Staff Sustainability Leadership Award Winner
As the Portland Community College Sylvania Multicultural Center Coordinator and elder council member of the Pacific Climate Warriors (PCW) and 350 Pacific, Mak Porotesano dedicates his time to advocating for climate justice in Portland and beyond. GPSEN is proud to honor Mak for his service to sustainability education and social justice with our 2020 Staff Sustainability Leadership Award.
We spoke with Mak about how his Pacific Islander heritage influences his climate understanding and action, and why he says it’s climate action now or never.
GPSEN: As a second-generation American Samoan, could you describe how life for Pacific Islanders has most changed since your parents’ or grandparents’ generation and how this might connect to your climate justice work?
MAK: The first two things that come to mind are our experiences with tropical storms back on the island. My mom barely remembers going through one tropical storm during her childhood (during the 1960s & 70s). My experience is completely different because, in my short time living in American Samoa, I had to go through two and the constant threat of a storm every year.
The other change is around sea levels. There are some villages that used to have lush beaches and vibrant marine life. That is not the case anymore as many villages have had to adopt seawalls and the loss of coral reefs.
This deeply affected me and it was apparent that our warming planet was the cause of all of this. Without our ability to fish, farm and sustain this way of living, without the stories, history, and language, they lose their impacts and livelihood.
Growing up in the diaspora, the thought of losing the ability to regain experiences lost living in the US, inspired me to do what I could to make sure the opportunities for a cultural experience are available for our young people, especially my daughter.
GPSEN: Right now, the climate crisis may be having the most impact on island nations as well as Arctic peoples (who comprise a quarter of all U.N. member states). Where and who in particular do you think is most on the front lines of this crisis? And how does this connect to groups you work with, like 350 Pacific and PCW (Pacific Climate Warriors)?
MAK: The most impacted communities are almost always Indigenous communities. Just look at what’s happening down in the Amazon, Oceania and our native communities here in the US. Greenland’s indigenous community is almost always ignored and so when I think about that country or the impacts of climate change, we almost always forget that indigenous people still inhabit and steward those lands.
My connection with these groups is very personal. As an Indigenous person of Oceania, I have found my community with other indigenous people most of life. It has been even more important for me during my time in the US, where our communities are harder to find. I’m extremely thankful for our Native American communities and families who have helped me navigate my time in the US, it’s been important to share and reflect in our struggle with a similar colonial past.
GPSEN: What do you see as the best way that North Americans and especially Portlanders can support such efforts and also make a difference where we live?
MAK: I would encourage people to get involved with a climate organization and/or campaign. In terms of where we are at with the rising sea levels, things like not using straws (alone) won’t have the kind of impact we need now. Join a divestment campaign, organize with the many ecojustice groups in the city and encourage others to join. That way discontinuing the use of straws is supported by a movement to encourage other actions to take place.
GPSEN: Since you work on a college campus, what role do you see for students and educators in addressing the climate crisis? And how can this connect to upcoming actions like the Climate Strike and Earth Day’s 50th anniversary?
MAK: Yes, from the moment I moved back to Portland, climate justice has been part of my programming. At PCC I have had the opportunity to create positions (Eco-Justice Advocates) that specifically train students to tackle this work and allow them to program around climate action. If we are serious about saving our planet, it will take everyone, every office, every department to take on climate change.
Our student leaders have been engaging with the Environmental Center staff and supporters to come up with new ways to create awareness around our campus to highlight people of color in this work. On March 6-7, Pacific Islander student leaders (in higher education) held a conference for their community, spending the last day solely on direct action work around climate action. I believe every conference, program, and classroom can find a way to implement climate justice work into their space.
Living in Oceania, that’s the reality of our people. Every school, college, and university – they are all in for climate action. When I was the manager (equivalent to a dean in the US school system) of continuing education, my job was also equally to manage climate initiative grants and programs. So many jobs worked just like that. You’re not just a government official for trade, you’re also a climate change trade official. You’re not just a fisher, you’re fishing and doing coastal reef restoration. We need that kind of action and commitment here in the US.
GPSEN: In 2020 and in the long term, how does this climate justice work matter – for greater Portland as well as the planet at large?
MAK: It’s climate action now, or climate action never again. Climate Justice work matters to those who are involved, so if we want it to matter to the planet at large, or in Portland. We have got to get people to join our efforts. We have got to connect our climate movement to places and ways that matter most to everyday people.
We also need a commitment from those with the most (privilege), to use their resources to supply marginalized groups. Climate Justice is a heavy lift that lightens with each hand in the soil. Our survival on the front lines needs this support. With places like the Marshall Islands have to move from saving their island to adaptational practices (building over their existing island to stay above sea level), to our coastal villages being slammed by king tides, we need all the support we can get.
This interview was conducted by Andrew Butz and has been edited for clarity and length.