(Editor’s Note: due to a technical error, photographs for this event were lost. Thankfully, our intern Grace Chun was there to document the event, so you’ll have to use your imagination!)
Serve the People (STP) is a leadership and training program that educates high school students of color from East Portland about climate, racial, and economic justice. The kickoff this summer was a three-day training to introduce the program and to begin to deepen youth understanding of Environmental Justice and Climate Justice. STP participants develop leadership and organizing skills, while also gaining the opportunity to build relationships with other youth in the area. STP involves discussions, workshops, and defining vocabulary around environmental justice issues. We also discuss how to achieve a Just Transition to a Feminist Economy. For youth interested in participating in STP or the Youth Environmental Justice Alliance (YEJA, our youth program during the school year) in the future, we highly encourage students of color and low-income students to apply – email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. We provide food (lunch and lots of snacks!) and pre-paid transit cards for participants. Some youth also become YEJA interns and senior interns, positions that come with added responsibility and compensation.
Day one of STP began with a sort of shyness in the air. Introductions were quiet, pauses were awkward, and the icebreakers barely scratched the surface of the complex narratives that bring these youth to Serve the People. This year’s cohort of STP included fifteen young leaders of color. Youth came from many communities of color, and yet shared many of the same struggles across schools, neighborhoods, and community.
As the days went on, the youth warmed up to each other, sharing laughter as well as pain. Silent pauses transformed from awkward to intentional. The youths’ maturity and respect for each other drove them to intentional conversations. Each break time grew louder than the previous, their energy raw, refreshing, and contagious.
Youth began to open up about injustices in their communities, from their schools to their neighborhoods. At times, underlying casual gossip about high school teachers, was the weight that they carry of witnessing and experiencing racial discrimination and administrative misconduct. The facilitators had assumed that these students already knew each other before STP, given that they went to the same two high schools and seemed so comfortable with each other. In fact, most actually didn’t. It was beautiful to see them open up to each other and to the facilitators.
Among our activities, some highlights were “The Web of Life,” which replicated a web that links natural resources and people. Youth held the strands in the web of life, as we discussed how the web is disrupted by climate change, environmental racism, and economic inequality. We must always keep in mind our interconnectedness, and our responsibility to protect the relationships we hold. Youth also learned to defend their positions in a role-playing simulation where they were stakeholders in an environmental injustice event. When a factory is proposed in their town, youth took on the roles of neighbors struggling with the false choice between jobs and pollution.
As an optional activity, some youth traveled to witness the Up With Riders street action. Check out the video here.
At the close of the kickoff event, students rewrote lyrics to their favorite songs, weaving in environmental justice themes, and performed their remixes karaoke-style.
The final day of STP closed with the Unity Clap, and the dynamic, signature Youth Environmental Justice Alliance shout: YEJA! With it, a great sense of hope filled the room that the youth gathered here are leaders, who will go on to serve the people they represent.