For Erika Alabarca, volunteering at the Sierra Club was personal. In 2003, her brother Adam tragically passed away in a car accident at just shy of 30 years old. Adam had been a passionate activist for the Club here in Portland, working on the important local elections of the day. He was so strongly committed to his environmental activism, in fact, that rather than buy flowers for his funeral, people were encouraged to donate to the Sierra Club to set up a fund for environmental education.
That year Erika flew out from New York City, planning to visit Portland temporarily to get to know her brother’s life — meet his friends, see where he worked, and connect with everyone and everything he had been involved in. That visit became a permanent move; Erika, originally from Wisconsin, has been in Oregon ever since and has dived head first into the advocacy role that her brother had filled.
Though Erika met the Club’s regional director when she first moved west in 2004, she spent the majority of that year concentrated on national projects, working for the eight months prior to the presidential election on the Environmental Voter and Building Environmental Communities campaigns. In 2007 Erika embarked on a new project: increasing awareness of all the environmental issues still afflicting New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Distressed that the situation was fading from the media spotlight while there was still enormous need for sustainable rebuilding, she and a small group of others hatched an idea for a three-part awareness campaign. Through an art exhibit at City Hall and panel discussions in the newly renovated Armory building regarding themes of environment, home, and displacement, Erika and her partners raised $8,000 for the Alliance for Affordable Energy.
For the past year-and-a-half, Erika, who is a Portland Public School teacher by day, has been part of the Columbia Network Steering Committee, and is closely tying those two worlds together. The opportunity for her to do so is the sweeping Climate Justice Resolution, endorsed by many of the city’s teachers, the Club, and now adopted by the Portland Public School Board.
The resolution is the first of its kind from any school system in the country and instructs the district to look at both new and current curricula in order to teach the severity, human causes, and human influences of climate change. Not only that, but the resolution dedicates time for professional development for teachers and administrators to bring climate justice education into their schools so that students will be empowered to develop climate literacy and look at environmental issues through an equity lens.
As with any resolution, Erika cautions that the work is ongoing. But with the resolution turning a new page for Portland Public Schools, we have the opportunity to look forward to another generation of young people who not only understand the climate crisis and perils facing the environment, but have the energy, passion, and relentless drive to do something about it; just like Adam and Erika Alabarca.