads Oregon Interfaith Power and Light (OIPL), an organization catalyzing faith communities to advocate for state and federal policies that are morally just and sustainable. With a background in theology and environmental studies, Cherice worked to build relationships with people of faith around the state through one-on-one conversations, to provide educational opportunities for learning about environmental justice and racism, and to offer training in public policy advocacy and storytelling during this spring’s Creation Justice Advocacy Team. Participants in this advocacy team learned about the particular environmental justice policies being considered; spent time writing out and practicing their stories about why these policies matter to them as people of faith; and engaged in actions such as letter writing, calling, and meeting with their legislators alongside Cherice and other OIPL staff. Because faith communities exist in each legislative district and many lawmakers in rural districts are people of faith, OIPL could speak in a unique way about the importance of climate and environmental legislation by focusing on the moral importance of caring for creation and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The decade ahead undoubtedly will hold many more moments like this: with a call to care for our neighbors while working together for long-term systemic change for real climate justice.
A variety of political, climate-related, and social factors came together to make this session’s environmental policy successes a reality. First, the state’s environmental community has been organizing for years to promote legislation that is more sustainable. In March 2020, Governor Kate Brown signed an executive order called the Oregon Climate Action Plan, which requires state agencies to take into account environmental impacts as they make plans and carry out their duties. This created space for a reshuffling of priorities and coalitions among environmental organizations as we moved into the 2021 legislative session.
Second, the racial justice uprisings in Portland over the summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder focused legislators on reckoning with the state’s history of discrimination. Given this pressure from the streets, many lawmakers were eager to implement policy changes to prioritize justice and equity, so they were ready to listen to members of the OCEO campaign when they heard that this campaign centered racial and ethnic minority communities.
Third, Oregon experienced an historic wildfire season in September 2020 where most of the state was covered by unhealthy levels of smoky air for over a week, followed by a major ice storm in February 2021 that knocked out power and caused disruption to Oregonians for days or weeks. Dealing with climate and environmental concerns is no longer something we need to do for our children and grandchildren; it is more of an immediate need than it ever has been before.
Fourth, throughout the challenges of the last two years, a strong network of activists and advocates has emerged as people got to know each other through nightly protests in the streets, building trust and learning more deeply about the injustices faced by our neighbors. These activist networks formed mutual aid collectives that provided material aid during the Portland protests. They then pivoted to organizing to help those displaced by wildfires in September as well as those who had been displaced by the pandemic when homeless camps were swept by law enforcement. During the ice storm, they helped people to access warming shelters and food. In addition to the activist networks, faith communities stepped forward and offered their spaces and networks for material support to those displaced by climate- and pandemic-related causes. These networks also helped both of us as we organized in support of the OCEO legislation, leveraging the trust built through mutual aid and activist solidarity to bring forth collective power in the legislative arena.
And finally, passing this legislation required some cooperation between the two major parties as they made agreements about who would have power during upcoming redistricting decisions. They also cooperated to modify some aspects of the legislation in order to benefit rural Oregonians. Lawmakers had to listen to one another and their constituents, bend a little bit in places where they could, and recognize legitimate grievances from parts of the state that often feel left behind.
Artwork by Erica Alexia, for Oregon Clean Energy Opportunities Campaign.
Although neither of us had central roles in creating the OCEO coalition or its policies, we were able to be centrally involved in the campaign and in bringing constituents’ and lawmakers’ attention to these important policies. We were not serving in our respective roles officially as Quakers, but our concern for environmental justice and for influencing policies toward equity and sustainability arises out of our Quaker faith. We saw ourselves living out our callings to speak truth to power in ways that bring justice through love. This happens by following the lead of those who are the closest to the problems of climate change and environmental pollution. Through building coalitions with those on the frontlines of climate change and environmental pollution, each of us helped carry the weight of the behind-the-scenes work to make their vision a reality.
We both noticed threads of Quaker values running through this successful legislative campaign. The campaign focused on finding common ground between the most seemingly different people. All were welcome who wanted to work together toward the common goals of environmental justice and transitioning to clean energy; all were listened to and taken seriously, including any Republicans who had concrete suggestions for avoiding unintended harms. This shows value and respect for each person in a way similar to Friends’ recognition of that of God in every one. Environmental justice leaders ensured that policymaking conversations were explicitly focused on finding consensus and negotiating toward a solution that worked for everyone, recognizing that some of each group’s preferred aspects of the bill had to be let go. The result was a bill to get Oregon to 100 percent clean electricity by 2040. The bill had no organized opposition and enjoys national recognition as one of the strongest clean energy policies in the nation.
As state lawmakers took their final vote on the bill, we all watched the livestream as temperatures rose to triple digits in a heat wave that would become Oregon’s second deadliest natural disaster in recorded history. The stark comparison was sobering: even as long-term progress was formalized on paper, Portland International Airport hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit. We were mobilizing mutual aid networks and congregational support to care for unhoused folks and the many Oregonians who had no access to life-saving air conditioning. The decade ahead undoubtedly will hold many more moments like this: with a call to care for our neighbors while working together for long-term systemic change for real climate justice. All is not lost, and reason for hope is abundant and present as communities work to find solutions and ways forward. Quakers and other partners in the work of liberation are well-positioned to use our gifts in service toward these goals. It is going to take all of us to do what needs to be done.