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Leading the movement

The memory of Rachel Davis’ freshman season on Ashland High School’s cross-country team reminds her now of the future she doesn’t want.

Smoke-filled skies lingering well into the fall of 2018 forced the team to train inside — which meant running through the halls of the school. Davis, who has asthma, needed to be particularly careful with exerting herself in the hazy conditions.

“It just made me feel sort of embarrassed ... because we had to run past other kids, and you look not great while running, usually,” the now-sophomore said. “It also made me kind of upset because I love running outside, and I love doing trail runs.”

To Davis, the catastrophic wildfires that forced her team indoors were just one reminder of the impacts of changing climate that she and other youth in the Rogue Valley want to avoid. Concerns about climate change are driving her and students in two other Jackson County school districts to join their peers around the world in demonstrating in a “climate strike” this Friday.

Three of the student organizers who gathered at Rogue Climate on Tuesday afternoon said the walkouts and related events that will follow are open invitations to community members to face the reality of rising temperatures, and to call for action.

“Climate change, it’s a very urgent matter, said Owen Akiyama, who is organizing the walkout from Medford schools. “We need to act on it now.”

Starting at 10:30 a.m. Friday, Medford students will march to Vogel Plaza, Ashland students to the Ashland Plaza and Phoenix students to City Hall. Each group will hold a brief rally before heading back to school. Rogue Climate has also planned a Medford event Friday evening called “Unidos: fiesta for Climate y Comunidad.”

The students know that the tactic of leaving school will draw criticism from some, said Akiyama, a senior at South Medford High School. But they focus on their mission above the backlash.

“As I age, its just going to get worse and worse,” Akiyama said. “It’s our future, it’s our jobs that we’re fighting for here.”

Sara Cervantez, a fellow with Rogue Climate, said that for years she has seen family members, including her father, a piñero working in distant forests and her grandfather, who works in the pear orchards, deal with the impacts of wildfire smoke in particular.

“They don’t always have all the right equipment for them, or even just enough equipment,” she said. “It was definitely upsetting trying to come home to my grandpa and hang out with him and he was just too tired.”

Protecting agricultural, forest and other workers who are most often exposed to pollution and smoke is one of the seven tenets of the Oregon Green New Deal, which Cervantez and the other organizers said they plan on emphasizing at their Friday rallies.

Other topics dealt with in the Oregon Green New Deal include cutting back to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and converting to renewable energy sources, especially in transportation.

The students said they plan to call on Gov. Kate Brown to use her influence to support the Oregon Green New Deal.

In line with another goal of the Green New Deal agenda — specifically, phasing out fossil fuel reliance by placing a moratorium on all new projects and permits — the students said they also will also rally in opposition to the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline. They also want Brown to disavow the project, which heretofore she has stayed mostly silent on.

The Department of State Lands recently extended the deadline on a key permit decision into 2020, at the request of Jordan Cove. Hundreds of citizens, state agencies and organizations have submitted comments about the project as its approval processes have dragged on.

Akiyama, who has participated in other school walkouts including the 2018 demonstrations around gun safety spearheaded by survivors of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, said teachers and other adults at his school have been encouraging of his peers’ activism.

Students who skip or leave classes face the routine consequences of an absence if not excused, said Natalie Hurd, spokeswoman for the Medford School District.

If they disrupt classes to encourage others to skip class, Hurd said in an email Wednesday, they will face additional consequences, though she did not offer more detail.

“Students want to express their views on this important topic,” she said, adding that advocacy can be “a powerful learning experience.”

“Students do not lose their constitutional rights at school, unless their activities cause disruption or infringe on the rights’ of others,” she said.

Rogue Climate’s bilingual/bicultural team also planned a fiesta around the same topic later that evening, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at Pear Blossom Park in Medford. The students said that the fiesta offers families a chance to engage on the issue together. Food, music and presentations from community groups will feature.

Even though the students recognize not everyone is able or wanting to engage with the climate change issue as passionately as they are, they said that they hope that increasing awareness of scientists’ predictions about the planet’s future will kickstart increased local momentum.

“If it’s in you, it’s going to click,” Cervantez said.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Veronica Silva, Sara Cervantez, Rachel Davis, Owen Akiyumu and Allie Rosenbluth work on taking media questions in Phoenix Tuesday afternoon to prepare for the upcoming student walkout over climate change.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Signs prepared for the upcoming student walkout over climate change.