Adah Crandall Stands in the Way of Additional Freeway Lanes

Her protests are a required whistle-stop for Portland politicians who want to prove they are climate champions.

Adah Crandall (Aaron Lee)

The offices of Oregon transportation bureaucrats may seem an unlikely target for climate protests—and a 15-year-old Grant High School sophomore an unexpected leader for the year ahead.

But it all makes a certain kind of sense in the dystopia where a summer day bakes Portland to 116 degrees.

Adah Crandall grew up a typical Portland kid. She recalls an environmental education that taught her “it’ll be OK as long as we all recycle and compost and turn the lights out when we’re not home.” She was the kid who cared enough about animals to carry a spider outside and thought of climate change as something that individuals needed to deal with.

But then she learned of the Oregon Department of Transportation’s plans to expand Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter closer to where she was attending junior high: Harriet Tubman Middle School. It was the spark that led to her realization that cars and trucks belch two-fifths of Oregon’s carbon emissions.

So she joined demonstrations at Harriet Tubman. Then she started organizing them. The protests she’s led have grown from a handful of teenagers to as many as 70 at a time—and they’re a required whistle-stop for Portland politicians who want to prove they are climate champions.

And Crandall has become a standard-bearer for the youth movement that hopes to prevent additional lanes on I-5 not only in the Rose Quarter, but as it crosses the Columbia River—a long-delayed bridge project set to become a political battleground in 2022. (On Jan. 5, she’ll lead an Interstate Bridge protest at Metro headquarters.) Her role has brought repeated comparisons to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg—a likeness Crandall acknowledges but doesn’t love. “I’m my own person,” she says.

We talked to Crandall about her hopes for the year ahead and the fears that animate her work.

WW: Why make ODOT the focus of protests?

Adah Crandall: People don’t usually think of ODOT as a villain in the climate crisis, but what they don’t realize is that 40% of our state’s carbon emissions come from transportation. We want to start with the sources that are contributing the most, and in Oregon’s case, a lot of that is ODOT, especially since they’re planning to expand all of these freeways and essentially make those statistics worse.

What’s your view on the new Columbia River bridge?

We’re not disagreeing the bridge needs to be replaced. It is an earthquake risk. But ODOT is essentially using it as a way to disguise another multimillion-dollar freeway expansion. That’s definitely become one of the main focuses of the campaign.

So commuters in Washington state want more lanes. What do you say to them?

More lanes have never really worked to reduce congestion. In the middle of a climate crisis, we can’t afford to be expanding fossil fuel infrastructure.

Do you think that message will resonate with them?

It’s really hard to change people’s minds around this sort of narrative that freeways are how we’ve always done things. We have a sort of moral authority as young people. It’s definitely a matter of trying to get people to understand the logical or scientific aspect of induced demand—that freeway expansions don’t reduce congestion.

But then also there’s more storytelling based on personal narrative: Young people care about this because we are fighting for our futures and we don’t want a world that has been destroyed by climate catastrophe.

What’s been your favorite tactic so far?

Over the summer we took the train to Gov. Kate Brown’s mansion in Salem to rally outside of her mansion to veto House Bill 3055, which was the big transportation package that gave ODOT funding to continue bonding for freeway expansions. [Brown signed it.]

That was a really powerful way to target Gov. Brown directly, especially because she’s someone who likes to think of herself and present herself as a climate leader.

You met with her recently. What was that conversation like?

For the first few minutes of the meeting, she basically explained climate change to us in a weird sort of monologue. Like, yeah, we know that climate change is bad.

There was a lot of her trying to shield herself from this guilt of realizing that young people are calling her out, and not being used to being called out in that way. It shows how powerful we are—that none of the elected officials want to be seen as our opposition.

What was Portland’s 116-degree day like for you?

It’s really terrifying. I wish that I wasn’t in a position where this was how I had to be spending my time. I wish that as a seventh grader in middle school, I was spending time hanging out with friends and going to soccer, not testifying at government committees to stop them from expanding a freeway into my school. That statement even seems kind of dystopian. And just the fact that middle schoolers had to worry about those things is really disheartening.

I’m really sick of being called inspiring, ‘cause I think a lot of the time when people say that young people are inspiring, what they really mean is that we are reassuring or that we’re making them feel more comfortable in that they’re not doing anything.

I think the climate disasters—like the wildfires and heat waves—are even scarier from the perspective of someone who’s been so invested in this fight for climate justice. Seeing that the sky is red in the summer and knowing that that is what the future looks like—that’s the future that my generation is inheriting. And that’s really terrifying.

You mentioned being afraid. Are you also angry?

I shouldn’t have to be doing this work. I shouldn’t have to be afraid. Past leaders and past generations have just sat.

So do you find activism gives you a certain amount of peace in a personal sense, not in a political sense? Does it help you feel better?

I would like to say that it helps. I think it’s better than not doing anything at all.

I hear this story from a lot of activists where it’s like, “Oh, I felt so hopeless and scared, but then I joined the climate movement and now I feel great and hopeful.” I want to relate to that, but I don’t think I really do, especially because progress is so, so slow and, a lot of the time in the climate movement, it feels like we’re just fighting to prevent regression backwards. To some degree, I have to be hopeful because otherwise there would be no way I could do this work. I am fighting for a better world, but a lot of the time I’m motivated by this fear of things getting worse.

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