“Class is canceled,” I texted my mom while I waited at my community college’s bus station. It was late-fall 2018, and it was cold. I could smell the smoke in the air. I could see smoke drifting towards me as I boarded the bus to make the two-hour journey home through Santa Clara County. The air was already hazy with ash from the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. I didn’t know back then that public transit would soon become a medium for me to engage in environmental justice advocacy and the fight against climate change.
Public transit has been an indispensable service for me as a low-income student, a member of a working class, immigrant, California Bay Area family. It was a means of transportation for my family when we couldn’t afford to rent a car or use rideshare services. I was able access to many opportunities for education, career, and recreation in Rhode Island. This was something that was not possible in my blue-collar neighborhood.
Because of my family’s background, I was taught to always focus solely on my education and career so that I could climb up the socioeconomic ladder. My mom suffered asthma attacks from the Camp Fire. I also heard from environmental scientists that climate changes are causing California wildfires. I knew I had got to join the global effort to combat the climate crisis. If the planet was not able to sustain me, my family, and my species, all my hard work in school would be meaningless.
A few months later, I had the opportunity to engage with youth climate summit attendees. There, I met peers who were equally concerned about climate change’s impact on our future. I learned that many of us also used public transit to get there.
I also met with older transit riders at the same time. They expressed concern about the upcoming budget cuts by the county transit agency. This would reduce services, discourage riders and incentivize people who drive single-occupancy vehicles to save gas. Recognizing that public transportation and the transportation sector are essential to combating climate changes, I joined the youth and elderly transit riders to organize to fight the looming budget reductions.
California’s number one source of greenhouse gases is transportation. Around 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated in Santa Clara County. Because transit is interconnected, we knew we had to fight for better public transit. We also wanted to fight for equal access to travel, less stressful traffic, better mental health, and a place to call home.
Within a few months of the summit, we tapped our social networks and organized to turn out to the transit agency’s public meetings. We spoke for hours in front of board members, protesting the proposed budget cuts and asking them to invest in public transportation to achieve social equity as well as combat climate change. We shared our stories and continued to meet late into the nights until transit was a regional priority.
My transit advocacy work and climate advocacy work have helped me to see my path in public policy and environmental biology. I am still a student. It challenges me as a young leader to give back to those I love. I have learned that when we all speak together, our voices can be powerful. I was never told that I could do anything and didn’t have any examples as a minority student. However, the fight against climate changed gave me the confidence to be a change agent and public servant. I found climate change more personal and tangible by advocating for better public transportation.
I encourage young people to join forces to face the challenge of our time. I encourage them to be open to exploring their personal stakes and to form alliances with others who are also concerned about climate change. Every effort we can make to end this global crisis will be a step in the right directions.