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After initial discomfort, race talks forge on

Courageous Conversations about equity create ripple effect transforming culture in schools, city


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Linea King prepares to speak at the recent Race Talks 2 presentation at Jefferson High School. King and Paula Dennis, both trained racial equity specialists, spoke gave a talk called Five Things White People and People of Color Can Do to Fix the Racial Divide.Listen up, white people: The first step toward ending racism is to admit you are white.

“Admit that you have a race,” says Linea King, who is white. “We can’t talk about race, see race, until we see ourselves as racial beings.”

King, a trained racial equity specialist and a Portland Public Schools teacher, spoke to a crowd at Jefferson High School on Jan. 7 as part of a series of facilitated dialogues called Race Talks 2.

The crowd of 50 people was about evenly split between white people and people of color. Those terms are the preferred lingo these days when it comes to talking about equity at Portland Public Schools.

Paula Dennis, King’s black co-facilitator, knew it would be hard for attendees to get comfortable saying “white people.” So she had them say it a few times out loud, in unison. “White people, white people, white people.”

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An awkward moment, but that was the point. In fact, the facilitators began by listing a few disclaimers: the presentation would be uncomfortable. There would be stories and even jokes about race. There would be talk about stereotypes of black and white people, and even satire, like items from the popular blog and book “Stuff White People Like.”

There also would be practical advice. Developed by Los Angeles-based speaker and author Damali Ayo, the lecture was called, after all, called “I Can Fix It: Five Things White People and People of Color Can Do to Fix the Racial Divide.”

(Here are those five things, for white people: admit it, listen, educate yourself, broaden your experiences, take action. For people of color: Get real, speak out, educate yourself, build ties, take action.)

While the talks are held at Jefferson, it’s not a district-run program. The PPS Office of Equity offered a one-time contribution of $3,000 to support the event as it launched last year, donates the use of the facilities, and helps promote the event to the PPS community.

It happens 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. every first Tuesday of the month and is free and open to the public.

The talks are similar to, but separate from, the district’s racial equity training, Courageous Conversations about Race. There’s a lot of sharing, with tablemates, about their personal experiences with race.

Getting this conversation started, educators say, is the way to begin transforming the culture — to end the systematic racism that perpetuates the achievement gap in schools nationwide.

“Talking about race is uncomfortable for all folks,” says Donna Maxey, a retired PPS teacher and administrator of 20 years who founded Race Talks four years ago. “No one wants to be thought of as racist, especially not in Portland, which is a very PC town.”

Maxey, who is black, says Race Talks was inspired by her work helping to implement Courageous Conversations seven years ago at her school in North Portland, César Chávez K-8. It was one of PPS’ 11 schools to pilot the equity work. Since then, Courageous Conversations has been implemented at every school, to varying degrees.

Maxey says the way she saw staff members change the way they spoke to kids of color — and to her — was enough to convince her that she needed to bring something similar to the general public.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Donna Maxey started Race Talks at McMenamins Kennedy School four years ago, as a way to engage the community in race-based discussions. Race Talks 2, its spinoff, has been a big draw at Jefferson High School.  She struck up a partnership with McMenamins Kennedy School, and “Race Talks: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism” was born. The series, held 7 to 9 p.m. every second Tuesday of the month, regularly draws up to 175 attendees. Race Talks 2 at Jefferson is its offshoot.

Four years in, thousands of residents from across the metro area have sat in on the talks at both locations.

“We didn’t really know what to expect,” says Tim Hills, the historian at McMenamins, who signed on to help Maxey by providing the space and is now co-organizer of the event. “It’s succeeded to a great degree. I feel like the most important thing is to get people from different backgrounds together in one room and have a chance to talk to one another.”

Hills admits that the whole concept of white privilege in these talks can be difficult to comprehend and downright offensive for many at first.

Originally from New England, Hills says he’s been aware of his white privilege all his life, being a historian. But when he moved to Portland, his eyes opened a bit.

“I was surprised and a bit naive realizing the racial history here,” as he spoke with longtime Portlanders, studied the history and read biographies of prominent people of color who’d spent time here.

Hills says that the late James Brown — as in godfather of soul James Brown — was known to speak his mind about what he saw on his tours, which included stops in Portland through the early 1970s.

Hills says James had remarked something to the effect of there being “great things about Portland, but it was the most segregated places he’d been, outside of the Deep South.”

Hills says he had the chance to interview Brown when he was in town for a show in 1999, and he repeated that remark.

“For me, thinking Oregon was this haven of equality, that just melted away,” Hills says. “I think it’s possible to live here and — if you’re not part of a minority group — it’s easy not to see the problems they face every day.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - About racially mixed crowd of about 50 people attended the recent talk at Jefferson. PPS focus on racial equity set a framework for these types of lectures and events that explore race.

Raising awareness

Back at Jefferson High School on Jan. 7, Nick Dukes, a graduate art student, was struggling with that very concept. “The first time I was told I have white privilege I was offended, like I’m supposed to feel guilty for it,” he told his tablemates. “But I’m glad I’m aware of it, and I feel like every child of every race should have the same opportunities that I had” as a white male.

Andrea J. Wright Johnston, a Lincoln High alum who is black, white and Native American, offered her take on that.

“That is the quintessential privilege: You don’t have to think about it,” she said.

Having just earned her master’s degree in family therapy, Johnston said she thinks about her race every day, and is glad for the awareness Race Talks is bringing.

“So often, people of color are the ones responsible for stopping racism,” she said, as in asking people to refrain from making offensive racially tinged comments out of ignorance. “We’re asked to defend for ourselves. Now white people can help us.”

The talks at Jefferson have covered weighty issues like Trayvon Martin’s death and the role of race in health care disparities. Upcoming topics will be the Latino experience in Oregon (Feb. 4), the Asian-American experience in Oregon (March 4), and whether millenials are “post-racial” (April 1).

The Race Talks events at the Kennedy School have focused on everything from the bike boulevard on North Williams to stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. The next talk, Feb. 11, also focuses on prison.

Dukes attended the recent session at Jefferson with his girlfriend, Dominique Aubry, who just completed her teaching studies at Lewis & Clark College.

Born in Chile, Aubry is bilingual and identifies as Latina, but doesn’t have a Spanish accent. “Sometimes people are surprised because they think I’m white, but I’m not,” she said. Aubry said she found it refreshing to talk about race.

Even though it might’ve been the case that people who chose to attend were already open-minded, she said, “it could create a little ripple effect. Hopefully that’s what this is doing.”


by: COURTESY OF KHALID EL-HAKIM - A Jim Crow-era sign is part of a Black History 101 Mobile Museum that will set up a temporary home at Portland's Jefferson High School.

Mobile history museum rolls into Jefferson

Jefferson High School will return to its roots today.

Often called the heart of the black community in Portland, it will be the temporary home of a traveling exhibit called the Black History 101 Mobile Museum.

Housed in a giant trailer, the traveling exhibit is owned and curated by Khalid el-Hakim, a Michigan-based former school teacher who has collected at least 5,000 artifacts over the years and uses to teach black history.

Items span the eras from slavery to Jim Crow, music, sports, civil rights, Black Power, and popular culture.

Among the unique items are a rare slave bill of sale and documents signed by Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

El-Hakim will be on hand to present the exhibit, which is part of PPS' monthly Focus on Diversity Film and Lecture Series, in its fourth year. Each event brings a film and panel of experts from within and outside the district and city to spotlight various topics.

One of the recent talks was called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History.”

Next on tap is a film and discussion about English as a Second Language (Feb. 6), with later events focusing on Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the LBGTQ community.

Like the Race Talks events, the film and lecture series is one more way to promote cultural competency districtwide and in the community.

Jefferson High School planned to bring Umar Johnson to give a talk to students. The PPS Office of Equity paid $4,260 to cover the speakers' travel expenses and bring the museum to Portland, a discounted rate from the usual $10,000 to $12,000, according to the district. The exhibit also will host student visits from two other schools while it's here.

On Thursday, Jan. 16, PPS canceled Johnson's visit after The Oregonian reported that Johnson has publicly called homosexuality a mental illness.

(Editor's Note: The decision to cancel Johnson's visit was made after the Tribune's press deadline, so the print version of this story includes information about Johnson's planned visit.)

Revisiting 2009 report

In other black history news, the Urban League of Portland's State of Black Oregon report in 2009 attributed inequities to institutional racism.

The Urban League is working on producing a 2014 report, a look at the landscape five years later.

The organization has a crowd-funding campaign underway at the Indigogo website, hoping to raise $35,000 in the next month to fund the project. The new report "will be owned by, written by and for the community, covering the places in urban and rural Oregon, where the presence of the Black community is often overlooked," according to an online description. "These Oregonians will be paramount in telling their own story."

In addition to updated data, it will include a documentary short film of the report, new case studies, and updated policy recommendations. It also will include a look at the black LGBTQ community in the state, older adults and the African and immigrant refugee community.