Changemaker Interview: Miguel Arellano on Living Simply & Finding a Different Way

Miguel Arellano: A Changemaker featured in NWEI’s newest course book

NWEI’s newest course book, A Different Way: Living Simply in a Complex World, features interviews with inspiring changemakers who have found their own path in living a simple, values-driven life. This week we share an excerpt of our interview with Miguel Arellano, the coordinator for the Multicultural Center at Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus. Miguel’s story is a reminder that living ‘simply’ is not voluntary for many people. He also reminds us to consider our own personal life, behaviors and actions – and whether they are either disrupting systems of oppression or upholding them. 

As the coordinator for the Multicultural Center at Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus and a person who is committed to conscious living, Miguel Arellano often finds opportunities where his decisions impact many people. His choice to live an intentional life reaches beyond his personal decisions to recycle, not waste food or use public transportation —he recognizes his interconnectedness with the rest of the world and wants to have the most positive impact he can in all of his spheres of influence. From his personal life to his professional life, Miguel endeavors to apply an intersectional lens to all that he does. Miguel grew up in Woodburn, Oregon, a town of around 25,000 people, 60% of whom are Latino and 10-15% of whom are Russian immigrants. Born into a working class, migrant worker family, Miguel is a first generation U.S. citizen. He and his seven siblings helped their parents in the fields from an early age. By necessity, Miguel grew up living a “simple” life. But it was not at all voluntary.

Miguel remembers wanting to buy things — shoes, toys, and other things that most children take for granted. In high school and college, Miguel started becoming involved in environmental justice and social justice issues. With education, his perspective changed. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant in a very poor family, Miguel was very aware of the injustices his family and the community around them experienced.

Photo credit: Oregon State University

As a child, Miguel grew up regularly asking the question, “What do we truly need to survive?” As he became more privileged through education, that perspective helped him to become a conscious and critical consumer. When he bought things, he was aware that there were people who grew or made those things, including kids like him and his siblings. He was aware of the environmental and health issues they might have had to endure, like his father and siblings who have health issues even today because pesticides were sprayed on the fields they worked while wearing no protection. He was also critically aware of the “consumerist, capitalist messages everywhere we turn.”

As Miguel’s values started to shift, he wanted to make sure his actions were in congruence with his values. As he grew in his realization of interconnectedness, he became more aware of how all of his actions impacted others. As Miguel puts it, “I don’t live in a vacuum. Even my words, even what I say, impacts others…Learning about all of these things can be really difficult. While complexity is easy to see, it is also easy to fall into despair when we become more aware of the negative impacts of our actions and the large, complex systems that uphold injustice.” Miguel believes that recognizing our shared humanity can keep us going. “Learning about social justice and environmental justice makes me more human,” says Miguel. “I had the privilege of
starting to think about all of these things at an earlier age than a lot of people who start asking these questions (later in life).”

Miguel’s intentional decisions go beyond personal ones. He practices intentionality in the decisions he’s responsible for at the Multicultural Center. He has worked to get healthy, locally grown food to people who need it most. He does his best to make all of their events zero waste. And he sees that we are all tied together in the struggle to create a sustainable world. By building relationships with other organizations like the campus Environmental Center and Learning Garden, sitting on the Sustainability Council, and having conversations with many other people, Miguel builds partnerships and friendships across disciplinary lines.

Through the Multicultural Center, Miguel works closely with student leaders who he trains to become peer educators. The student leaders “begin to see that if we are truly trying to have a just society and eradicate one –ism, such as racism, we cannot do it without addressing other issues such as classism, sexism and environmental injustice. I also try to get them to think about their own personal life, behaviors and actions, and analyze if they are either disrupting systems of oppression or upholding them…I believe instilling hope in these students is very important, letting them know that we can all make a difference. Oftentimes, when we begin to learn about social injustices and our society, we can fall into despair.”

Miguel’s personal and professional decisions to live with intentionality aren’t exactly convenient. Both he and his partner are new professionals, often working more than 40 hours a week, and caring for their 5 month old daughter, Luna Love. What is easiest and most convenient is not often what is most sustainable. Public transportation takes more time and planning than driving, and zero waste events and local sustainable food cost more money than their alternatives. Miguel can face the same discouragement as his students — sometimes it is hard to maintain hope in the face of the complex injustices of our world.

Now that he is a parent, Miguel strives to be intentional in how he parents his daughter. “We used to work 60 hour weeks in 100 degree weather. That was a hard life, but I learned so many valuable lessons. How do I teach my daughter the same values and perspective without her having to feel the pain of that struggle?”

“Family and people come first,” Miguel says. “I think it’s easy for us to forget that sometimes…My daughter’s smile and laugh are the best part of my day.” He stays in close contact with his siblings, and he values being an educator. He loves seeing students make the connections and learn “to be better citizens of the world.” Keeping his values and actions in alignment in his personal life, in his larger spheres of influence, and with the people that are closest to him helps him to move forward with hope and courage.

Read more stories of individuals finding their own way to live simply and sustainably in NWEI’s newest course book: A Different Way: Living Simply in a Complex World. Thanks to NWEI’s Director of Learning, Lacy Cagle, for interviewing Miguel and for sharing his story. 

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