King Day speakers: Look to yourselves for leadership on racial justice
Progress toward racial justice and economic opportunity will be led by a multitude of people who share the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr., not by a single person who emerges as the next great civil rights leader.
Several speakers made that point at the 17th annual King Day celebration sponsored by the Human Rights Council of Washington County.
The keynoter was Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland, who echoed the words of Barack Obama in 2008 during his history-making campaign for president.
"We cannot wait for someone else. We cannot wait for the next Dr. King — because we are the ones we have been waiting for," she told the audience Saturday, Jan. 18, at Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro.
"Yes, we've got to get to it, because the time is now, not later. There is not the next great civil rights hero who is going to save us all. We are going to save ourselves… All Oregonians have the right to achieve the American dream and an equal opportunity to achieve that dream."
Harmon Johnson grew up in Salem and Portland — at age 10, she was a legislative page sponsored by Margaret Carter, the first African American woman elected to the Oregon Legislature — and has worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House. She returned to Oregon in 2013 and became president of the Urban League of Portland in 2015.
She said that when she was growing up, she got involved because she believed racism would die out and that younger cousins could focus on other issues. She has both a law degree and a master's in business administration.
"Now, for a living, I fight for civil rights and social justice. I am a lawyer and a businesswoman, and I love that part and what I bring to this work," she said.
"But I did not dream I would grow up to do this work. I dreamed it would not be necessary to do this work anymore. I think maybe it's a good thing to think that way. When I was younger, if I thought I would still be doing this, I don't know that I would have been able to bear it.
"I think it's actually OK that we are still doing this work, because someone's got to do it. I believe in it being done — and we are the right people for the job."
The celebration was sponsored by Washington County, the cities of Beaverton, Cornelius and Hillsboro, Metro and Pacific University. Blemabii Dance Ensemble of Shoreline, Wash., performed West African music and dances.
Harmon Johnson, who lives in Salem, is running for the Democratic nomination for the Oregon Senate seat once held by Jackie Winters, the first African American Republican in the Legislature. Winters died of cancer last year.
The current Senate has two black members: Lew Frederick of Portland and James Manning of Eugene.
Harmon Johnson said when she goes to policy meetings, she has found herself the only woman of color in the room.
"It means that we, together, have a lot of work to do," she said. "If we don't have people who don't look like us at the table, what is being left out?"
Similar points were made later during a panel discussion led by Lisa LeSage, a principal consultant at a firm specializing in global human rights. She spent 14 years at the law school at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
"A common theme I am sensing here is speaking up, showing up, telling stories, listening to others," she said.
Though the panelists came from the same part of the world, they recounted vastly different experiences.
Som Subedi was born in Bhutan, raised in a refugee camp in Nepal, and came to the United States as a refugee in 2008. He became a naturalized citizen in 2013.
"Since then, I have not missed any vote anywhere," he said.
He said people should help refugees where possible, such as helping them tell their stories or helping them find jobs — and also support candidates for public office who support refugee and immigrant rights.
One example, he said, was the ceilings set by the federal government for accepting refugees into the United States. Under Obama during the 2016 budget year, 85,000 were admitted, more than the 76,200 admitted under Donald Trump from the start of his presidency Jan. 20, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2019. Under Trump, the ceilings fell to 45,000 in the 2018 budget year — 22,500 actually were admitted — 30,000 in 2019, and 18,000 for 2020.
"It matters who is president," he said.
Ritu Dhungana also came from Nepal, but her biggest barrier to emigration in 2005 was her parents, who questioned why she wanted higher education.
"I am too American to be a Nepali, but I am too Nepali to be an American," she said.
But Dhungana, who sits on the Human Rights Council, said governments at all levels must do more to reach out to the growing minority share of Washington County's population. As recently as 1990, people of color constituted 10% of the total; today, it is more than 30%, making the county Oregon's most diverse.
She said many recent immigrants come from countries where government is seen negatively, and officials here have to explain how things are different.
While working on a study last summer for the Coalition of Communities of Color — which sponsored a 2018 report focused on Washington County — Dhungana was struck by a perception shared by minority communities.
"All of those communities said they want to speak up more, but nobody comes to them," she said. "I think it should not be their job to show up. I think it should be the job of elected officials to show up to them. Meet them where they are at. They are willing to talk. They have a lot to say."
NOTE: Corrects Ritu Dhungana description to remove erroneous information.
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