Park Guthrie in DC

Park Guthrie: Grade School Teacher, CalSTRS Member, Wildfire Evacuee

At one school community in northern California, students and educators have adapted to five climate-related emergencies in four years (four forest fires and a flood), all causing mandatory evacuations and countless traumas. COVID-19 has only complicated the equation with distanced learning.

Park Guthrie, a long-time California educator of 11 and 12-year-olds, says his Zoom class this term was disrupted by evacuation orders sounding from the students’ households.

“Last week we were on Zooms and you can hear the Nixle alerts going off in the background and…. kids are like – I’m in an evacuation zone now, I have to take off.” – Park Guthrie 39:26

For this school community, trauma includes repeated, location-specific environmental dangers that threaten the student’s ability to learn and differentiate, for example, one child developed PTSD symptoms after last year’s fire evacuation, only to have to mandatorily evacuate again this year. 

A secondary trauma occurs, Park witnesses, when adults and elders acknowledge climate science, draw the connection to local events, and choose to do nothing about climate change, says Park – “lack of action by elders, by schools, itself generates trauma, not just the impacts.”

What can a community and its elders do to act on climate change? CalSTRS member Park Guthrie advocates for one urgent action: divest from fossil fuels. 

I actually feel like as a teacher, my ability to do my job is diminished because my pension fund is invested in fossil fuels.

CalSTRS, the manager of Park’s retirement assets, is the largest public pension fund in the United States, responsible for approximately $250 billion, of which $20 billion is invested in fossil fuels. Where CalSTRS invests the retirement assets of the public employees of more than 1,700 California employers, signals to the market what the fund considers a smart, long-term investment.

Park adds: I’ve got to convey to kids that adults take care of kids and you should trust us and all these foundational values and paradigms that make for healthy classrooms and healthy communities and they are all eroded by teacher retirement funds being invested in fossil fuels.

Park and his coalition of teachers, retirees, and public supporters, including Fossil Free California (FFCA), know that fossil fuels present an unprecedented financial and environmental risk to health and our collective future. The CalSTRS team at FFCA wants the Fund to divest from fossil fuels out of fiduciary and moral responsibility to its members, and to help lead the charge toward a low carbon economy.

Park: “CalSTRS has got a financial tally, but they certainly have not even tried to understand the cost, the true cost, the liability of their enmeshment with the fossil fuel industry. “

Acknowledging the cognitive dissonance created between what he teaches and where his retirement funds are invested, says Park, “nowhere is the dissonance greater than CalSTRS being invested in fossil fuels.” While encouraged by youth activists, Park is a champion for adults taking responsibility, skeptical of older generations laying the burden on young people in order to absolve continued bad behavior.

Park: I think we should feel so uncomfortable that there is not even the need for youth leadership on this…..if your house was on fire, you would not give your kid the fire extinguisher and ask them to put it out; you would take the fire extinguisher and put it out.”