Jo Ann Bowman is executive director of Oregon Action, a nonprofit dedicated to community organizing. She served three terms in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1997 to 2002.
Before joining the Legislature, Jo Ann served on the Portland Public School Citizen Budget Advisory Committee, and was a board member for the City Club of Portland and the World Affairs Council of Oregon.
In leading Oregon Action, Jo Ann has been a staunch advocate of empowering citizens to identify and resolve community concerns, while creating opportunities for public dialog on community governance issues.
In her own words, Jo Ann talks about her work in community organizing and advocacy, and sheds light on current issues being tackled by the advocacy group.
I’m a child of civil rights movement. I grew up during a time when inequity was everywhere. Every evening, my family would have political conversations. I saw people who looked like me being brutalized by the police and their dogs, refused access to lunch counters, and couldn’t go to schools they wanted to attend.
I always asked why, and I grew up being fully aware about how unfair and inequitable things are for a lot of people.
What do you consider as the biggest challenge in doing the work?
Even when I was a state legislator, I never quite saw myself as a "policy maker." I’ve always considered myself as a grassroots activist. I saw my biggest role as bringing a voice to people who didn’t have a say in the political process. I never saw my work as glamorous -- to me what’s important is staying true to the grassroots to really have an impact on people’s lives.
When I left the Legislature, I knew I had to keep doing things to help improve the community. I started working on my own consulting firm, by translating “governese” for community-based organizations. Because I built such a strong reputation on educating community members, people trusted me.
When I came to Oregon Action, my first charge was to lead the civic engagement program in 2004. Oregon Action was looking to recruit 100 volunteers, register 30,000 voters and to run 40,000 voters to participate in the election. I saw the profound impact of our work on people who never saw themselves involved in politics and who didn’t believe that politicians cared about them. I saw how people were transformed to being advocates for their issues, with a little support and training about how the political process worked.
Oregon Action is best at inspiring people to use their voice. To me, the best part of the job is seeing people come through our organization, and develop the confidence and skills to use their voice for whatever they are working toward.
Everybody in the community is a leader. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve know going in, and it has only been reinforced over and over again. I’m constantly reminding myself that our work is tapping into people’s passion. If people are exposed to their own capacity to change public policy, our world will be so much better.
People of color have always been left out of the economic prosperity of this country. And with the economic crisis, even more people are suffering. It’s a great opportunity to challenge people to try t o build the kind of economy that we want. The current economic system didn’t work for 97 percent of us.
What do communities need? How can communities develop an economy that takes into account everyone-- people of color, low-income people, youth, unions -- we all have to be working together to create the kind of economy that we want. We can’t wait for government to try and figure it out for us. If we have the same people trying to fix the problem that they themselves created, we’ll end up with more problems.
Focus on Health Reform
"If we don't bring up race into the equation, no one else will bring it up..."
Our work around health care reform is about bringing the question of equity to the table. For several years now, we’ve been working on trying to get universal health care in the United States. It’s wonderful that both the House and Senate of the Oregon Legislature are committed to health care reform.
In Oregon, people of color have worse health outcomes than whites. Universal health care does not guarantee that communities of color get quality health care. It does not solve the issue of language access, and how providers engage people of color. Or whether providers are aware and mindful of cultural norms when they are treating a patient.
Oregon Action has been a lead at the state and national level in pointing out these issues of equity in health outcomes. We have helped co-author 13 amendments on all health care reform bills being considered in the 2009 State Legislature. Every health reform bill now has a piece that really addresses the question of health equity.
For example, we addressed the issue of collecting good data. People of color numbers are so small in Oregon, that the prevailing assumption is that it’s not necessary to collect data. How are we to improve health outcomes unless we know what the issues are?
It’s the youth of this country that created the space for us to elect the first African-American president of the United States. We still live in a very racialized country, and I couldn’t believe that people could close a curtain and vote for a Black man for president. That’s one of the biggest phenomena: to see youth get so engaged, so excited and so purposeful in working hard and making it happen.
On the other hand, there are some people who think that because we now have a Black president, the work is done. That his election is proof that racism has disappeared and there are no more inequities. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Even inspite of having a Black president, we know there’s still much work that needs to be done.
What I’m hopeful is that youth will continue to stay involved. In fact, every major social movement in this country happened because youth said “Enough!” If we keep young people engaged, they will feel their power and start leading now. If they organize and work together with others in their community, they can get the kind of change they’re looking for.
I’m always looking for more opportunities to bring more communities of color in the room. I’m on the board of Portland Community Media and I have a radio show on KBOO. We have this wealth of technology available for the public, but our communities don’t utilize them. I use every opportunity to share information about what resources are available to other communities who want to do the work. The more of us at the table, the better it is for all of us.