Courtesy photo | Ashland High School graduate Camila Thorndike is a climate policy expert in Sen. Bernie Sanders Washington D.C. office.
As an Ashland High School student, Camila Thorndike was known among teachers for fastidious note-taking and a sharp mind — the student writing margin to margin in her best mechanical pencil handwriting on every Supreme Court case study in an Advanced Placement Government class.
In May, Thorndike, now 33, accepted a position as a climate policy expert in the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
Thorndike said her Ashland upbringing — surrounded by supportive people, environmentally-conscious and civically-engaged parents, Mount Ashland, Wild and Scenic rivers, agriculture and industry — made an early and lasting impression on her understanding of responsible stewardship and a deep-rooted sense of place.
“That took a while to realize: Of course that’s not how everyone lives, and what an incredible privilege to grow up in a place like this,” she said. “I think it’s not a problem to take those gifts for granted to some extent, because these things should be accessible to everyone. It set a very high bar for me of the world that I’m fighting for and what I think everyone deserves.”
Thorndike graduated from AHS in 2005.
“Camila was exceptionally motivated and really interested in the workings of government and politics,” said Matthew McKinnon, Thorndike’s former AP Government teacher and colleague on the Geos Institute board. “It was exciting to see her take off in that direction. She’s clearly trying to make a difference in our world and our community.”
During a gap year after high school, Thorndike’s grandmothers helped her travel and meet family in Chile, Argentina, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
As a freshman at Whitman College, she battled depression, left school for a time and returned to Ashland to take courses at Southern Oregon University before resuming her degree at Whitman the following year in time to graduate with her original class.
“I was very fortunate to be taken care of by the Ashland community,” said Thorndike, who coached skiing, worked at Creekside Pizza Bistro and taught dance classes for young kids in Ashland.
After college, she spent two years in Arizona interning for the Udall Foundation National Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution, working with the Latino community and picking up skills in “consensus-based and participatory” decision-making.
Back in Ashland, she co-founded an organization with a group of fellow AHS graduates, born of a community art project they organized to engage people in Southern Oregon climate policy. Thorndike served as the founding executive director until 2015.
The organization became the national entity Our Climate, which focuses on empowering youth to become actively involved in “science-based, equitable climate policy solutions,” according to the Our Climate website.
Thorndike led a campaign in Washington D.C. to pass carbon pricing legislation at the local level from 2016-2019.
“What we ultimately got passed was an omnibus package with the most ambitious clean energy standard in the country — it was 100% clean electricity by 2032 and new energy performance standards for existing and new buildings,” she said.
While working on renewable energy policy in Vermont, she was accepted to the Harvard Kennedy School with full tuition coverage through an environmental fellowship. She graduated with a master’s degree in public administration in 2020.
After working for a small national nonprofit on state-level climate policy, Thorndike campaigned in Georgia with the Sunrise Movement for the Senate runoff races in January. Victories by Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gave the Senate to a slim Democratic majority.
“It was life-changing to be there and see the work of so many generations of primarily Black advocates fighting against voter oppression,” she said.
Thorndike leaned on a strong peer network to endorse her work when it came time to apply for a Senate staff position.
“In terms of achievements that really gave me the confidence to push hard at the highest levels is the grassroots work here in Oregon that the community supported so strongly,” Thorndike said. “As an early-mid-twenty-something, I think it’s easy to not appreciate the kind of power that you actually have and that society expects you to be using. … I realized how much agency we as the public are leaving on the table by not showing up.”
Thorndike said she has witnessed the “transformative power” to be found when individuals — often led by youth — sit down with lawmakers and make their climate change policy priorities clear and known.
Based on what she has observed, the process of passing a law from start to finish hinges on effective alliances — how well people can work together, accept responsibility, exercise compassion and build trust despite differences in agendas and funding models, Thorndike said.
With the budget reconciliation process in full swing, the Senate feels about as busy as the days of passing Obamacare.
“Everyone warned me it would be like drinking from a fire hose,” she said. “It has been a steep learning curve and incredible opportunity to get in right as we’re making some profound decisions.”
Thorndike leads the energy and environment team, with a portfolio focused on climate, infrastructure, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee, tribes and territories, and transportation.
She serves a dual role as the climate investments coordinator for the senator’s budget committee staff and personal office while Sanders chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget.
Looking back on her journey from AHS Grizzly to Senate staffer, Thorndike encouraged other young, passionate nerds not to be dissuaded if some students would rather eat pizza or play basketball than participate in student government or Amnesty International Club on their lunch break.
“All of that nerdy, earnest energy has served me very well,” Thorndike said. “It wasn’t until this job, when people are looking to me as the expert on these sprawling, overwhelming topics under the climate change umbrella, that I actually started to see myself as an expert.”
Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497.