April 16, 2015

APANO Member Spotlight: Simon Tam on Environmental Justice

by Simon Tam
Oregon Environmental Council, Marketing Director, founder/bassist of The Slants and member of APANO since 2008

2014 went down as the hottest year ever recorded for the planet. For many, the turning point in the global discussion about climate change was spurred by The People’s Climate March, the largest march in history to draw attention to global warming, with over 150 countries participating.

The effects on our community are staggering. Many Asian Pacific Americans in Oregon have roots in the Pacific Islands, the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change impacts. Others have ties to China, where the effects have been visible in our lifetime: melting glaciers, rising sea levels, loss in biodiversity, the increase in frequency of natural disasters. No matter where you look, one thing is clear: climate change has been disproportionately affecting in our communities and we cannot afford to ignore the issue any longer. And we have much to add to the conversation about solutions.

Like most other Asian Americans living in Oregon, I reside in Southeast Portland, near the Jade District. While affordability was certainly a factor when choosing my house, I also wanted to be near this cultural epicenter, rich in diverse foods and people. But when making the decision, I didn’t know that I was stepping into one of the worst air environments in our state.

Our community faces greater risks to our health, including chronic disease such as asthma and lung cancer, due to our daily exposure to pollution from cars and trucks. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure and basic amenities make it one of the most dangerous places in the city to walk or bike, leaving few options available that aren’t detrimental to the health of our families.

Like many Portlanders, I used to avoid climate change because I thought it was too complex, too large to tackle. I wondered, how could a single person or local action affect a problem with such a global scale? While I was busy working at finding the answer, some elementary school children provided one of the most accessible and effective solutions out there.

Last month, children from the Jade District met with Portland mayor Charlie Hales, and testified before the city. Simply put, they told their stories. They explained how they walked home in terrifying conditions while diesel pollution filled the air and how they would navigate streets without crosswalks or curbs.

They didn’t understand the scientific models behind climate change. They didn’t follow the ever-changing laws overseeing transportation, urban planning, or community economic redevelopment models. They just knew that something was wrong and made their voices heard. Their soft voices rippled across the legislature, louder than the semi-trucks thundering down SE 82nd Avenue.

Our community should take note. Environmental issues matter because they directly affect our communities, both abroad as well as across the street. But we shouldn’t let complexity or scale create inaction. We can begin by sharing our stories.

Renew Oregon is a new coalition that is focusing on good jobs, clean energy, and helping families stay healthy. It is made up of businesses and workers, healthcare professionals, farmers, and individuals like you and me. Right now, they’re gathering stories from all corners of Oregon and we should make sure that the voices of the Jade District, of our community, are heard.

Begin by telling your voice. Let people in City Hall and in Salem know that Asian Pacific Americans care about environmental justice because we are the ones crossing the streets, breathing the air, and because our families are experiencing the effects of climate change firsthand. The time to act is now.

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