My name is Rebecca Smith. I am a junior at Sarah Lawrence College and an intern at 350PDX. I first became familiar with the climate movement when, growing up in a conservative family in the Portland area, I was taught very carefully to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. My family started this journey by carefully setting aside our soda cans in one paper bag and our cardboard in another for trips to the local recycling center. Later, other plastics and paper products would be added to these bags. Finally, the city supplied recycling cans and pick-up dates for these and other recyclables. I remember feeling quite proud of myself in these recycling endeavors. In doing so, I felt I had single-handedly saved the planet, a sentiment that was reinforced my education system’s emphasis on our individual efforts to be green. Such individualistic notions about what it meant to be sustainable suited my conservative family very well. However, when I got to Sarah Lawrence, a liberal arts college in New York, my views on both sustainability and conservatism rapidly changed.
At Sarah Lawrence, as a student who grew up in a conservative Christian household attending, arguably, the most liberal college in the nation, I was, needless to say, overwhelmed. I did not want my parents to be disappointed in my newly expanding political and moral attitudes, even as I was accepting roles in Rocky Horror shadow casts and joining leftist clubs. While at Sarah Lawrence, overwhelmed by my conservative background and new realizations about my privilege, I became excited about social justice activism as I began to shed my parents’ outdated religious beliefs about everything from evolution to abortion. However, though I was excited about social justice organizing, I never had the time to become truly involved, or at least that was what I told myself. I was always too busy with my homework or rehearsals or work to show up at the protests, join the clubs, or attend the trainings. Instead, I dedicated a good percentage of my social media posts to social justice and called myself a social justice warrior.
The last cause I got involved with (even just on the Internet), however, was the environmental movement. I felt sufficiently righteous about what I was doing personally to save the planet, especially when compared to the rest of New York, a place shockingly behind Portland in its green progressiveness. Because I used reusable grocery bags and coffee mugs and always passively aggressively rearranged my roommates’ recyclables from the trash to the paper or plastics bins, I remained content with my individualistic acts of being green until I decided to take a writing class with a long-winded title: Using the Arts to Create Environmental Engagement taught by No Impact Man author Colin Beavan.
In this class, I finally realized that my individual acts of recycling and eating local organic alone were not the way to solve the climate crisis. Just as I had come to realize the root causes of racial, gendered, and economic oppression as patriarchal capitalism, I saw the same causes in climate change. Colin taught me that my personalized, individual focused idea of climate change activism was actually fostered by the very institutions that have caused the crisis. I had been taught to only work on my own consumption, blaming myself for climate change, rather than the crisis at a systemic level, because, if I had, that would mean that the corporations would have to change, instead of the consumers.
Urged on by this knowledge, I was inspired to become more engaged in the climate movement on a systemic level. Rejecting the capitalist norms that told me that I did not have the time, that activism was not a productive pastime, something that would not help get a high-paying job in the future or pay me for my labor in the present, I joined my school’s environmental club, went to protests, and, when home for the summer, I applied for this internship at 350PDX. I can no longer stand by with my radical views relegated to social media. I hope that my time at 350PDX will give me more tools to stand up to the corporations that are both destroying the planet and telling us that we must be the ones to save it in order to continue valuing profits over our lives.
Editor’s Note: Rebecca produced guides and research to help 350PDX increase it’s funding by contacting local businesses for potential partnerships, writing a “House-Party Guide” so we all can plan our own fundraising events, meticulously thanking previous donors, and maintaining our records. Thank you, Rebecca!