My name is Tristan and I am a member of OPAL’s Organizers-in-Training cohort this summer. I’ve always been perplexed by the question, “Where are you from?” My family were wanderers. My parents were both in the military. Strictly speaking I was born in North Carolina, but I’ve never lived anywhere long enough to form a sense of connection to it.
This sense of disconnection to people and place only intensified as I grew older. Living in rural Arkansas and Ohio as a biracial person of color certainly instills a sense of otherness. For a long time I attempted to connect with my white peers and encountered covert rejection. I attributed this to every possible criteria; my nerdy hobbies, being overweight, even the slight southern twang I picked up during my formative years in the South. Every one but the most obvious of all: race.
According to my education, racism in America was a thing of the past, long-ago conquered by MLK and LBJ. These days, black and brown people have no one to blame but themselves for their troubles–race theory according to Bill Cosby. It was a narrative I bought into for most of my youth, even as a persistent sense of othering drove me further and further into paralyzing anxiety, first manifesting as intense shyness and later as social isolation.
As I progressed into young adulthood I first became politically active, rebelling against my mother to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. This was the first step in a long period of personal growth. By 2014, I was a vocal opponent of American imperialism but it wasn’t until moving to Portland later that same year that my slacktvism became activism.
Beginning with volunteering for a non-profit called Bark, I quickly discovered a new passion for environmental advocacy. In late 2015 I jumped onboard the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders for president and spent the next several months, fundraising, canvassing, phone-banking and hosting events for the campaign. Following his capitulation at the 2016 Democratic Convention and the emergence of Donald Trump as frontrunner for the Republican ticket I began an intense period of self-education on the intersection of race, class and gender in politics. With the help of many others, I began peeling away the facade of contemporary American culture to uncover a rotten core of patriarchy and white supremacy.
Armed with this new knowledge, I was able to uncover the roots of my sense of exclusion and unpack years of trauma. For the first time in my life I acquired a real sense of identity and felt comfortable in my own skin. I may not know where I’m from but I now know who I am. Thus freed, I found a new passion in seeking to dismantle the systems of white supremacy that have kept people like me oppressed, fearful, and robbed of agency.
My first encounter with OPAL was during April of 2017 during the Peoples’ Climate March. It was a remarkable day for many reasons. The march was a roaring success, drawing a crowd of thousands for a peaceful demonstration highlighting frontline communities in the struggle to endure climate change along a marathon route through the inner eastside. Simultaneously, miles away, white supremacists shut down a portion of 82nd Avenue in a hate rally and unpermitted march through one of those most diverse neighborhoods of Portland. The Mayor of Portland shook hands with organizers of the event and the crowd was escorted by riot-equipped officers of the Portland Police Bureau as well as given free shuttle service courtesy of TriMet. Among the white supremacists was Jeremy Christian, who would gain infamy mere weeks later after committing a brutal hate crime and double murder on TriMet’s light rail. As a victim of police brutality and harassment at a number of protests in the months following the election, the conduct of Portland Police Officers and city officials, and their collusion with avowed fascists was stunning, but not altogether surprising. It only steeled my resolve in the struggle against white supremacy.
I first learned about OPAL’s Organizers-In-Training program through my sister, Courtney, a seasoned organizer herself. At first I was reticent to apply, feeling there must be hundreds of more qualified applicants. Additionally, the endless cycle of court appearances and legal bureaucracy related to my arrest during a protest against state-sanctioned violence in February had left me stressed and unsure about my future. After receiving a great deal of encouragement from my family, peers and even OPAL staff members I submitted an application and was accepted. It was without a doubt the right choice and the program has been one of greatest experiences of my life.
The knowledge of organizational strategizing has been one of OPAL’s most valuable contribution to my burgeoning activist career. As I have learned, tactics without strategy are dangerous. My training at OPAL has provided me with the tools necessary to evaluate the use and effectiveness of various tactics as well as those needed to plan winnable, relevant campaigns that bring about real change.
More valuable still are the relationships I have forged with my fellow organizers-in-training, OPAL staff members and most importantly members of frontline communities in the struggle for environmental justice. My empathy has grown tremendously since beginning outreach to impacted people and I feel better equipped than ever before to understand their struggles, be accountable and hold space for them in otherwise exclusionary environments. I hope deeply to continue to build long-lasting relationships as the base of a diverse, inclusive and equitable movement for social change.
As of this writing, we are in the last week of a ten-week program and I truly dread the end. Though my direct association with OPAL will soon come to an end, I know I have made friends for life and OPAL will always be like family to me. I am confident that I will finish this program as a stronger person and a better organizer than I ever was before. My only hope is that OPAL has been as enriched by my presence as I have been by theirs.
Tristan is one of the 15 OPAL delegates to the Oregon Just Transition Assembly, September 1st – 4th in Portland. There, more than 200 members of Frontline communities will come together to Build the New, forging an Agenda to oppose white supremacy and create an economy built on cooperation and caring. Support this transformational organizing: make an investment in OPAL today.