Sierra’s OPAL Story

Sierra standing in front of the ocean.

OPAL is a transformative place, not just for our members but also for those who volunteer and intern with us. Sierra Cleveland has been an intern with OPAL for the last ten weeks, and this Friday is her last day. We asked her to share her thoughts, and below you’ll see how even spending a short time with us can make a big difference.

DukeEngage is a service-learning program that empowers students to address critical human needs through immersive service and providing meaningful assistance to communities in the U.S. and abroad. As an environmental science minor, I chose the Portland DukeEngage program because of its theme of sustainability and environmentalism. I wanted to experience living in one of the most environmentally progressive cities in the U.S. When I read the list of community partners, I was immediately drawn to the ones that were more stereotypically “environmentalist”– places like the Nature Conservancy and Friends of Trees. But as I did more research into all of the organizations and thought about it more, I decided I wanted to challenge myself and dive into an topic that I really had no previous knowledge of. Before my internship, “Environmental Justice” was a topic I had never heard of, even though I had taken many environmental classes.

What is Environmental Justice? Based off the name, I first assumed it was bringing equity to everyone when installing sustainable systems that are more expensive, like dual flush toilets or insulated buildings. I thought that, since those things might be more expensive, lower-class people might be pushed out of their homes due to increases in rent…or something like that. I didn’t really know, but I wanted to find out. So I listed OPAL Environmental Justice as my number one choice. Luckily, I got the opportunity to work with them.

Once I got in touch with my supervisor, I was given a reading to familiarize myself with OPAL’s definition of Environmental Justice, and it completely turned around my whole idea of what Environmental Justice was. I learned that Environmental Justice examines how people experience their lived environment. “Environment” took on a completely different meaning.

When I applied to DukeEngage Portland, I thought I would be helping to protect trees, rivers, and mountains–the things people first think of when they hear the term “environmentalism.” But now I understand that environmentalism can be more than that. I am part of a movement that protects the people, communities, and the environments in which we all live, work, learn, pray and play.

After I arrived in Portland, I was less than thrilled to learn that our housing at PSU for the first week fell through, and that we were going to temporarily be staying at Lewis and Clark College, 5 miles away from downtown. My commute had doubled from 40 minutes, to 80 minutes each way. I was really annoyed by the fact that I had to take three buses just to get to work, until I realized that was a reality for a lot of the people that OPAL organizes. I was experiencing the everyday frustrations of low-income folks who have been pushed to the edges of the city where there is infrequent and inaccessible bus service. I can’t even begin to imagine the frustrations of having to buy expensive bus passes every day or every week on a tight budget; I was lucky enough to have been given monthly passes through the DukeEngage program. This experience really gave me a new perspective on transit-dependent and low-income people who are facing these challenges in their everyday lives.

This was just one of the many experiences I’ve had in Portland that have made me come to truly appreciate and love the work that OPAL does. I am so happy to be a part of work that is changing policy and incorporating community voices into the decision-making process. Through working with OPAL, I’ve learned so much about the Environmental Injustices that are occurring in Portland and across the country. OPAL’s vision for the future is so inspiring because they don’t just talk about the problems and what they would like to happen, they actually take action to fight these injustices and ensure that the most affected communities are heard in the process. I’ve really enjoyed my time working with OPAL and being a part of this amazing organization. Though my internship is almost over, I will continue to support OPAL’s mission for Environmental Justice.

Are you interested in interning with OPAL? Click here, and let us know what you hope to accomplish. We welcome anyone interested in making our state a safe, healthier place to live, work, learn, pray, and play.

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