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Washington County board chairwoman says efforts will go beyond an annual celebration to improve public services and add to government workforce.

TIMES PHOTO: PETER WONG - Vanessa Savage, who is an occupancy specialist for Washington County Housing Services, presides over the program for the county's observance of Black History Month on Feb. 12.Their seemingly divergent career paths converged on Washington County, where several government employees shared their stories during an observance of Black History Month.

The Feb. 12 program sponsored by county government at the Public Services Building in Hillsboro was only the second — there was one last year — which Vanessa Savage termed "unfortunate."

"I implore you to write a better history, to be in the forefront of equitable change that no longer marginalizes the lives of black people," said Savage, an occupancy specialist in the Housing Services Department.

Kathryn Harrington, the new chairwoman of the county board, promised the audience it would not stop at an annual celebration, "but impactful change for improvement throughout all our communities."

African Americans accounted in 2018 for about 2 percent of the county government workforce of about 2,000.

Harrington said her hope for improvement extends to county services for the public.

Kari Herinckx, a coordinator for the community engagement program, performed "Lift Every Voice and Sing," written by James Weldon Johnson and known as the black national anthem.

The audience of more than 100 also saw Janeen Smith, a juvenile services counselor, perform a libation ceremony during which a liquid is poured in memory of the dead.

All five commissioners attended parts of the program.

Five employees, four from the county and one from Hillsboro, shared their stories.

Prinice Strubb, who has been an occupancy specialist in Housing Services since June, said the civil rights era — now more than half a century old — isn't ancient history to her.

Her grandmother was one of 114 students who walked out of the all-black Burglund High School in McComb, Miss., in October 1961. They disliked the treatment of two other students, inspired by the Freedom Riders earlier that year, who sat in the waiting room of the Greyhound bus station. (At that time, Mississippi's white and black students attended separate public schools, despite a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision — and Southern bus stations also were segregated despite a 1960 Supreme Court decision.)

About half the students were expelled or chose to leave the school — and Strubb's grandmother went to Louisiana for her junior year. She was allowed to return for her senior year, but after graduation went back to New Orleans, where she met her future husband — and Strubb's grandfather.

Known as the "children's march," the incident is described in "Parting the Waters," the first of Taylor Branch's trilogy about America during the years of Martin Luther King Jr. (Strubb's grandmother eventually marched with the civil rights leader, and it resulted in her second and final arrest during her lifetime.)

"I feel like it's history that has faded away, but it really hasn't," Strubb said. "It may not be Oregon history, but it's my history."

Jason Bush, an assistant county counsel, is following in the footsteps of his father, also a lawyer who worked for the city government of Kansas City, Mo.

He recalled how he tagged along with his father to court.

"I remember being about 5 years old and going to court on snow dates, for instance, so instead of sledding, I'd be in the back of a courtroom listening to status conferences," he said. "You want to know a sure way for kids to fall asleep, take them to court."

He earned his law degree at Washington University in St. Louis.

Bush drew more laughter when he said one of his first jobs in Oregon was working for Alan Rappelyea, who became county counsel in 2011. "He likes people who work for free," Bush said jokingly.

Bush worked for the Multnomah County district attorney and in private practice before Rappelyea hired him in April 2018.

Simone Brooks, who was born to an interracial couple in Northeast Portland, is an assistant city manager in Hillsboro.

But her awareness of her race emerged and then grew by her attendance at a summer camp at Clark Atlanta University and her undergraduate work at Hampton University, both historically black institutions.

"It was so different from being in Portland," she said.

After graduate work at the University of Washington, she returned to Portland to work in her family firm, which worked with businesses to enhance job opportunities for people of color. But the firm shut down.

"I needed to find a new place and a new setting where I could still bring the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion to the fore," she said — and the Hillsboro job she was hired for in October fit that bill.

"What is important about this role is that it really offers me a unique opportunity to dive into this community, the work that the staff of this organization is doing, and look at how we can be more inclusive."

Tunde Oni, a program specialist in the Office of Sustainability, came from Nigeria. He went to college in Great Britain and lived in South Africa before he came to the United States in 2011. He has master's degrees in public administration from Kennesaw State University and sustainability from the University of South Florida. The county hired him in November.

"I came to the realization that the issue of climate change and sustainability was the most important" for the future, he said.

Brandon Toney has been a corrections deputy in the Washington County Jail since 2011. But his path there was perhaps the unlikeliest of all.

"Oh, they have black deputies in the Sheriff's Office?" he said of some people's reactions when he introduces himself. "Well, here I am."

He divided his early years between Portland and Southern California. He attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala., and graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, Calif. Both are affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

He spent his first years running a business in the Napa Valley known as Taxi Cabernet, and later working as a mortgage lender in Portland.

At the suggestion of a friend who works for the Los Angeles County sheriff, he decided to change careers and was hired by the Washington County Sheriff's Office in 2011.

"I get the chance to work with someone who is having a meltdown — having the worst day they ever had — and if I am the person who can get them to calm down a little bit and have some perspective, that is the kind of job I always wanted to have," he said.

"But I never knew it was going to come with a uniform and a gun at my hip."

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NOTE: Corrects spelling of a name and identification of another participant in the program.

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