Community Organizer, Mario Mijares, reflects on a recent field trip with Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns.
Small Enough to Make a Big Difference
Less than a month ago feels like a lifetime ago. On March 5, 2020, I joined students from the University of Portland’s Environmental Justice Immersion Group on a field trip to Mosier, OR, to learn about how a small town found the strength to turn an oil-by-rail catastrophe into activism.
I was deeply moved by the words of Mayor Arlene Burns. Here’s where her story began: On Friday June 3, 2016, a unit train hauling Bakken crude oil from North Dakota derailed less than 350 feet away from an elementary school. Rusty lag bolts that hold down train tracks eventually weakened causing 16 oil train cars to derail. Forty-two thousand gallons of oil spilled and ignited, causing explosions.
Mayor Burns described how some residents in the small town of 440 were evacuated for two days. Firefighters and other responding agencies could not immediately put the fire out, so it was monitored and left to burn for the next 14 hours. The Red Cross set up a shelter in an elementary school for the evacuees in a neighboring town.
Once home, residents faced a new problem: Because the oil that spilled got into the town’s sewage system, residents were not allowed to use any water that could enter a drain. No showers, no washing dishes, and no flushing toilets for several days.
Mayor Burns took a catastrophe and flipped the situation on its head: she became a climate leader. Mayor Burns joined a movement of progressive leaders in the U.S. called Climate Mayors. Mayor Burns has since travelled the U.S. and other parts of the world, demonstrating the power of the Mosier slogan: “Small enough to make a big difference.” Mayor Burns worked with local elected officials to ban single use plastics, advocate for renewable energy sources, and speak out against the Trump administration’s reckless climate policies. And Mayor Burns’ advocacy is one of the reasons Washington state rejected the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal, Tesoro-Savage, proposed downstream in Vancouver, WA. Mayor Burns gives her life force in telling the story of Mosier, so that political leaders across the nation think twice about oil trains.
Fast forward three weeks.
I now reflect on the motto “small enough to make a big difference” through a new lens: the strength in each of us to do our part as we take on an international pandemic. As a grassroots community organizer, connecting with people is my job. I go to classrooms and talk to students about the power of activism, providing concrete ways for students to advocate for clean water and our climate. I organize rallies. I strategize with our members at coffee shops and kitchen tables about how to convince elected officials to take a stand against dirty fossil fuels. I am still here to connect. But how I connect will look different for the foreseeable future. Today, I offer the inspiring story and the powerful message of Mosier, OR, and Mayor Burns: small enough to make a big difference.