When I was in journalism school, they told me whoever controls the media, controls the narrative. I’m a narcissist, so that was right up my alley. I’ve long had the goal of writing something bigger than myself. I want to do good in the world in the process, but I’m not going to lie, I want any contribution I make to be talked about long after I’m gone.
I thought I was well on my way when, coming out of college in 2011, I got a job at the Skanner, a historically Black newspaper in Portland. I got to meet countless Black business owners, artists, politicians, educators, activists, etc., all doing great things in the community. I also got to use the platform to raise awareness of things like education policy and the disproportionate effect of homelessness on Black Oregonians.
It was a lowly reporter job, but I thought I was walking in the footsteps of my cousin Septima Poinsette Clark, the “Queen Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” Growing up, her face on the cover of I Dream a World was one of the first things you would see in my house. My parents grew up in South Carolina during the civil rights era and constantly spoke of the importance of serving our community, always reminding me of the bar Septima set. At the Skanner, I thought I had my opportunity.
For all that was new and great about my first splash into journalism, what kept bringing me back to reality was the stat counter on the Skanner website. You think you’re doing all this important work, highlighting important people, businesses, and issues, but then you look at your view count and all of eight people have read your story. Do that over and over again, and it gets a bit demoralizing.
Perhaps that’s why the one story I wrote that did go viral still sticks with me so much. Like anyone in the midst of their one-hit wonder, I didn’t recognize the moment when I was in it.
In 2012, a story was spreading through local news about a Black football player for Lake Oswego High School who was called a nigger by his teammates. As someone who grew up in LO, which has the nickname Lake No Negro, you could imagine I wasn’t particularly shocked. When the principal made a statement saying it was an isolated incident, I asked my editor if I could write a column calling bullshit. She gave me the go-ahead, and I shared some stories: the racist things kids said to me on a daily basis, the time LO students chanted “you can’t read” and “hooked on phonics” at a Black basketball player from Lincoln High School, how my teacher would separate the Brown kids from the White kids in kindergarten when it was time to do reading lessons and have us play with blocks instead.
It’s funny. I share these stories in some places, White spaces, and get the “ooos,” “aaahs,” and “oh my gods,” but I really don’t think much of it. I’ve seen so much racist behavior, and heard so many similar stories from older and younger generations alike, that it seems unremarkable.
Maybe an hour or two after my column was published, my editor reached out, saying the Oregonian wants to pick up the story. Next thing I know, it’s racking up tens of thousands of hits. Suddenly I’m getting interview requests, invites to speaking engagements, and a boatload of emails and DMs, mostly from White women asking about what they can do to fight racism.
As someone who has lived here pretty much all of my life, I was keenly aware of the pattern in Portland of elevating a select few Black voices every now and then, accurately or not, as perceived leaders. I assume this is to make it easy for rich White people to identify who to give money to.
I thought this LO column was my moment. I didn’t have an organization, but it felt like the perfect opportunity to connect all the cool people I’d been meeting who were doing important work in the community with all these White people in the suburbs who were so excited about doing something to fight racism. Where better to start than sharing the resources that LO residents openly brag about having in abundance?
So when I would get into these meetings, do these interviews, or give these speeches, I would rattle off a list of names of individuals and organizations, all while trying to convey that this “big idea” of supporting each other with the things we already have isn’t actually that “big.” And that’s where things started falling off the rails.
It felt like everyone was fixating on my horror stories, but by the time we could get to talking about prescriptions, I got no response. It just wasn’t connecting. I figured, maybe I just needed to switch up my delivery. I was trying to be laid back and conversational, but that wasn’t getting people excited about this resource conversation. Clearly, I needed to be more of a showman. Luckily, or so I thought at the time, I had an upcoming speaking engagement at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ.
It. Was. A. Fucking. Disaster. I tried to mix in preacherisms and get super dramatic in moments where it made no sense, and it all ended up coming off as an inconsistent mess.
Afterwards, people gave me the typical “thank you for sharing your story” comments, but I knew I’d blown it. Being me, I let my frustration out in a blog post not long after. It was called “The New New Black Theater.” I wrote,
“These people fascinated by my ‘Black rage’ are engaging in a form of S&M. As a friend put it to me, the suppression of discussions on oppression in their culture makes these forbidden dialogues seductive. The more raw the speaker is, the better.
“Ironically, I was telling these white people to support Black organizations when I could’ve made more money to fund programs by just cussing them out.
“People don’t want to pay for community building. They certainly won’t pay for equality. But they will shell out for entertainment.”
Between that frustration and my growing frustration from feeling like no one was really reading my work, I quit the paper a few months later. I figured I’d made enough connections and could make better money doing other writing anyway. To some extent, I was right. Freelancing helped me make enough money to move out of my parents’ house. However, while I got to work with foundations and nonprofits that were totally in line with my priorities, I also had other gigs like the business blogging job where I basically promoted plastic surgery for children. It was a mixed bag, but I did what I needed to do.
As I put in more time, I was able to pick and choose my gigs a little more. I got to meet and interview many inspiring people and groups, but I didn’t fully find that world-changing spirit I had coming out of college again until, fittingly, I started working with the equity department at my alma mater, the University of Oregon.
Back in 2015, a group of frustrated Black students got together, formed the Black Student Task Force, and demonstrated on campus. They even came with a list of twelve demands for the school to better serve its Black students. The demands included changing the name of a building named after a Klan leader, improving hiring and recruiting, and creating, among other things, a Black Opportunities Program, Black Cultural Center, Black Academic Residential Community, Black Studies Department, and Black Speaker Series. Usually these stories end with the demands, but these kids then worked with administrators and kept the pressure up until, a few years later, eight or nine of those demands had been met or were well along in the process of being met.
Watching these kids taught me that building things that can last well after you’re gone is maybe still possible and still worth it. You can carve your own space into these seemingly impossible communities if you have a vision, game plan, and solid team that’s on the same page.
It’s funny how things align in your favor sometimes. Not long after my work with UO, I was granted a second opportunity to truly make a mark when, of all people, my mother, Willie Poinsette, co-founded the group Respond to Racism in the summer of 2017.
I’ll be honest with you, when mom first told me about the group, I wasn’t interested. I was through trafficking my trauma for white people, especially for free. I’m almost ashamed to say this now, but I even skipped the first meeting. But when my mom and the other founder, Liberty Miller, brought in about fifty people and got a glowing review in the LO newspaper, I quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
Two and a half years later, I’m glad I did. This has become the project I wanted so desperately to be part of: helping reshape a community in the image of what I and so many others hope it can be.
Respond brings in between seventy-five and one hundred people a month at the same UCC church in LO where I bombed years ago. And while I do spend some time dumping on people for aggressive acts of Whiteness (now without the expectation or burden of converting them into woke philanthropists), I also get to do what I got into this for, which is helping provide support and resources to young people, organizing events like candidate forums and student panels, and creating things like our RTR storytelling project that gives direct voice to people of color in the community. I’ve also got to witness things I would’ve never dreamed of growing up in LO, like student walkouts and demonstrations and the creation of student diversity councils and Black Student Unions. One of the women who had been coming to our meetings even created a Black Women of Lake Oswego and Surrounding Suburbs group.
Are we where we want to be, or even close? Hell no—in recent months, people in LO have committed a string of vandalism crimes, defacing numerous Black Lives Matter signs and iconography, including the River Grove Elementary outdoor school sign for days straight, despite neighbors replacing the plexiglass each time. To add insult to injury, one LO family received a threatening letter about their BLM sign, alleging it would decrease property values, and when asked by KOIN 6 News about racism in his town, LO Mayor Kent Studebaker chose to parrot “all lives matter” language and decry protesters as looters and anarchists. These are just a few of the incidents that have made the local news and, unfortunately, not even the ugliest. Nonetheless, this pushback is coming for a reason. LO has experienced the most sustained antiracism protest movement in the town’s history in the last several months. People are joining Respond to Racism and other grassroots antiracism efforts in LO in record numbers. We are a force that can no longer be ignored. As such, I’m learning to trust the process and trust people, and the more wisdom I accumulate, the more I believe we can build and push forward.
2 comments have been posted.
Thank you for your clear voice and vision. “What would a neighborhood designed to express love for black people look like?” you once asked. It is the kind of question that stirs our creativity and heads us in the right direction. That is more needed than “entertainment” supplied by stories of black rage. My energy has flagged as I care for a sick husband but I am following to look for ways I can do my part. Cherie Dupuis
Cherie Dupuis | July 2021 | Lake Oswego
Thank you for telling your stories and working for change. This is really powerful, honest and important. The work you're doing is amazing and will hopefully change a community that needs change -- you deserve both financial compensation for your time and work, and a wide audience for your writing.
Miranda Doyle | October 2020 | Portland