A rising leader in Oregon politics stayed true to her community organizing roots by showing up and speaking at the Youth vs. ODOT rally in downtown Portland on Wednesday.
Oregon House Representative Khanh Pham (D-46) hopped on the bus from her home in the Jade District near 82nd Avenue and spent part of her birthday shouting into a megaphone just outside the Region 1 headquarters of the Oregon Department of Transportation. Her speech was animated by references to the climate crisis and how ODOT should play a larger role in beating back its impacts.
“The climate I grew up in 20 years ago doesn’t exist anymore,” Pham said in front of a few dozen high-schoolers at the event organized by Sunrise Movement PDX and No More Freeways. “And we have to face the reality that it’s not coming back… But you know what gives me hope? It’s coming to organizing like this. Actions like this. Being around people who are coming together and not staying in isolation, but they’re actually organizing to take action and fight back because we can’t let our grief and heartbreak paralyze us.”
Known primarily for her work as an environmental activist (she got a graduate degree from Portland State University focused on climate change adaptation and equity) and community organizer with the nonprofit Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), the 43-year-old daughter of refugees from Vietnam was elected to the Oregon Legislature in November 2020. Since then she’s expanded her coalition of support to transportation activists because of her strong positions on funding and fixes for safety projects on 82nd Avenue.
“I’m a part of this institution and I see that ODOT has a critical role to play in this transition,”
— Khanh Pham, State Rep
The Youth vs. ODOT rally has been going on since April and youth leaders met for the 10th time on Wednesday. Rep Pham is the first major elected official to show up and speak. In between praise and encouragement of the rally leaders, Pham made it clear she intends to stay engaged on transportation issues.
“As a member now of the state legislature, I also bear responsibility for our state’s transportation system, and I’m elected to work alongside leaders at ODOT. And I’m a part of this institution. And I see that ODOT has a critical role to play in this transition,” she said.
The power of this climate movement and leaders like Pham is that they have the potential to tie many issues — and their respective advocacy coalitions — together. Pham proudly referenced recent victories like the denial of a permit for the Zenith Oil Terminal in Portland and Oregon’s ambitious clean energy law which was signed by Governor Kate Brown in July. Pham called them, “Signs of the growing power of our movement to demand serious climate action.”
When it comes to ODOT specifically, Pham said they must take “serious action” if we are to create a transportation system that is, “visionary and responsive to community needs.” “And I believe that ODOT can get there,” she added, at which point someone in the crowd said, “Let’s hope!”. “Well, we have to make it so!” Pham responded.
After her speech, I was able to ask Pham a few questions.
Asked how she’d defined “serious transportation action” at ODOT, she said said all capital projects should have more climate analysis and include GHG emission and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) projections. When it comes to funding, Pham said any incoming federal funding needs to “reflect our values” and take into account that at least one-in-four Oregonians don’t have access to a car.
Rep Pham also said she’d make the same commitment that Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González recently made to oppose all freeway project funding that doesn’t also commit to funding orphan highways like 82nd Avenue or Tualatin Valley Highway.
When she shared that position, I asked why she voted to support House Bill 3055, a bill that many of the activists at Wednesday’s rally called an “ODOT slush fund” for more freeway building. “I don’t know if I have a good answer,” she replied. “In hindsight, I think I might reconsider that vote.”
CORRECTION, 8:11pm: The original version of this story said Pham had a PhD from PSU. That was not correct. She has a Masters in urban studies. I regret an confusion.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.