Building Back Better from the Ground Up

It’s been more than a year. More than a year since the fateful day Oregon and the rest of the nation shut down, and we were trapped in our homes. 

Now with multiple vaccines distributed in communities all over the state, the end is in sight. And although the end is not here yet and we can’t let down our guard, it’s time that we turn our eager eyes to making plans to rebuild the state we know and love.

The year 2020 was arguably one of Oregon's toughest years to date. And it is abundantly clear that the work to rebuild demands building back better from the ground up. 

Of course, I mean infrastructure like roads and bridges, emergency preparedness systems, and public health support, but I’m also talking about jobs. I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of that shortly, but before I do, I’ll take a quick beat to reflect from my recent trip back home to Oregon on building back a better state --one that works for everyone. 

I returned to the southern Oregon town of Talent to see the extensive progress FEMA, ODOT and the community has made in debris removal at mobile home parks. There’s still work to be done, but I’m so proud to see this community well on its way on the road to recovery after the truly devastating Almeda wildfire, and I’m encouraged to see this tight-knit community re-thinking business as usual by providing multilingual services and expanding the reach of its emergency preparedness system. 

Oregonians living in this area--like many areas of Oregon--face disproportionate housing burdens, meaning that many residents are spending more than 30 percent of their annual income on rent alone. And many of those Oregonians who lost their homes were members of our BIPOC communities. We know now that too many residents of Phoenix and Talent did not get the evacuation alert, especially the Spanish-speaking community. 

As Oregon builds back better, racial justice must be built into the bedrock of our structures, woven through our emergency responses, public health initiatives, and efforts to build a clean energy economy.

It starts with our young people. I met with the kind folks at KidSports in Eugene, and it became painfully clear how much our littlest Oregonians miss playing outdoors. This pandemic has only crystallized how crucial the outdoors are to Oregon culture, and how we must strive to make it accessible to all. Moving forward, we must get young people outside and back to work doing some good for their communities.

I saw some of this spirit in action when I visited with the NW Youth Corps, as they did fuel reduction work in the woods near homes in Eugene. A young man named Alex shared with me that he had seen the damage the fires had done further south near his hometown of Ashland, which only made him want to get his hands dirty helping out in any way he could. Alex and many others just like him are the reason why I introduced the 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps bill. The legislation would put thousands of young people to work in the woods making their home more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as the especially dry year forecasters are predicting east of the Cascades and in the Klamath Basin. These 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps jobs would be good-paying jobs with the potential to have lasting positive impacts for generations to come. These are jobs that young people from all walks of life can partake in to support their families, pay for higher education or start a career in forest management.

I often talk about the Oregon Way getting everyone to the table to solve problems. As we slowly move out of this pandemic, we’re all counting on each other to step up and dig into our community problems to produce lasting results. It’s a new year, and the normalcy of herd immunity is almost within our grasp. We can do this, Oregon.