Portland Tribune: The making of a climate change activist
Author: Kendra Hogue, Portland Tribune
Posted: March 13, 2014

Read the original story here in the Portland Tribune.

In a time when much of our communications are online, personal stories resonate with live audiences in a powerful way.

Witness the magnetism of storytelling at live events such as TED Talks, Mortified and The Moth, all of which touched down in the Portland area in recent years.

In that spirit, 250 Portland State University students, faculty and other citizens gathered on campus Feb. 20 for a two-hour storytelling session called “Fortified: True Stories of Climate Action.”

“Information isn’t enough” to spur most people to act, said Jennifer Allen, director of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, kicking off the evening.

Like the event’s storytellers, Allen said, “All of us have the capacity for climate action. I hope that you’ll be motivated to take action and that you will be touched and inspired this evening.”

Working for the Earth

Emcee Cylvia Hayes, first lady of Oregon, told her own story of transformation into a climate activist.

“My parents came from deep poverty in the South,” Hayes said. Her mother remarried, and when Hayes was 7 years old, the family moved to Washington state, “to a little piece of land, into an old broken-down house with Visqueen on it.”

Alcoholism and mental illness plagued her family, and she withdrew to the comfort and freedom of the outdoors. “I fell in love with animals, horses and the outdoors,” she said.

“I was alone and angry at 16,” Hayes recounted, when she attended community college in Bellevue, Wash. She became active in animal rights and environmental causes, then transferred to Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Ever since, PSU’s Allen said, “Hayes has been a tremendous warrior for the cause.”

“I work for the Earth,” Hayes said. “There’s no other work I would rather be involved in. We have a chance to do something about this issue.”

With that, Hayes introduced the storytellers:

  • Micah McCarty, former Makah Tribe chairman
  • Greg Wolley, founder of the Portland-based African American Outdoor Association
  • Camila Thorndike, climate change activist
  • Paul Rummell, generation dispatcher at Iberdrola Renewables
  • Virginia Luka, PSU graduate student and Palau native
  • Al Jubitz, philanthropist and business leader

Getting more blacks outdoors

Nature-lover Greg Wolley founded the Portland-based African American Outdoor Association in 2005 when he “didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me” involved in outdoor activities. “I thought, ‘What can I do to change that?’ ”

Wolley, the first African-American to serve on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission, was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, by parents who “didn’t fish, hunt or hike,” he said.

For a budding naturalist who collected snails and rocks in his pockets, there were few opportunities to explore the outdoors. On an outing to a golf course with his father, Wolley collected mosquito larvae, brought it home and watched the insects come to life. “I only got stung a few times,” he said, grinning.

A family trip to Yosemite National Park and the acquisition of an encyclopedia set further sparked Wolley’s interest in the outdoors and its creatures.

In a career that included counseling children, working for the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and Metro Parks and Greenspaces, Wolley became increasingly concerned about the health and well-being of African-Americans.

“I wanted to give them information about nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, to get them out and experience it,” he said.

African American Outdoor Association members — including 250 people on its mailing list — have hiked, biked, gone on a desert camping trip, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and kayaking.

In addition to the health benefits, “we bond as a group,” Wolley said, and learn valuable, personal lessons about the natural world.

An artist’s lens

High-energy environmental activist Camila Thorndike is passionate about “using the power of the arts to foster conversations about climate change.”

The arts are able to reach people in a positive way and be “solution-based, not so negative,” she said.

Thorndike had been a fiery defender of environmental activism when she was a student at Whitman College.

But in 2012, when her hair and eyelashes began to fall out, she and her family spent more than a year looking for the cause and a treatment. She eventually was diagnosed with alopecia, an inflammatory disease.

Thorndike’s medical problem made her realize the importance of finding the root cause of an issue before taking action.

For example, rather than protesting in general about climate change, Thorndike recommends the targeted approach of the Oregon Climate Network (OregonCAN, and the 100-chapter Citizens Climate Lobby (citizens

Both groups are taking aim at carbon emissions, a major contributor to climate change. OregonCAN is campaigning for passage of a carbon tax in Oregon in 2015, as a financial incentive to lower emissions.

Working with the network, Thorndike co-organized creation of a 120-foot mosaic in the shape of a giant salmon — consisting of 1,500 cardboard tiles contributed by others. It was used as a prop for a climate action event in Salem last year. The colorful piece was shipped from the Rogue Valley upriver to the Oregon Capitol, to “get the legislators to understand,” Thorndike said. “Metaphorically, it represented the power of individuals to effect change.”

When the evening’s tales ended, attendees “were really jazzed with the content,” said Christina Williams, communications director for PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. “Organizations that had tables at the back of the room, such as the Citizens Climate Lobby, reported a good number of people signing up to get involved.”

The university and its partners plan to hold another such event; details are pending.