Lending a Bigger Voice for Communities of Color
Jeri Williams is well-known throughout the region for her successful community organizing work in environmental justice and social justice in the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods. A member of the Klamath tibe, she has been a champion of issues affecting communities of color and low-income residents of Portland. Before joining the City of Portland, Jeri has led the Enviroinmental Justice Action Group (EJAG), which was formed to address air quality issues and how they affect public health among residents in North and Northeast Portland.
She was initially introduced to Environmental Justice issues in 1994 while working as a hotel worker exposed to toxic chemicals. From there she became an organizer for low income and workers of color to address on the job exposures and workers rights.
Jeri also participated in the creation of the 1998 Lead Comprehensive plan for the City of Portland and the Portland Brownfield Showcase community advisory committee, which is a nationally known model of community involvement. In 2000 she was appointed by Governor Kitzhaber to the Portland/ Vancouver Bi-state Transportation and Trade I-5 Corridor Task Force to address healthier solutions in transportation for the region.
In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Jeri talks about her current role at the City of Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
What is your primary charge at the City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement?
My role in the City of Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement ties in with my life. I came onboard two years ago, after doing community organizing work for about 5 years ago. My entire experience in community organizing has been about communities of color issues, particularly environmental justice. Part of my work at the city is to do outreach in a lot of different communities and get more people involved in diversity and civic leadership projects.
My work involves outreach to underrepresented communities of color, particularly immigrant and refugee groups. I also do faith-based organizing and conducting diversity training among neighborhoods. Immigrants and refugees should have an equal voice. Our goal at ONI is to increase the voice of all Portlanders. We know in the past that hasn’t always been the case.
What are some of the differences and similarities between your community organizing work and your current role?
How does your cultural background impact the way you lead?
When we’re making decisions, we consider how our elders and children are going to be affected. There’s a system in our society that is about respecting yourself, other people, and the environment. Many times, issues related to people of color, cultural diversity and environmental justice are seen as a postscript. Folks don’t understand the brilliance of incorporating those issues from the beginning.
I’ve never met anyone that I never expect to see again. When I build a relationship with somebody, I build it for a lifetime. Our connection will continue. Our tribal model is to work hard and show everyone how good you are. You gain other people’s respect based on hard work and integrity.
What accomplishments are you most proud of, in all the years spent in community organizing and environmental justice?
I came to this work in 1994, as a hotel worker exposed to toxic chemicals. It was at that time that I understood what environmental justice meant: we have the right to work, live and play in places that are clean, healthy and safe. The reality of environmental racism means that a lot of communities of color and low-income communities live in places that are more polluted. People have more access to the bad things, and less access to the good things.
I worked for 10 years on the Interstate 5 freeway project. A significant victory was our success in organizing a union of parking lot attendants, who were mostly Ethiopian immigrants. We connected them with a Teamsters union. We also defeated the expansion of the I-5 freeway. We did asthma surveys in the community and brought new issues into the transportation discussion that have never been discussed before: environmental justice and public health issues.
How are you involved with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren?
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren was formed a few years ago in response to the problem of grandparents not having rights in the foster care system in the State of Oregon. It was started by African-American grandparents who dealt with the Carolyn Smith case. Carolyn had custody of seven of her grandchildren. Because she was doing so well with the five oldest children, the state made the unilateral decision to separate the two youngest. Those children were taken to a white family in Wilsonville.
We haven’t given up the fight. We continue to advocate for the Carolyn Smith case. We’ve had conversations that would allow Carolyn to communicate with the two youngest through mail. The decision to take the children away was made by someone who didn’t have a full understanding of the foster care system, or know anything about African-American lifestyles. We’ve raised the question about whether Department of Human Services staff understood the family dynamics of African-American and Native American children and families.
For one, Grandma raises everybody: cousins, aunts, uncles – we have large extended families. We’re not just the individual family of Mom, Dad and the kids. We want the state to understand that when they make judgment calls to remove children from their parents, they are removing the children from a whole community of people.
My own children had problems not too long ago, and three of my grandchildren were taken away. I was told by the state that “people like me” who have had children in the system are not allowed to participate in the foster care system. My life has been in the news: I came out of gangs, drugs and prostitution, but I’ve overcome all those things. Over the years, I’ve contributed a lot to the community by supporting people in their efforts. My life has done a great turnaround, and because of that, I don’t think the state gets to say that because of my past, I could never become certified to be a foster parent.
I wrote letters to my Congressman, demanding to see the DHS policy the staff member referred to. Turns out, there’s no such official policy. I’m currently going through the classes so I can become certified to be a foster parent. I had to write a 20-year life history to explain to the state who I was, and who I am now.
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is drawing more attention from African-American and Native American families who don’t know their rights in a system that doesn’t seem to make sense. We’re working on base-building, to get more people involved. We meet once a month, and have anywhere between 30 to 60 people at every meeting.
Spring 2009 Colors of Influence