Sharon Gary-Smith: Relentless Champion of Social Justice
Sharon Gary-Smith, Director of Consumer and Family Involvement at Cascadia Behavioral Health, has focused more than four decades of social justice work and community organizing on battling racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. She has been a vocal champion of a woman’s right to choose; affordable and accessible health care for all; community empowerment and economic development.
A native Oregonian, Sharon co-chaired the People of Color Caucus of The National Network of Grantmakers, sits on the National Cultural Competence Advisory Group of The Alliance for Nonprofit Management, based in Washington, DC, and the Oregon Social Justice Funders Group. She has served as board chair of The Western States Center, serves as co-chair of The Social Fund Northwest, and was is one of the Fifty Voices for Equality for Basic Rights Oregon. Talking with Colors of Influence, Sharon discusses lessons learned from over 40 years of activism and organizing.
What is your primary charge at Cascadia Behavioral Health?
As Director of Consumer and Family Involvement, every day I get to engage in the joyous kind of community organizing that gives voice to the voiceless. I work with consumers to build their strengths, to create space for them to talk about what they need, and how they can get those needs met. I promote natural leadership through use of popular education, leadership skills development, and engage people to see their role in a larger movement toward equity in mental health and addictions treatment. My role is build leadership and advocacy skills so that those with mental health issues can advocate for themselves, their families and their community.
As part of Cascadia administration, I also serve as a liaison between consumers, the community and the organization, all with an intent to create a web of support that makes each of us safer and healthier.
I’m able to bring a valuable grassroots organizing perspective to a management position in a large institution. I have good skills in facilitation, management and strategic planning. In working with consumers, it’s not enough to deliver services; it’s important to have a compassionate sense that they are also a critical part of our organization, and we are part of the fabric of their community.
You're well-recognized throughout the nation as an advocate of social justice among communities of color. What do you consider as the most challenging aspect of your work?
As a champion of social justice, what are the common threads that tie together the fabric of your work?
I’m the eldest of four girls of social activist parents, and we had a good life. My mother was a ‘community organizer with responsibilities.’ My father was a “ Tuskegee man” and had a government job that provided for us. For an African-American man, having a job with the government meant that you had a reliable paycheck, that you had good benefits and holidays; that you could support your family; that your wife didn’t have to work outside the home.
My mother could’ve been a stay-at-home mom, but she was involved in every kind of activity that had to do with improving schools, improving neighborhoods, creating community, building capacity. She was a protester par excellence. She and her friends formed Friends of Africa, a community group that promoted understanding and cultural pride in our roots in Africa; they advocated for an arts center in the Northeast neighborhood; they took on the Portland Public Schools – and won!
My daughter went to the Black Education Center where she was expected to prove her academic excellence while learning her history and culture. The result was a greater understanding of her place in the world, not the limitations on her life.
All of that came out of my mother’s belief that one can make the world a better place by doing the work. I thought every young person licked stamps, organized, marched in protests. “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” My mother said it was the price we had to pay for being human. Now we say, ‘pay it forward.’
I began to be an activist early. In student government, I worked on making sure there were more of “us“ – those considered outsiders – in charge. I learned how to engage more people of color in the business of running organizations.
How has your work changed over the years?
I’m an organizer at heart. In everything I have done, I’ve always looked at how I can build upon the skills and talents of people to sustain community. I’m teaching grassroots organizing in places like Cascadia. I’m trying to spend as much time observing and learning from others’ experiences. Each of us comes to the table full of skills, hope and joy.
As you age, you put more emphasis on long-haul work. Not everything has to be in the moment. Small victories add up. Social justice and social change are long-term prospects.
I never had organizational mentors; I learned mostly by jumping in and asserting myself. I now do a lot of mentoring, and I try to think about the things that I learned and impart skills that I acquired over the years.
Young people know so much. I remember when I was young, nobody wanted me to speak up and take over. I’m eager to tap into the youthful exuberant leadership. I watch my bright, creative daughter, a young woman who has boundless intelligence, is focused on her future, and doesn’t accept any limitations on her possibilities; never has. I know that she is one of many young people of color who are and will be leaders; who will build bridges that many of us have been afraid to walk over.
How has your cultural background impacted your leadership style?
My parents instilled in me a great sense of self. They always told me that as an African-American “vertically-challenged” young woman, people are already making assumptions about me. They taught me that my responsibility is to show the world who I am.
As a black girl who was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I was always conscious of who I was. I never let others’ assumptions or misinformation serve as my limitation.
My parents encouraged me to speak up: I had good thinking and clear ideas that needed to be heard. Assertive black women are seen as pushy and aggressive. My mother always said that men, particularly white men, are complimented for their aggressiveness – it’s called ‘being assertive.’ She encouraged me to claim that trait as my own.
African-American culture is very relational, and we have very dynamic ways of interacting and communicating. I took those lessons from my culture to places that were very sterile: where people did not engage with the heart and the head. I find ways to engage people in honest and productive dialogue about hard subjects like racism and classism, equal rights, equal access to healthcare, or a woman’s right to choose.
I used the disadvantage of being the only person of color in the room to my advantage. Many times, because I was the only African-American woman in the room, my presence was unnerving and unwelcome. I learned how to seize “that” moment to achieve the license and permission as a human being to speak up. We have a right to have our say. We have a right to be heard. We all have a right to be respected.