The Power of Grassroots: Q&A with Jose Mikalauskas

The Power of Grassroots: Q&A with Jose Mikalauskas

Community Member Sustainability Leadership Award Winner


GPSEN:  As recipient of GPSEN’s Community Member Sustainability Leadership Award this year, you’ve worked on the front lines organizing for social justice & sustainability. From climate justice to expanding public transit access, your organizing strategies emphasize grassroots struggles for underrepresented communities to be heard. Could you further describe such work, including your biggest challenges or opportunities?

JOSE:  Grassroots organizing is a lot of conversations and relationship building. Specifically with the transportation justice I did with OPAL it was a lot of hopping on Trimet buses and trying to agitate folx into joining your movement. Each round of bus riding would produce a few folx willing to have a one on one where you further build a relationship, and is where I would agitate them further. That is how I was able to help build the base to give more power, and new voices to our movement.

But I would say our biggest challenge/opportunity is providing folx the resources needed to join our movement. Since the communities we are trying to organize are exploited in labor, they have a lot of needs left that they often have to focus on. However, it’s not always in our budget to provide all members stipends even thought that is something that is completely valid and necessary for organizing power. Finding what resources we can provide, and sustainable systems makes our organizing make sense for folx, and sustainable for them financially is always something we reach for.

Then in my work with Verde, the biggest challenge is finding a way get our government to shift more power to our community. We so often see Metro talking about how they love to lead with racial equity, but all their Metro councilors but one is white. While Metro has not even as much set up a system to give communities of color members actual decision making power over the transportation measure. Metro could set up a program to help get community members elected to Metro Council. So the other challenge altogether is trying to distribute decision making power across our communities with much lower levels of privilege.


GPSEN: In your climate justice efforts with Verde, what are some features of this work that you particularly want to share with educators & educational institutions? And what is your outlook for progress, both in the Covid-19 context and beyond, toward local as well as global goals?

JOSE:  One of the major features of the work that sticks out to me is how our government here seems so open to the values that we ask they have. However, after purporting such values we do not see sufficient action to support those purported values. For example, Metro is putting ample emphasis on how they are doing a lot of community engagement work, and how they value racial equity, and transportation justice. However, when community members came with an out pour of testimony for an increase in transit service last summer. However, Metro has yet to include that in the measure almost a year later. The community knows what they need and what works for them. Community also knows that an increase in service, to a level that makes it as robust or more robust, will cut more emissions than electric buses or any other transportation policy would. A robust transit system with dedicated bus lanes everywhere, will open peoples eyes to getting out of their single occupancy vehicles. It doesn’t matter that the buses are diesel because we’ve done some quick math, and Trimet makes up around 1% of the emissions on our roads. So the other 99% going away is a much bigger gain than, that one percent. Even, if that 99% actually ends up being 50%. However, we live in a world where white led environmental organizations talk over our struggling communities, and advocate for electric buses instead. Which is not only ignoring the needs of the community, but furthers the disparities as the solution does not distribute the benefits equally. The problem with getting to that solution is that while Metro purports these values of equity, they don’t listen to the community engagement that is handed to them, and they rather get it elsewhere.


GPSEN: In what ways do you see education as integral to achieving a sustainable future? And what are the most important ways that your work aligns with GPSEN’s basic goal of educating for a sustainable future?

JOSE: Education is integral to any sort of justice. The forces we are working against have control of the narrative of the lives we live, and have for all of our lives. Our opposing narratives that help challenge the narrative of those who want to keep exploiting workers, community, our natural resources, and the lack of education that is out there about all the harmful impacts of what they do. Our narrative of justice is rooted in education. Our narrative is the truth, that has been masterfully twisted, and buried by the big interests we are up against. Those interests being white supremacy, greed, and apathy. Education makes us realize that all struggles are linked together, and there is no way to get justice for one without getting justice for all. You hear all the time that our movements are inter-sectional, but only education let’s you see that. No one’s word should be absolute, education helps us hold accountability.

Education allows for community members to become agents of their own well being, and once that happens we all become capable of real systematic change.


GPSEN: With GPSEN’s Sustainability Symposium theme of ‘A Call For Action’, as well as Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, what actions — by institutions or by individuals — toward sustainability do you think are most urgently needed during this time of crisis?  How do you see your work making a direct difference for the future of greater Portland, as well as for the planet at large?

JOSE:  I am one advocate of many across the country fighting to make the difference where I am. While individuals are capable of meaningful impact, it’s important to name that oppressed individuals are not the ones to blame but rather large corporations, and the systems we live in are to blame. My work aims to reach the biggest system I can currently change, the local one, which alone won’t solve the climate crisis, our racial crisis, and our land use crisis. But together, with all like minded advocates across the country, and the world working in the same capacity. That, is the solution, having faith in each other, and working for each other.

I think it’s urgent for our institutions to realize this, realize that problems are interlinked with our liberation, and that giving our communities more opportunities of meaningful participatory government is the needed path forward. This includes providing the resources needed to get them there.