by BRU Organizer Orlando Lopez
Almost four years ago, I walked into the OPAL office to interview for the Community Organizing position here at OPAL. About ten folks were sitting around the table. I must admit that it was the most intimidating interview that I’d ever had. Their questions probed me on my organizing experience and how it fit into helping the organization reach its mission in empowering our community, fighting for transit justice and beyond. I didn’t know it then, but working at OPAL would have such a huge impact on my life. It would provide me the space to grow as an organizer and as an individual.
Many of you know that I grew up in Woodburn, Oregon, where our transit system is virtually non-existent. Growing up, my goal was always car ownership. I remember when my mother was pregnant with my brother, we would walk over two miles to get to the clinic for her checkups, or to other destinations that she needed to go to. When I got the job and began working for OPAL, I heard my mother’s story in the stories of people that I talked to on the bus. The story of hardship, of people trying to get by, using our transit system because it is their only means to get around. These conversations would happen anywhere and everywhere, on a cold morning in February or a hot afternoon in the middle of August. These conversations needed to happen for me to learn what it meant to be transit-dependent.
I would hear people’s pain in their frustrations with our transit system, but I would also hear their hope for a better tomorrow. Their eyes would light up and thank OPAL for the work that we did on the low-income fare. There is much that I am proud of, like getting over a hundred people to a TriMet board meeting against the transit jail, winning the low-income fare campaign, and passing my organizing knowledge to future organizers through our training programs. Seeing the growth of OPAL and its influence in policy spaces has been inspirational, almost as much as seeing people getting a sense of their own power.
Organizing work can be very heavy, and it is critical to have a great supporting team. I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I did without the support of all the OPAL staff and BRU members. Our team has done amazing things not just in transportation but for housing, clean air, and the Portland Clean Energy Fund. It’s difficult to leave an organization, especially an organization where you pour so much of yourself in, one with very fulfilling work and many beautiful relationships. But I’ve been learning a lot about myself and my needs; I’ve learned that I have been burned out for some time. I cannot give my best to this organization or to the communities that I want to help. Working as a Community Organizer with the many challenges our communities are facing can take a toll on you. When you don’t set up boundaries or have healthy work-life balances or practice self-care, you don’t set yourself up for the long game. It’s a hard lesson; I am still learning from it.
I won’t be completely gone; I don’t plan to ghost on the movement. There is still much work to be done and much to fight for. I still plan to be involved with OPAL through Bus Riders Unite – this time as a volunteer, as a supporter, and as a donor (let’s wait till I get my next job first). OPAL and the movement at large is in a critical moment where the things we are fighting for will have lasting impacts on our planet, our communities, and our wellbeing. I hope you can join me in continuing to support OPAL by volunteering or donating – because there is no time like the present to fight.