In a voice as carefree as the breeze blowing by us in Kohlberg Courtyard, September Sky Porras ’20 mentions, “I come from a very leftist family.” Now this isn’t a shock, especially considering the sort of students that Swarthmore tends to attract, but it’s nonetheless necessary to place Porras politically, and to understand the circumstances that created the activist sitting in front of me. She admits she has a lot on her mind lately.
This past August, Porras was the subject of a semi-viral video, in which she posed a piercing question to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida during a fundraiser he was hosting in Orlando. Filmed by her accompanying mother, Porras stood up and asked the senator, point-blank, to explain his rationale for taking specific contributions to power his campaigns. (Rubio is only second to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas — both recent Republican presidential hopefuls — as the largest recipient of millions of dollars from various fossil-fuel industry donors.) The online response afterwards was rapturous; for Porras, it was an anxious, heart-palpitating affair, akin to “walking into a lion’s den.”
A Floridan herself, Porras is well aware of the environmental issues brought about by the rapid onset of climate change (to which Hurricanes Harvey and Irma can testify), and holds unambiguous opinions on her Congressional representatives—she calls Rubio in particular “a terrible person with terrible policies.”
Surprisingly, Porras was not animated by climate activism in the beginning, partly due to her own misconception of it. Once she realized that climate activism focuses on actual communities grappling with the effects of climate change, as opposed to environmentalism, which deals in more direct ecological consequences, she knew what she had to do. And while she knows they are connected, Porras believes her energies are better suited to advancing one as opposed to the other. “We — or a very wealthy few — are destroying the Earth that we live on. At the end of the day, there’s big enemies,” she tells me, referring, of course, to money-making fossil fuels.
Last semester (Spring 2017), Porras joined Mountain Justice (MJ) and became a core member while still a first-year. Attracted to its record — or promise — of effectual activism, Porras discovered an outlet to put her beliefs into practice, gaining first-hand experience during the sit-in and the ensuing controversy that arose between the administration and MJ. It was then that Porras stepped up in the club, but also transitioned into working for Sunrise: a nationwide organization founded by similarly-minded Swat alumni in Philadelphia, which emphasizes mass protest and political accountability to draw attention to climate issues.
At the start of the summer, she underwent leadership training with fellow Sunrise members; a few weeks later she was back home to put that training into practice. She lept at the opportunity to bring others into the organization, which, by its nature, is decentralized, directed by discrete hubs scattered across the nation. Porras volunteered to start up the Orlando office, and later, to try to enter the Rubio fundraiser, one of a few who did or could manage on short notice. After securing tickets for herself and her mother (at $150 each), she was admitted. Even then there was no guarantee she would see Rubio; in fact she didn’t even confirm she was attending until that Tuesday afternoon. (When questioned, she acknowledged the irony of giving money to Rubio in order to publicly challenge him, but she saw no other chance to make a statement; in the wake of President Trump’s election, Republican representatives have been scrutinized for failing to meet with everyday constituents, with some avoiding town halls altogether.)
Earlier that day, Porras wondered how she could possibly approach the senator with her question. A Sunrise trainer suggested on the phone that, as he delivered his keynote speech, Porras could interrupt him at a decisive moment when he paused for rhetorical effect. At first she was horrified. “I’m brave, but I can’t do that, that would make me want to die.” She laughs, but that’s exactly what happened. And after a “totally evasive” answer by Rubio involving vague energy policies instead of campaign finance, she and her mother were requested to leave by security.
Like most loving families, Porras’ is indispensable in shaping and supporting her. She is close to her mother, a New Jerseyan, and her maternal grandparents were even fundraisers for the American Communist Party. Her father is from Costa Rica, a country she often visits to see paternal relatives. Though not a fluent Spanish speaker (attributed to her father’s insistence on “fitting in” in the United States), she enjoys the company of her abuelita and her tías, who all live on the same street. She looks forward to returning and conversing with her politically minded cousins, in contrast to others in her family who are more nonchalant about the current state of affairs.
“I think there’s an interesting juxtaposition — on one side, everything is chill, relax, don’t worry about it. But on the other side of that coin, there’s this [attitude of] not caring very much about politics and change.” But they’re not apolitical, she notes. It’s just very relaxed, maybe “too relaxed,” according to Porras.
Her elder sister works in Standing Rock with Teach for America, overseeing a class of first-graders. Last Christmas, Porras and her mom journeyed to North Dakota to see her only sibling (in the fields of “southern Canada,” as we joked), who lives and works in a tiny poor town on the reservation, roughly a thirty-minute drive from the protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline.
That winter break, Porras helped her sister grade some papers, and was astonished by the doodles the students drew and then haphazardly erased so as not to be possibly penalized. “Water is Life” and “No DAPL” made recurring appearances, likely the results of the children overhearing parental talk. “It was just so innocent and terrifying,” says Porras. She was upset she didn’t meet any of the students, but her sister shares videos of her with them all the time, so they know.
A sophomore, her dual passions for Latin America and revolutionary politics may yet prove decisive in guiding her academic trajectory. Porras has struck up a rapport with Professor Diego Armus, who urged her to apply for the Reuben Scholarship, which, after a lengthy application process, she was duly awarded; she hopes to use it in the upcoming summer to fund an internship. She is excited to potentially pursue a major in History, perhaps on Pinochet’s Chile; as of now, however, it’s all up in the air.
“I have changed … and I think I’ve changed in the sense that I don’t know anything.” She laughs. “Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s life, it’ll work out.”