Longtime community organizer Jeri Williams faces a tough battle against Steve Novick for the City Council seat being vacated by Randy Leonard. But this isn’t the first time Williams has faced a tough fight.
Decades ago, Williams was pimped by a gang and coerced into walking 82nd Avenue every night into the early morning hours. After escaping, Williams went on to become a labor and environmental justice organizer, and now manages a program in the Office of Neighborhood Involvement aimed at getting under-represented communities involved in city governance.
Now Williams hopes to make the jump from organizing to making policy. Williams is confident she has a fighting chance to win the seat if she can activate communities that often shy away from the political process. So far, she’s gotten the endorsement of former Mayor Tom Potter.
Jake Thomas: You said you’re disappointed with some of the things you see going on with the city. What are those things?
Jeri Williams: One of the frustrating things is the Last Thursday event and how long it’s been going on and how long the city has been paying for this party and just the inequity of it. There are a lot other things the city should be spending money on, not somebody’s party.
There are equity issues around the fact that we are making giant investments in certain groups of people, and those groups of people are the ones most favored by the people in office. And I guess people would say that’s politics; I think that’s the way it works. So if that’s the way it works, we need to get someone in there that cares about homeless populations, who cares about people who are not being heard.
We need to talk about people of color issues and have the race discussion. We need to get somebody in office to do that. I hear that my opponent is a really nice progressive guy, but I don’t think that he’ll do that.
Ethnocentrism is basically: I know what I know because of what I grew up around. So we’re all ethnocentric. My Indian and Mexican parts of me, and the white part of me, all create what I grew up with, it creates my knowledge base. I can’t expect people like Dan Saltzman to understand what it’s like to be poor. I can’t explain what it’s like to him to be poor. I can’t explain to him what it’s like to be homeless, a woman, a woman of color.
That’s why we have a bunch of high rises downtown. That’s why we have “sustainability” centers and not “worker” centers. That’s why we have no shelters for little girls getting trafficked. We’ve chosen to look the other way on a lot of issues we find distasteful, and that’s homelessness, that’s human trafficking, that’s the drug issue. So as long as we don’t make investments, real investments, in people — not just little Band-Aids, not just throw crumbs at them — we’re not going to have a solution. We’re going to have people who are happy because they have what they have and they’re fine, and we’re going to have a whole group of people who aren’t.
If the city doesn’t look at creating a broadband strategy that will allow everybody to have the Internet, then those families’ kids who don’t have internet will do worse in school. You get unemployed people who are told to go home and go online and apply for benefits. Well, what if you have no online to go home to? If you’re a 6-year-old girl and your mom works until eight o’clock at night, and you need to get on the Internet and do something for your report, it’s not going to get done because Mom’s at work. And if you listen to the people who use the library computers, they’ll tell you, you have to stand in line a long time and you only have so long to use it. We’re creating this digital divide, which is once again going to create privilege for some and lack for other people. If you have enough, you tend to not think about those who don’t.
If Sam Adams and I were to drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, we would see things differently. And I think that my view is as important as what he sees. He may see all the buildings that are LEED-certified sustainable. I may see the homeless people, and the people who have drug problems walking up and down the street. So we need people in office who can think about all those things.
People say, “I believe in equity,” so let’s give East Portland some sidewalks. It’s way more than East Portland getting sidewalks. East Portlanders need a voice. If we get urban renewal areas, we get them because some communities have been blighted like Mississippi, and it gets built up for another community, and the other community gets moved into a pocket in Southeast. Now gentrification is no longer an unintended consequence. We know it happens when we make these decisions. We plan for our prosperity, but we don’t plan for our poverty.
J.T.: If elected, you’d be the only person of color on City Council. There have been a couple of disturbing reports that have come out in the past couple of years, the State of Black Oregon and the Coalition of Communities of Color reports. What would you do to address the needs of minority communities?
J.W.: We have to look at policy. So we’re doing that now through the Office of Equity and Human Rights, which we just passed and a lot people were really critical of. I told The Oregonian that the way it reported it is like it’s a joke; it’s not a joke to the people who asked for it. The people who asked for it are saying, “we need you to pay attention to us. We need you to take care of our needs because if you’re not taking care of everybody’s needs then you’re not doing your job.”
It’s like people don’t want to have that discussion about race. They just don’t. During the Office of Equity vote, Dan Saltzman said, I don’t want to see any more dialogue. Well then, how are people going to learn? Hasn’t it always been that we learn through education about each other?
J.T.: So what are some specific things you’d like to see come out of the new Office of Equity and Human Rights?
J.W.: One of them is the sit-lie policy and eventually we need to look at how the contract with the day labor workers center will be ending soon and are we going to continue to fund it.
As the Cully Neighborhood gets built up can we make sure that those people are not displaced. It’s not a historically black community; it’s more Latino, Asian and white people. But can you make sure that those people don’t get displaced when you put the new infrastructure in? We don’t want to force people out because of economic reasons, and we can take action on this and learn lessons from it. We can’t keep pushing people all over town.
J.T.: The city recently created Drug Impact Areas that exclude people from sections of downtown. The city also continues to enforce a no-camping ordinance, even though there’s not enough shelter space for homeless people. How do you intend to address these issues?
J.W.: It’s almost like we need to do an inventory on the empty buildings that we’re not using right now, but for profit’s sake we’d rather have them remain empty than have people live in them. We have to shift this. We have to increase shelters. And we’re getting ready in December to open up the first human trafficking center for teens with the county, but there have to be other options.
What I know is that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I went and talked to Dignity Village, and we need to support many different modes of living in Portland that we currently don’t. We have to really, really, really think outside the box.
I don’t support the no-camping ordinance. Where am I supposed to go if I don’t have anywhere to go? The city is saying I’m a criminal. So we’ll put you in jail, or kick you out of town or harass you and take all the items you have and destroy them because you don’t have enough to worry about already. It’s not a sustainable idea to think that we can continue on like this. I believe that really at the core of what I’m saying is that if you don’t make those investments at the bottom, you’re not going to really be blessed.
J.T.: You’re a survivor of human trafficking. How will you bring that experience to City Council?
J.W.: I’m pushing for more support to get people out of trafficking. We need to make bigger investments.
There needs to be more time (sentence) for someone who sells a child or woman than for selling drugs, and currently you do more time for selling drugs than you do for selling children. You can sell a drug once, and it’s out of your hands. You can sell a woman a thousand times. It’s slavery, and it needs to end. I’m really disappointed with media coming back and saying it’s not that serious of an issue. They can’t prove it. Come work with the people I work with every day. Have people call you in the middle of the night, and say, “I’m standing on a corner, and I’m trying to get away.” Then tell me it’s not that big of a problem.
Most strip clubs don’t hire employees, they hire contractors. They don’t get Social Security, workers’ compensation, or any kind of medical benefits. They go into the jobs, and they pay the house. Women who have little kids are dancing or lingerie modeling. There is not enough oversight of the business because they are pulling 7th graders out of the dance clubs. It is a business that takes advantage of people. We need to create living wage jobs for young moms. Are we creating this substandard industry for poor women, mostly women of color? Once again, we go back to equity and race.
J.T.: Tell us about your organizing work around environmental justice, specifically the Columbia River Crossing.
J.W.: I started organizing around environmental justice around 1994 as a hotel worker when I was exposed to toxic chemicals. I was on an organizing committee for about eight years. We founded a union for parking lot attendants downtown, it was called the Urban Workers Union, and we affiliated it with Teamsters Local 206. I went on to become the executive director of the Environmental Justice Action Group. We worked on issues on health disparities in transportation policy and how they create disparate impacts.
High levels of asthma, emphazema, and cancer clusters are in Northeast, especially around where you have arterials. The I-5 freeway was put in a low-income community of color. It doesn’t run through Beaverton. It’s the same all over the country. We have this freeway through our community, and we created this situation where we have tons of traffic going through our community. The emissions rise 1,500 feet they move over about two blocks and then they drop. We have benzene, diesel particulates in those areas.
I sat on the Bi-State Transportation Task Force (appointed by then Governor Ted Kulongoski to look at healthier regional transportation issues), and we defeated the expansion of the freeway. Then we moved on to Delta to Lombard where we won a million dollar community enhancement fund. I now live in an apartment where they just put in the crosswalks from the fund. And then, we went on to the Columbia River Crossing. We were called into a meeting and told not to expect the things that we got before. We were told we weren’t going to have these conversations about environmental justice, and they eventually just got rid of the environmental justice working group we had created. We forced them to recreate it, and they got this hand-selected group of people that knew nothing about environmental justice.
Where do I stand on the CRC now? I don’t think that that big fat bridge is going to be built in the way they think it’s going to be built. We don’t have the money to get it done.
J.T.: The Portland Plan is guiding our city into building 20-minute neighborhoods, places where people can get around quickly and easily. What do you see as being the big obstacles with fulfilling that vision?
J.W.: There are parts of Portland that just aren’t created that way, especially the folks that live out there in “the numbers” near Gresham. How do we make this happen for everybody? I don’t know that we can.
So I guess one of the big things is we need to learn to listen more. I can’t tell you what a Russian community out in Southeast Portland needs. This cookie-cutter 20-minute neighborhood might not meet everybody’s needs, and we’re only talking about the people that we talk to. Portland is a very progressive vortex. You have a lot of people engaged, but by no stretch of the imagination do we have everyone engaged, like people whose first language isn’t English, low-income people and the homeless population, etc.
When the Portland Plan was started, I was asked how to engage with communities of color. I said, go build a relationship with them. People will have coffee with them, and then they leave the city government. Six months later someone asks how to do this again. We’re not taught as city planners to think about a long-term relationship.
J.T.: What ideas do you have for increasing the stock of affordable housing in Portland?
JW: The 30 percent set-aside for affordable housing, it’s an arbitrary number. Say you live in a community where 70 percent of your people need affordable housing, and 20 percent need homeless accommodations, and you’re saying, well, I have a 30 percent set-aside. There’s no way that’s going to meet the needs of the people in your community. We’re going to have to revisit the 30 percent set-aside.
J.T.: Do you have ideas for sustaining revenue for housing and social services?
J.W.: Other than raising the tax bases because we’re getting people more jobs. I think when you’re talking about increasing revenue it’s forming partnerships, and I think for government that means letting go of the control a little bit and working more closely with faith-based organizations. It’s about utilizing partners we haven’t utilized yet, finding other nonprofits and really focusing on the faith-based ones. The city would have to cross that line of what they see as a separation of church and state.
J.T.: Public transportation is getting more expensive. The free zone downtown is getting chipped away and is threatened with elimination. Do you have any thoughts on how to preserve the Free Rail Zone?
J.W.: I think we just need to do it. I also support the Bus Riders Unite! with OPAL, which has taken the lead on getting transfers elongated so people can pay one amount for their trip and get back home. I think that possibly TriMet might be pricing itself out. Every time there’s an increase, you’re preventing the opportunity for people to pay. I don’t think it’s working for them. Who’s getting the $175 tickets on the MAX? People who can’t afford the two dollars. You’re making these investments in cursing your community rather than blessing it. I don’t have the answer, but it has to be different from what we’re currently doing.
J.T.: The video on your campaign website, which is very candid and harrowing, said your pimp was a gang member. I’d like to get your thoughts on Portland’s gang problem.
J.W.: My first husband was really violent, and when I left him and came out to Portland I was missing teeth, I had zero self-esteem. I was looking for work, and a girl who I met lived with me, and she was trying to stay sober. She had a crack addiction, and she let her brother move in, and he forced me into working 82nd. He and about 10 other gang members raped me, and I was officially a gang member, and forced me to walk 82nd every night.
When I sit at the government level, and I listen to people talk about gangs, I think we’re getting to a deeper level, but I still don’t think that we’re responding to the reasons of why these kids are becoming gang members in the first place. Their basic needs aren’t being met, their spiritual needs aren’t being met, their family needs aren’t being met. Like anybody, you go to where you feel there is a place where you belong. Even if it’s not healthy. Even if it’s dysfunctional.
Many have grown up watching a ton of violence and sexual violence on TV and think the world is this way. And how am I going to get ahead? I’m going to gang up with other people so we have some sort of power in this world that’s gone crazy for self protection. And then you glamorize it in the media.
One thing is, if you have a City Council that does not look like you, where is your hope? If you have people making decisions about your life in a forced way who don’t look like you, if you don’t have anybody who’s never had your experience, but is making decisions about your life, where is your hope? That’s why you get into gangs.
I kept my kids out of gangs. I have three in their 20s. That doesn’t mean they weren’t touched by a gang; that doesn’t mean they don’t know gang members. They look at gang life much differently than society.
Have we created a society of children that is so numb that killing someone is like putting gum in your mouth? Historically, minority communities have grown up with so little opportunity that the hope is gone. Sam’s mind is not on that; Saltzman’s mind is not on that.