March 4, 2022

Getting to know teammates at a new job is hard, but getting to know your teammates and a new organization during a pandemic where the team works virtually, in different ZIP codes, seems nearly impossible. What does it say about a person when they overcome these challenges, and make a positive difference in the lives of Multnomah County’s most vulnerable residents almost immediately upon starting their new job?

Silvia Tanner

In her first two years at Multnomah County, Silvia Tanner (she/her), senior energy policy and legal analyst with the Office of Sustainability, has helped to:

  • Ensure that community members were able to keep their electricity and gas on – despite being unable to pay. A life-saving act during the deadly heat dome of 2021 and the cold this winter;
  • Successfully advocate for major changes in Oregon law that put the state and the County on a path to 100% clean energy, while protecting low-income customers;
  • Make it easier for undocumented communities to access financial assistance to pay their gas bills;
  • Form the Oregon CPACE Coalition, a group that includes local governments striving to bring new financial tools to make energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements to commercial property a reality.

In addition to Tanner’s contributions to community members on behalf of the Office of Sustainability, she was recently recognized by NW Energy Coalition as one of 2021’s 4 Under Forty Honorees for the passion and expertise she brings in striving to achieve an affordable and clean energy future. Tanner also recently joined the board of the Energy Trust of Oregon

In the following interview, learn more about Tanner and her path to joining Multnomah County.

What has working at Multnomah County empowered you to do? 

I can bring my full self to work. For the first time in my career, the fact that I am a Latina, an immigrant, a woman, and a mother, actually helped me do my work better. Here, they are not just identities that I experience during my personal and volunteer time. I am so grateful to John Wasiutynski, our director, and my team, and to Multnomah County’s leadership, for supporting the work that I do and for creating an environment where I get to be my full self. 

What and/or who inspires you to do this work?

My son and other kiddos. They need a planet that is livable, and they need a just world. Communities who are suffering injustice. Injustice anywhere truly is injustice everywhere, and injustice dehumanizes us all. We can’t ignore it. 

What are some of the things that you’ve accomplished during your time at Multnomah County that you’re proud of?

I am part of a beautiful coalition that advocated for protections for our community members at risk of losing electric and gas utility service as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We accomplished a historic set of protections, including a moratorium on utility disconnections. Some of those protections are still in place. 

We advocated really hard for that moratorium to last through July 2021. I am grateful we succeeded, because it was in place through the heat dome that began June 26, 2021, so nobody in our community had to experience that horrific heatwave without power due to inability to pay.

That coalition includes community-based organizations, consumer advocates, community action agencies, among others. Together, we continue to advocate for a utility regulatory framework that recognizes the deep inequity and injustice in our community, especially racial injustice, and that does not punish people for being poor. This is an area where we can make change while we collectively continue to work to address injustice elsewhere. 

Can you please share a little bit about your personal and professional background?Silvia Tanner enjoys being outdoors, enjoying local beauty, on a sunny day.

I am a Colombian immigrant. I came to the U.S. in 2005 and had to start building a life and a community while trying to become more fluent in English. 

I went to Portland Community College (PCC) for two years and then transferred to Portland State University to finish my Bachelor of Arts in Economics. I proudly say that I started at PCC because often community colleges are under-appreciated, yet PCC was foundational to who I am. PCC offered me the support I needed as a new immigrant, and the opportunity to meet  people with a wide variety of experiences.

After I graduated in 2010, in the middle of an economic crisis, I worked for a local economics consulting firm focused on energy before attending Lewis & Clark Law School. After obtaining my Juris Doctor degree, I worked in renewable energy advocacy, with a focus on utility regulation. 

Joining Multnomah County in 2020 changed the course of my career. Here, I have been able to apply my experience on helping us achieve our clean and just energy transition goals, with an energy and environmental justice lens, and with a focus on energy poverty and energy insecurity. Here I have done my most rewarding work.

I spend a lot of my time volunteering on issues of equity and equitable workplaces in the legal community, through service on the board of the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association, the Oregon Women Lawyers, and the Energy Telecom and Utilities Section of the Oregon State Bar. And, I recently joined the board of the Energy Trust of Oregon.

I like to run. I slowly run half marathons. It keeps me semi-centered. I also LOVE to dance. 

Last, but certainly not least, I am the mother of a fantastic 8-year-old boy. Spending time with him and my partner and friends gives me huge joy. 

Who has helped you to succeed?

My mom and my grandma raised me in Colombia in the 80s and 90s and modeled such strength, tenacity and resilience. 

My husband is a very strong partner and believes in an equitable distribution of work at home. I could not do what I do without him. 

My son inspires me to fight for a better world.

At Multnomah County, my teammates, John, Sara, Knowledge and Tim, create a nourishing environment. They are generous with their knowledge and time, and always willing to collaborate.

Outside of Multnomah County, many people have helped me understand that if we have the cleanest grid in the world but one person in our community cannot access it because they cannot afford it, we will have failed. These people include Jaimes Valdez at the City of Portland, Oriana Magnera at Verde, Jessica Adams at Community Action Partnership of Oregon, Nikita Daryanani at Coalition of Communities of Color, Sherrie Villmark and Alma Pinto at Community Energy Project, and Courtney Keating at the Department of County Human Services’ Energy Assistance program

Bob Jenks at the Oregon Citizens’ Utility Board has been an important mentor to me, as have Michael O’Brien at PGE and Heather Moline at the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission

I give a special shout out to Alessandra de la Torre and the Rogue Climate team in Southern Oregon. They work in a region that has seen more and earlier impacts from climate change than we have seen in Multnomah County. They center Latinx populations in their work. I am honored to get to work alongside them. 

Generally speaking, what are some of the barriers that you face?

Time. There is not enough time to do all the work that needs to be done for us to have a more just and clean energy system. 

And, I still have to occasionally deal with some degree of sexism and racism in the environments in which I move, which I know says more about the system or specific person than about me. 

Are there any County departments or community organizations that you want to highlight as part of your work? 

Verde does such important and holistic work in our community. I admire their work and have tremendous respect for the organization and for the work of Oriana Magnera

Coalition of Communities of Color brings such passion, power, knowledge and expertise to the work they engage in. I really like working with them.

I have a special place in my heart for all of the work that Rogue Climate does in Southern Oregon. 

Community Energy Project serves some of our most vulnerable residents directly, and they bring that expertise and knowledge to utility regulation conversations in such a powerful way. 

The DCHS Energy Assistance program meets a huge need in our community, and Courtney Keating has been an important ally in energy justice work. 

What advice would you offer young professionals in your field? 

Pace yourself and take care of yourself. There is no shortage of work. With climate-related and other mission-based work, the stakes are high, too, so it can be easy to feel like you must burn the candle on both ends because the work needs to be done and someone may suffer directly or indirectly if you do not do it. But, if you burn out – and believe me, you can burn out – you will suffer, your family will suffer, and the work will suffer. 

This is important work, and because it is so important, we need you, your passion, and the expertise that you will develop for the long run. So set good boundaries for yourself and your employer early on. Prioritize yourself. Take care of yourself. Do not deplete yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. 

This advice is especially important for young professionals of color and or young professionals with other marginalized identities. Systems of oppression hit hard and often. Sometimes the harm is really in your face, and sometimes it is more subtle and pervasive, like another microaggression. Those add up. Andrea Rideau once described their impact as a “death by one thousand cuts.” When that is your reality, on top of the demands of your climate work, it takes an extra toll. But your perspective and lived experience are needed, and lacking in the majority of fields, and hugely important to climate and any area of work. Take extra time and care for yourself to acknowledge the joy and value of your identity, but also remember that marginalization hurts and requires extra care and love for yourself.