By Julie Reardon, Organizer-In-Training
I was born and raised in a suburb outside of Riverside, California to a Mexican mother and Irish-German father with three siblings. As a child of the 80’s, I thrived on pop-culture, climbing trees with a book in hand and paying close attention to the natural world around me. As a steward of the Earth and animal rights advocate my deep empathy sometimes isolated me as I turned inward to wrap my head around the world’s injustices and destruction. This constant question of humanity has always guided me and I will always be grateful to my parents for nurturing my passion for justice.
I spent my young adult life exploring organizing but never realized it was something I could “do with my life” because the folks I saw organizing were punks and they were serving Food Not Bombs, not career types. The punk circles organizing Food Not Bombs and demonstrating food security inspired me to start a chapter in my hometown. What I thought was a teaching moment for my community to practice compassion was an inconvenience to white suburbia, having to see our houseless community come out from their dark alcoves and into the manicured parks. That’s when I realized the relationship between white privilege and law enforcement.
Around that time, the United States military invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. I stayed alert to the Vulcans as history unfolded and documented protests. It’s a startling reality to see snipers pointed at you when you’re standing next to parents with children by their side.
At 23, my partner and I had our first child and my activism fell to the side. A year later we moved to Portland in hopes of finding better opportunities, but the recession hit and we were broke. My partner and I skipped meals to feed our daughter. I had to hand-sew cloth diapers from old towels and we moved every 12-18 months because of constant rent increases. The struggle to survive made us question where we went wrong and the instability was hard on all of us, especially our daughter. For several years I did my best to keep myself educated but focused my energy on being most accessible to our daughter and her unschooling education.
By 2014 we welcomed our second child and we were trying to buy a house. We watched housing security slip further away before we finally found something- a fixer-upper in the outer SE Portland neighborhood of Brentwood-Darlington. In spring 2014 we became official homeowners and we began our journey in Felony Flats. Two years later a moss study came out, and it revealed that we were living in a toxic hotspot. The food we relied on in our garden wasn’t safe to eat and our air wasn’t safe to breathe. Anger and fear led me to a grassroots group called South Portland Air Quality (SPAQ). I spent the next year organizing with SPAQ to hold industry and regulators accountable and I realized that seeking justice through organizing was my passion.
As a mom in her 30’s in a single, low-income household it was impossible to find opportunities to invest in myself without it taking what little resources my family had. I was highly discouraged by the lack of access to the training I needed to do organizing work professionally. It was upsetting to finally know what I wanted to be when I grew up and to see it just out of reach.
That’s when I discovered OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. Their practices were grounded in educating, engaging and empowering people in frontline communities. What I saw in OPAL was what I saw in myself- the ability to create change. With OPAL’s Organizer-In-Training program, I’ve been given the chance I needed to grow as an organizer through intense training while also receiving a stipend to pay for childcare and contribute to my family’s income which made all the difference in my ability to participate. I’ve been given tools to be an efficient and effective asset to my community and they’ve broadened my understanding of justice and its many intersections.
I’m just over half-way through the OIT program and already have so, so much gratitude for their investment in my education. Getting to know the OPAL staff, seeing their respect for one another, learning the foundation of why we do environmental justice work, and meeting my fellows in the cohort that have become friends… this has all been a powerful experience. I’m honored to be welcomed into the OPAL family.
Organizers In Training is a transformative ten-week program that develops the organizers who will drive our regional movment for years to come. Want to support leaders like Julie? Make an investment in grassroots organizing today.