Don’t talk about it ~be about it~ we have the ability to change direction

As we destroy the earth, we are destroying ourselves.                             J. Williams 10/6/14

Our society’s vulnerability to natural hazards with a focus on my experience and needs.

       From my first memories as a child I remember believing in God and always knowing he made nature and everything beautiful. I grew up in Oregon with five brothers and sisters and two parents who taught school. Every summer we camped and fished and swam in clean lakes and rivers and for the lack of a better word worshiped the creator or everything good.

I remember hanging out on my maternal grandmother’s farm every summer. Those grandparents in Yoncalla would today be a wonder of sustainability with their creeks, orchards, garden and cattle. Making butter and cream allowed them to barter with the neighbor next store for eggs and chickens. While these foods sustained their bodies both with sustenance and the incredible amount of work it took to grow and gather them keep them physically lean and fit. A body could use some blackberries in cream after doing all the picking the berries all over the hillside and the milking and prep work it took for such a delicious dish.

There wasn’t a lot of garbage either, everything had a second use. Scraps went into a bin for fertilizer, as did eggshells and coffee grounds. Paper containers were burned in the fireplace and jars once emptied of their deliciousness were cleaned and canned with some other wonderful fruit or vegetable. Everyone worked and everyone ate and because of that we all felt good. The little ones would take a little red wagon and walk up and down the mountain collecting cow pies for grandma to fertilize her garden doe a dime a bucket. The bigger ones would do harder work. We would all go home with baggies full of shiny coins so proud of ourselves.

None of my grandparents owned a computer or a cell phone, these things were before their time. I don’t know if my mom’s parents ever hand more than one phone. I know they had a party line meaning they shared a line with their neighbors not that they did any partying or even talking much on the phone.

Both of my grandmas had a very active social life. Both attended church a lot, my dad’s mom attended many different churches. It wasn’t until I was an adult right before she passed that she told me something I have never forgotten. She said she was 12 when she saw her first white person. She and her sister were sitting along a lake and when they saw this person they thought he was a ghost because they had never seen anyone that pale before. It was a missionary and they took her and her sister Helen to the Williamson River Indian Mission and they burned their tongues on radiators every time they spoke their language. I don’t think they ever forgot their first language but what an awful way to be forced to speak a different language was that?  Still today when I hear some person saying to someone whose first language is not English like “This is America, speak American!” I get this twinge of hurt run through me. I’ve been on this earth for 53 years and while the pain is momentary, I don’t internalize it and let it ruin my day but it’s still there.

Both of my grandmothers had their challenges to deal with as women living in that century and for one as a woman of color. They both were great blessings to their families and their larger communities living with beliefs that mandated them to love others, do no harm to people or the environment and whenever they could, to do well. And they also gave birth to my parents and shared their worldviews and values with them. And my parents of course shared them with my siblings and myself.


When I came to work today I received an email from an environmentalist asking me to send a letter of support for the Portland City Council to pass the new Climate change plan for the City. I know this person as someone who has dedicated his whole life to restoring the areas nature and with that, the intrinsic value it holds. And despite the fact that 20 years ago I saw him as a very loud and pushy privileged white man I gravitated to that piece of him I could relate to. His love for the earth and keeping it healthy.

I’ve made a career for the last 20 years educating and developing leadership in those people in Portland with the least amount of voice.

Some may say they have the least amount of voice because they have the least amount of land, or money or possessions. Others may say that communities of color and immigrants and refugees and the homeless and victims of domestic violence have the least amount of intelligence.

While these assumptions are not true, some people benefit from continuing to spread them. What I will do with what I’ve learned in this class is add the knowledge I’ve gain to what already exists in my head. Almost 8 years ago I changed jobs from grassroots non-profit environmental justice work to Government work. The culture shock between these 2 jobs sent me to therapy.

As an activist I wasn’t what Coach described as activist on out first day i.e. “unintelligent people who are rude and loud and don’t know what they are talking about.” And while I do admit there are many out there who do fit the description of demonizing their adversaries and telling lies to attempt to win their case that not me. Those tactics turn me off as well. But many times it is not just compromise that needs to happen it is bringing the different issues together, these things that are many times seen as “False dichotomies” like “Jobs vs the Environment.” There is more than one truth and more than one set of values that need to be considered.

When it benefits us not to think of lessons we know from the past, like not wanting to pay our share for cleaning a river that we dirtied we forget them. When the benefits are monetary we like to say “the end justifies the means.” I got into this life of activism because I was a low wage woman worker of color being exposed to toxic chemicals that were making myself and my co-workers sick. I was one paycheck away from poverty and homelessness and was afraid to speak out. Who would care anyway?

I was off welfare living in subsidized housing and working every day, minding my own business keeping my nose clean and raise my kids and never let them be taken again. I had escaped years of DV and worse so should I just be grateful that I was working a job where the cleaning supplies were making our hands crack and bleed and we felt like we had some sort of forever flu? And yet what if I became so sick I wouldn’t be there for my kids?

There are a million reasons why people step out of their comfort zone and speak out for a more just way. For me, becoming an organizer gave me the opportunity to listen quietly to those reasons from hundreds of people dealing firsthand with injustice. Their reasons are always based in love and the desire to live and to make sure that even though this bad thing happened to them they didn’t want it to happen to someone else.

`                 From the very beginning of my journey for justice I knew about the importance of environmental science. We must all have a basic understanding of how this mixed with this causes this.

We have to know what poison is and at times we have to weigh out our values with the risk. In the US most the time the values are not determined by the people who will inevitably be the same as the person who is exposed to the risk. I honestly can’t know how any human being could think it would be ok that their actions to making them a profit pollutes someone else’s drinking water and makes it flammable, or causes earthquakes. Wouldn’t you stop if you knew your actions were causing this?

And yet it is the people in positions of power that are profiting from this action. It is those folks who don’t have to drink the poison water, who are not living with the earthquakes that are setting the value. They are the same groups who have enough money to pay for scientific reports to deny the realities of the others. Sometimes they are in political positions and they’ve never had to live through the horror of their children dying too young from being exposed to carcinogenic substances where they live, learn and play. Or having to move out of the only place they’ve ever called home because they are being forced off their land.

To complete the circle of what I’m saying is that there is the potential for justice and injustice in environmental science. I believe we could be happier if we reviewed the less than a century old lifestyles and implemented them today. I believe we can turn all those tax dollars that we give for destruction into recreation. We can all have a better life, we need to stop consuming so much and start living healthier lifestyles for all. We can do it through responsible science and political willingness.

This wooden plaque hangs in my living room, a gift from a friend, it says “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

2 Chronicles 7:14King James Version (KJV)

God’s word is true, he is faithful and he cannot lie~ it is a good word for all to live by.


About jerisw1

Activist, artist , story teller ,writer currently working for the City Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
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