Post 5: Reflection

This summer internship was extremely eye-opening and rewarding. From meeting with TriMet leadership to grassroots organizing to arranging and managing events to raise public awareness, I’ve learned where resistance in social justice issues can arise and I have learned the dependency of these issues have on big decision-makers. Many social justice issues involve educating the public, as many people may not be aware that these issues exist in the first place, and education is the first step in almost any issue. People must be aware or admit that it is a problem before anyone can start the first steps to move forward to make change.

I have seen the power that education can have on a community, as my internship revolved around discussing the problems of diesel in Portland to individuals, writing Letters to the Editor to educate news-readers, testifying in front of the committees of TriMet to discuss their role in leading Portland to reach ambitious climate goals, and in return, others educated me in many ways.

My internship was essentially a cycle of spreading awareness — educating individuals, gaining support, and then educating TriMet leadership of this support for electric buses and decreasing diesel emissions in Portland.

While no final decisions about committing to battery electric buses will be made until this coming year, I know that more people are aware of the diesel pollution issue in Portland. It is rewarding for me to know that there is a movement in the minds of Portlanders, and individuals are able to make a difference in their day-to-day lives as well.

The only advice that I would give to someone who is pursuing an internship in this field is to learn. Do your own research until you understand front-and-back whatever it is that you are campaigning about. When teaching business owners with businesses located along bus routes about diesel emissions, I received a multitude of varying responses and questions. I realized, sometimes the hard way, how essential it is to be prepared. Sometimes I didn’t know how to answer questions. Having straightforward and clear answers to each question or concern shows that you really care and in turn leads to more confidence, which is essential in grassroots campaigning and any discussion with people who are working with you. It is essential to speak up when leaders may attempt to work around answering the question instead of being straightforward, and that takes knowing what you’re talking about front-and-back to be able to speak up in front of others and have the confidence to know what you’re talking about.

People can see through you if you don’t care about your campaign, and no social justice issue can be ameliorated unless you really throw yourself into it and are passionate about it.

– Mahala Lahvis

Post 4: Communication is a Skill

Naming every skill I’ve gained in the past eight weeks would not fit in this blog post, and the skills I’m aware of make up probably only half of the total skills I’ve attained.

That being said, my skill that I can confidently say has improved the most throughout the summer is communication/public speaking, both in-person and in writing. This is a skill that fascinates me; it is a skill that is extremely important to have, especially in today’s world with technology and social media when you must stand out from everyone hiding behind a keyboard. You can read for hours, but you can’t master this skill by reading. You can practice time and time again. You can know everything about a problem, and you can know a solution, but if you lack conversational skills, you lack the skills to succeed in many ways.

I’ve met hundreds of strangers in the past two or three months, and the impression that I make on these strangers will either lead to success or to resistance. I’ve learned how to converse with all different kinds of people about the same thing, and in so many ways. In just the category of business owners, I’ve communicated with people from all education levels in regards to electric buses. I’ve also been reaching out to students, chairs of neighborhood associations, TriMet professionals, and other environmental groups. I’ve spoken in a number of meetings and in front of small and large crowds.

Here’s me speaking at the “electric bus happy hour” event that I organized at a local brewery

I’ve learned a crucial point to effectively converse with others is to listen to them. I’ve been in many meetings where I just listen. I’ve attended TriMet meetings, Oregon legislative committee meetings, and I’ve listened to people who have questions or concerns. I’ve learned that each interaction is unique, and the way for someone to understand you is for you to make an effort to listen and understand them.

As a result of this internship, I now feel confident speaking in front of people and approaching strangers and starting conversations. Having strong conversational skills is important for just about everything. For any path, creating and maintaining good relationships is a fundamental skill for success. Developing listening skills is important for school, for jobs, and it is a skill that many people lack (especially in today’s world). Today, it seems like everyone argues but no one listens.

I’m eager to have more life experiences to enhance my communication skills, and I strongly believe that this skill will only grow if you are thrown into uncomfortable situations, like I have been this summer. Staying in one place or engaging with a just a select group of people will limit your ability to grow socially, and I’m inspired to go out of my comfort zone to talk with people who have varying sorts of stories and perspectives.

Post 3: What Progress Looks Like

The last couple of weeks have been milestone weeks! Eighty-four businesses have signed on stating they are in support of a fully-electric bus fleet, thirteen neighborhood associations in Portland have signed on, and we had our first happy hour event about electric buses last night at a local brewery! Momentum is picking up, and at a meeting that we had with TriMet yesterday morning, I discovered we might really be getting somewhere. A twenty-two-year, detailed plan for TriMet to transition to a fully-electric fleet may still need revisions, but it will be proposed to the TriMet committee and board in upcoming weeks.

While there are a few complications and logistics that need maneuvering, it’s really encouraging to see a plan, and to see people who work with TriMet and people who don’t–mostly environmentalists–responding to public support around electric buses and creating an in-depth proposal. Now, more than ever, it’s important for me to reach out to the community and communicate between Portlanders (individuals, business owners, neighborhood associations, and other leaders who care about clean air in Portland) and TriMet that this plan is something we must agree to and then follow through with.

Here is a picture from the happy hour event last night. This is the Multnomah County Commissioner, Jessica Vega Pederson, talking about the urgency  of electric buses in Portland

For me, there’s a large spectrum of what progress looks like. Getting a single bus-line business to sign on is progress, but adding up all of the small grassroots work and events and sharing it with TriMet is what might lead to the bigger successes that I’m looking to achieve down the road. And, frequently, change doesn’t come right away and it definitely won’t stop once this campaign is achieved. Getting TriMet to ditch diesel and go electric will hopefully just be a small stepping stone leading to other big things that, when combined altogether, will have the biggest outcome. Since it takes legal action to get private organizations that are major contributors to our diesel pollution to reduce their emissions, it is best to push for a public organization that really cares about how the city views them. These organizations will see TriMet following what the public is pushing for, and hopefully that will result in changing practices for them as well. The local change we are hoping to create could thus factor into  national change and possibly global change. But everything starts small.

It’s important to have big goals and big dreams and hope to achieve things that some might think are impossible, but it’s also important to recognize that some big changes need to start small. You cannot expect that you will make progress and change right away, and sometimes you have to be patient.

Post 2: It Can Seem Impossible

Brandeis is a place where individuals can openly uncover their eclectic life narrative, unusual odyssys and tangled obstacles and really hold pride in these experiences that define what makes them unique in this immense world that we live in. Students at Brandeis endeavor to change the world and no one shys away from shouting these aspirations from the rooftops. I’ve heard individuals discuss their personal and maybe complicated life goals – most surrounding ending some sort of social justice issue.

Many social justice issues have existed for years and years, but I’ve learned from students at Brandeis that giving up isn’t really an option. Students know Justice Louis Brandeis’ saying “most of the things worth doing in the world were declared impossible before they had been done” and they really run with it. 

Each day working at Environment Oregon I learn more about the impacts of pollution; I learn the impacts of single-use plastics on wildlife, I learn the impacts of diesel pollution locally and globally. One take-away I’ve had is that if environmental catastrophes are not affecting individuals directly, or affecting them right now, many are not even aware that these problems exist.

Here’s the kind of electric bus we’re pushing for

This is why spreading public awareness is incredibly important. My job to gain support from individuals, businesses, and leaders in Portland through teaching people about the effects of diesel pollution and how our city can decrease our footprint and better the health and environment of communities throughout Portland is incredible. The excitement, questions, and encouragement I receive back makes the end goal seem less impossible. There has to be a movement before there can be change, and there has to be education and awareness before there can be a movement.

There are many instances where I think about how hard it is to imagine myself being able to change the entire city of Portland. But what I’ve learned from Brandeis and from all of the students following in Justice Brandeis’ footsteps is that the biggest obstacle can be yourself – if you believe in yourself everyone else will too.

Post 1: Moving Portland in a Greener Direction

My name is Mahala Lahvis, and I’m a rising sophomore studying International and Global Studies, Environmental Studies, and French at Brandeis. This summer, I have the incredible opportunity to be an intern at Environment Oregon, a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that focuses on standing up for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.

There are many social injustices that affect our local community and entire state that the people at Environment Oregon and our sister organization OSPIRG (Oregon State Public Interest Research Group) work to combat everyday. Goals that we are currently working towards include banning plastic bags statewide, completely removing lead from drinking water in the Portland Public School District, banning bee-killing pesticides nationwide, and many others. The goal I am working towards is getting Oregon’s main public transportation organization, TriMet, to transition to a fully-electric bus fleet.

I have learned a remarkable amount of information about global climate change from listening in on the first meeting of the new Joint Interim Committee on Carbon Reduction, meeting with representatives and other environmental groups, and doing research on my own. From the meetings and hearings I have listened in on and participated in, I have also gained some of the most valuable knowledge that I didn’t necessarily expect that has forced me to see these issues from different perspectives. For example, I have learned where the resistance exists for anyone who is working towards constructing a more sustainable world. I have learned how money plays a large role and can create resistance when considering transitions to more sustainable practices. I have also listened to politicians discuss their hesitation or even opposition to commit to be more sustainable when it is not in the best interest of their constituents.

I have had the opportunity to meet with the General Manager of TriMet and others who are able to influence the future of the city to learn what my job will be to have a voice in this process. I have learned the impact of public support and the importance of spreading awareness to give people who really care about issues – in this case decreasing diesel pollution in Oregon – a chance to speak up.

Businesses that sign-on to our “bus-line business” coalition letter will frequently put a sign up in their window (So far, 45 businesses along bus routes have signed-on!)
Here are some community members who are “100% for a 100% electric bus fleet” in Portland #ChargeAheadTriMet

My tasks for this summer mostly surround forms of public outreach. I have been reaching out to business owners to sign our “bus-line business” coalition letter, contacting neighborhood associations to help raise support within smaller communities, writing Letters to the Editor for local magazines and newspapers, planning community events, talking to individuals to sign-on to our petition and taking pictures with our sign and attending events, and meetings to learn more about my role as a public educator.

By summer’s end, my goal is clear: to get TriMet to commit to a plan to stop purchasing diesel buses by 2020 and eventually transition to a fully electric bus fleet. I will be raising as much public support as I can before the fall (when TriMet decides where to allocate their funds), and my job is to show TriMet that the City of Portland is ready for this transition.

Here is more reading material if you want to look more into the specifics of the campaign!