Justice offers inspiration, panel discusses exploitation at King Day event
Oregon's first African-American appellate judge inspired a King Day audience, whose members also heard about the challenge of human trafficking in Washington County.
The event drew a couple of hundred people Saturday to the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro. The nonprofit Human Rights Council of Washington County was the organizer; the county and the cities of Beaverton, Cornelius and Hillsboro were cosponsors.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway found himself in the middle of a controversy last year in Eugene, where somebody leaving a minor-league baseball game — not realizing who Callaway was — referred to "HillsBurrito."
Although Council President Tami Cockeram referred to the incident in her introduction, Callaway spoke more generally.
"If we truly seek to honor Dr. King — his life, work and legacy — then it becomes our obligation to be informed, educated, present and active in order to welcome, accept and affirm others," he said. "It is our obligation to stand up to those individuals, systems, institutions and practices that do not."
Justice Adrienne Nelson of the Oregon Supreme Court invoked the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who was born 90 years ago this month and was killed 50 years ago.
While King's dream of equality has not been fully realized, she said, "We realize that we have come too far to turn back the clock … It encourages us to keep moving forward.
"Everyone must lift their voices to demand peacefully that our country do better to conform our present reality with our founding idealism. We have arrived at this moment together — and we will overcome our shared challenges as one people."
Nelson was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court a year ago after 12 years as a Multnomah County judge. She's also worked at Portland State University, a Portland law firm and Multnomah Defenders Inc.
She was valedictorian of her high school in Gurdon, Ark. — the first person of color to win the honor since public schools were desegregated — but she almost didn't get it because of prejudice by some school board members and town residents when she graduated in 1985.
A lawsuit by her mother, who was a teacher in the district, and community support derailed that idea.
"Although my faith in humanity was shaken, I understood the generosity and the unwavering support that was shown to me by so many people in my hometown at the time," Nelson said.
"It gave me the ability and the strength to decide that I was going to be different than those people who had decided I did not deserve what I had earned. I was going to be a better person. I began a journey to treat people as I found them — to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to treat them well, instead of basing them on stereotypes."
She quoted King: "Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
Nelson, who followed her mother to Oregon 25 years ago, offered some advice to the young people in the audience:
• "Living is not about being perfect. It's about inspiring, being flexible, being reliable — and I would say optimistic."
• "Never let others define you. Ignore the noise of others' assumptions and opinions. Instead, listen to your inner voice and define yourself. You decide what you think you can achieve, set that goal and work the plan to achieve that goal."
• "Have the courage to find your own heart, be courageous and trust those instincts. Take risks, and accept responsibility for the choices you make."
Music was performed by Without Apology, an a cappella men's choir based in Portland.
After a break, two panelists talked about the growing problem of human trafficking, a topic the Human Rights Council chose because January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Such trafficking includes children, mostly girls but also some boys, who are exploited for sex.
Esther Nelson, no relation to the justice, is the founder of Safety Compass, a group that works with survivors of commercial sex exploitation. She said such exploitation is neither as glamorous as portrayed in the movie "Pretty Woman," nor as foreign as in "Taken," about a former government operative played by Liam Neeson who rescues his daughter from sex slavers in Europe.
"It turns out that the United States is the largest consumer of exploited sex in the world within our own borders," Nelson said.
Mark Povolny, a detective with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said more than 40 investigations have been opened in the six months that a current task force on sex exploitation has been operating.
"It happens in Washington County all day, every day," he said. "We could do this (investigative) work without end, which is sad. The victims are everybody you know in your lives — that is the reality of this work. When we find people who are pulled into this world, they are the kids in your neighborhood, who go to your schools down the block."
Not all the young victims, he said, are runaways from home or have mental health, alcohol or drug problems.
Povolny said the task force has created online ads in an effort to identify and arrest sexual predators — because the sex trade is mostly online.
"As soon as an ad posts, I will be immediately overwhelmed with responses to the point where I cannot keep up and answer them all," he said. "They are doing that because it works — they are finding real kids."
But Povolny said law enforcement is only part of the solution, even though changes in Oregon law have shifted penalties from those being exploited (mostly women) to those doing the exploitation. He said police need help from organizations such as Safety Compass to offer survivors an alternative to exploitation.
"They have been completely controlled," Nelson said. "They have a litany of abuses leading up to and entering exploitation. They have a lot of complex trauma and do not feel heard or feel they have the right to access services, even if they could.
"If they can conceptualize self-sufficiency, they can start to make their own choices. But without having someone help navigate that, it's overwhelming to be 15 and not know the right to have access to those things."
NOTE: Corrects description of Human Rights Council of Washington County as organizer, not sponsor, of King Day event.