Sisters Acting Up: Meet The Sisters in Action for Power

Sisters In Action
These days, the left is continually criticized for lumping too many issues together on one politically active plate. So, it can be refreshing to a see young activists with a focused vision. Maybe that's why the Sisters in Action for Power, a group of young women in Portland, Oregon working to win free bus service for students to and from high school, are having their voices heard. The Sisters in Action for Power three-year campaign for free student bus service is the force behind Portland's Tri-Met transit company's recent decision to allow free rides to high schoolers who qualify for free or reduced school lunches. The group, whose campaign has been covered in numerous Portland newspapers, is showing how acting on one issue can create positive social change for a large group of people. The Sisters' hard work is paying off in a big way for low-income high school students. But even though they have achieved some success, the Sisters aren't stopping there - they plan to keep battling for the option of free service for all Portland high school students.
So just how did the Sisters become so focused? Well, let's go back in time to the early 1990s. At that time the state legislature allowed the Portland and Eugene school districts to get rid of "yellow bus" service to high school students. As a result, "yellow bus" service in Portland is only available to students who live within 1.5 miles from campus. Then, in 1997, the Sisters knocked on doors, and surveyed over 2,000 students, mostly from public school districts and found that 11% reported missing school because of problems with transportation costs. It's important to remember that "yellow bus" service is free, while public transportation is not. This year's student fares will cost between 75 and 90 cents per ride (depending on how they are purchased).
The Sisters also have a bone to pick with the way Tri-Met has set up what they call the "Fareless Square" program, which allows people to ride free within the downtown area. The Sisters call these programs "corporate welfare," accusing the company of furthering segregation between the business and shopping district and the other, less "developed" residential parts of the city; areas where the poorer people reside and work. In addition, Tri-Met makes riding the bus especially appealing to the employees of larger businesses by allowing their employers to purchase bulk amounts of fares as part of their "Passport programs." Again, the Sisters see this as benefiting those who already have several transportation options.
According to Tri-Met spokesperson, Mary Fetsch, the two programs promote clean air and livability in the city and reflect the city's eco-conscious history. She says the Fareless Square was started over 20 years ago when Portland was committing clean air violations in the 1970s, and adds that transit carries the equivalent of two lanes of traffic on every major thoroughfare to the downtown area. As for the Passport Program, Fetsch says its purpose is to reduce single occupant vehicles, air pollution, and congestion. She also cites that Tri-Met's total service takes 164,000 car trips off the road every day. "The Fareless Square is key to the downtown area," Fetsch says.
So why would the Sisters oppose programs that aim to eliminate air pollution and congestion? Darlene Lombos, Sisters' spokesperson, points out that their pushing for further subsidizing does not mean they oppose these pro-environment efforts.
Sisters In ActionWhen you consider the number of low-income students in the Portland school district who may qualify for the passes under the current Tri-Met and Sisters arrangement, the Sisters have lived up to their name, by taking action and applying their power. 21,000 to 22,000 K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch meals in the district. Though high school students are only part of this figure. But the number of high school students who will get reduced passes this school year could likely number over 1,000.
And then there are the students who qualify for the lunches but don't apply. To raise awareness about the new bus pass benefits, as well as the other benefits low-income people in Portland can receive, the Portland Public Schools sent out a letter to all parents the first week of school in 5 languages - English, Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, and Vietnamese. Bob Honson, director of Nutrition Services for Portland Public Schools, said the school district will start processing the applications immediately.
Not only have the Sisters helped make bus service available for low-income students, they've also affected Tri-Met's decision to form a Citizens Advisory Committee of Transportation Equity. Transit equity, which means making sure that everyone who uses mass transit gets fair and equal service, is the backbone of the Sisters campaign.
Tri-Met says the Committee will look at issues including "service to low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and service for non-English speaking population, youth fares."
The transportation company also says it has student ridership in mind, by establishing special school year student fares at a little less than 60% of the equivalent adult fare, and also changing routes to accommodate schools better. And Tri-Met also says it has programs for low-income people, the elderly and disabled, and transit dependent populations. One of its statements reads, "We find that our best service is provided to transit dependent and low-income areas."
Still, Lombos doesn't think the Committee will work toward real change, calling it a "public relations tactic."
As the Sisters continue to struggle for free bus passes for all students, Fetsch of Tri-Met points out that no transit company in the country gives free bus passes to students. She says that the Committee may consider taking the student pass issue to the state legislature.
But Lombos sees the transit company's role in the Portland community differently. "It's not a business," she said. "It's a public institution."
And the Sisters would like to see additional programs, such as their campaign to get free passes for all students, take effect at Tri-Met. "We're saying there's a whole group that is transit dependent," Lombos says. "Let's set up programs for everybody."
One of the big questions the Sisters' campaign raises is - can class equality and environmental consciousness exist in a community at the same time? The Sisters think so, and they are going to fight until the two goals can co-exist in their community.
Look into your own community. Are there ways you can follow the Sister's lead in impacting the lives of numerous people-even in what may seem like a small way, like a free bus ride to school? Start by taking the example from your sisters, the Sisters in Action for Power, that is.

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