‘Turn anger into action,’ Wyden and Merkley tell Jefferson High students in Portland

The teens wanted to talk about climate change. Gentrification. Immigration.

Sophomores at Jefferson High School in North Portland met with Oregon’s two U.S. senators during a town hall-style assembly Friday, pressing the politicians on matters both local and national.

Student body president Sarah Steele kicked things off by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the black national anthem. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley then introduced themselves before taking questions from students.

One student asked if the senators believed climate change is the most important issue facing the country. Wyden said that in his view, both climate issues and healthcare “are two sides of the same coin.”

Merkley also told students climate was among his top policy priorities on Capitol Hill.

“We have nowhere else to go,” he said. “This planet is our home. This is our spaceship. We have to take care of it.”

Jefferson sophomore Ayantu Boriyo took the mic halfway through the hourlong assembly to ask the senators how they could address what she considered lackluster efforts to maintain the Portland school’s aging facilities.

Jefferson is one of three high schools in Portland Public Schools —along with Cleveland in Southeast Portland and Wilson in the city’s Southwest quadrant — that has yet to be included in district-led bond campaigns asking taxpayers to fund modernizations.

Wyden brought up infrastructure talks between House Democrats and President Donald Trump that imploded as the president insisted lawmakers drop various investigations into his administration.

“He wanted to duck the very good question that you’re trying to ask,” the senator told Boriyo.

Wyden went on to say that he hoped infrastructure bills discussed on Capitol Hill would also include funding for local projects like school modernizations.

Sophomore Talia Richley wanted to know how high school students, primarily those below voting age, can influence change and advocate for their communities.

Both senators offered the same response: Protest.

Merkley suggested students fill school board meetings with their concerns about lackluster facilities. He called out city council meetings as the venue to make noise about issues like gentrification and affordable housing.

“Anger is a good motivator if you convert it into action,” Merkley said. “So often when you fight battles, you’ll face pushback from the status quo. Never accept that.”

Students attending schools in the state’s largest district have done much of that in recent months. Back in January, students flooded school board meetings to demand a seat at the table in conversations over the fate of the school resource officer program.

Just last week, another group rallied to demand the district adopt a climate curriculum promised by the board three years ago. On that front, it appears the district officials were listening.

In budget documents provided to the school board this week, district officials laid out a plan to dedicate $200,000 to drafting the curriculum in the coming school year.

Wyden lauded the move as a win for district students.

“That is exactly what I think citizens’ involvement can produce. The students showed that they felt strongly about something. They were going to weigh in. They were going to make sure their viewpoint got heard and it paid off,” he told The Oregonian/OregonLive after the assembly. “Score one for the voices of young people in Oregon.”