Whenever Nora Lehmann takes her two kids out to Kelley Point Park, she fears environmental disaster.
Driving to and from the sunny banks of the Columbia River, she passes Zenith Energy’s Northwest Portland terminal and the train tracks it uses to transport crude oil through the city.
Zenith recently filed for permits to expand its Portland hub, a move that’s faced fierce opposition from environmental groups like Families for Climate, an environmental education and activism nonprofit focused on engaging kids and working around parents’ busy schedules.
As board co-president and a founding member of Families for Climate, Lehmann has helped organize letter-writing campaigns to the Portland City Council, urging commissioners to block Zenith’s expansion.
She fears the oil hub could cause an ecological catastrophe, whether it’s a massive spill from an earthquake or a train car derailing—like the Union Pacific train derailment that ignited a massive oil fire near Mosier in 2016, or the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in 2013 that destroyed a small town near Quebec.
“From an immediate safety perspective, it’s really shocking,” says Lehman. “It’s a dereliction of duty by the City Council to protect city residents. And on a larger, global scale of having this fracked oil being exported and burned, it’s an environmental crime.”
Families for Climate aims to combat not only the transport of fossil fuels, but also the feelings of helplessness and dread that come with raising kids in a world that could be hurtling toward self-destruction.
The environmental nonprofit doubles as a support group—both for parents who’d otherwise have little time for activism due to busy schedules and kids who are growing up at a critical point in the fight against climate change.
Lehmann and the other founding members realized there was a need for a family-focused group in the fall of 2019, after they ran the child care section for the Portland arm of the Global Climate Strike.
In Portland, there are plenty of environmental nonprofits, but none that cater specifically to families.
“You’re so booked as a parent with school, day care, the commute, shopping, cooking, cleaning, bedtime, bathtime,” says Lehmann. “The thought of another meeting where you can’t bring your kid and you have to get a babysitter—no one’s going to do it.”
Families for Climate hosted its first meeting shortly after the climate strike, at a community center in Northeast. The parents met in one room to discuss their ideas. Child care was offered in an adjoining room.
There was a clear understanding that if someone’s kid ran into the meeting room throwing a tantrum, no one was going to roll their eyes—after all, everyone else there was a parent, too.
Dozens of families showed up, many of whom became emotional during the introductions.
“Parenting young children in particular can feel really isolating,” says Noelle Studer-Spevak, Families for Climate’s board secretary. “This was an opportunity to come out and be with other people”
In 2020, Families for Climate became a registered nonprofit. Immediately after, the pandemic hit.
The coronavirus increased feelings of isolation and decreased free time for parents, especially those juggling work from home and their children’s online learning schedules.
But after a two-month break, Families for Climate’s members decided to find a way to fit meetings and activism back into their schedules. They shifted to virtual meetings and webinars about local climate policies, how to talk to kids about climate change, and dealing with eco-anxiety as a parent.
Climate Defender Kids, initially the child care section during in-person meetings, moved online too. Now Climate Defender Kids offers monthly environmental Zoom learning sessions geared to ages 5 to 12. Past topics have included the respiration cycle of trees, how to grow plants, and music as a form of activism.
Though the group organizes around specific policies, Families for Climate is first and foremost an educational resource for parents and kids. But it can be a tricky balance between fostering a sense of hope and agency and overburdening kids with the fate of the world.
“You don’t want them to be feeling a heavy responsibility and burden before they’re ready to take that on,” says Studer-Spevak. “We’re just mostly talking about how the world works, being curious about nature, and using their growing minds to observe what’s going on around them.”
Last month, Families for Climate hosted one of its first in-person Climate Defender Kids events since the pandemic. As a part of Pedalpalooza—a three-month series of guided bike rides and events this year—kids were encouraged to wear superhero capes and masks for a short ride down a neighborhood greenway to the King Farmers Market. Another Climate Defender Kids bike ride is scheduled this Sunday, Aug. 22.
Still, the pandemic has put a limit on how much Families for Climate can do.
For Lehmann and Studer-Spevak, the inability to safely hold in-person events has been particularly frustrating. In addition to write-in and call-in campaigns to urge the City Council to disallow the Zenith Energy expansion, they’d also be organizing in-person marches and demonstrations if it weren’t for the rise of the Delta variant.
“I’ve been trying to think of what we can do, as families, as an action against the Zenith expansion,” says Studer-Spevak “It seems like we need something more visible. Hopefully, we can turn the tide this month.”
But even while members can’t meet in person, having a group she can go to with some new, terrifying report about the future of our climate has been crucial for Lehmann.
“Knowing that there are people you can call and say, ‘What are we doing?’” she says, “is a really powerful antidote to that helpless, sick feeling.”