A Choir of Many Parts
Local NAACP President Talks Racism, Advocacy, and Life in a Brown Body
Locally, Harris says much has changed since 2016. For instance, the experience for children of color in Corvallis schools has deteriorated, and there has also been a remarkable uptick in local chapter membership and event attendance. Under Harris’ leadership, the local chapter of the NAACP has teamed with other advocacy groups, and together, they are seeking to have the City hire a new response person focused on what has become an increasing number of racially motivated incidents.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
A: I’ve been a part of the Corvallis community for 24 years. I originally came here from Portland as a freshman student at Oregon State University, where I met my husband in ‘96. He is a financial advisor in the area, and we have three kids. I’m a registered nurse.
I’ve been really involved in the community, because I like to figure out how to make things better. And that has gotten me involved in things that I maybe wouldn’t have chosen – but I just really want to see things improve. Sometimes, that means people see me when I’d rather be doing work behind the scenes, but sometimes you get pushed to the front and it’s not always a bad thing. Since I can remember, I’ve seen things that aren’t okay, and I want to figure out how I can help to make it better.
To sum it up, I really want to serve the community that I’m in – to be a contributor.
Q: How did you get started with the NAACP?
A: In 2014, my husband was at an event at Avery Park, where he met the NAACP president at that time, Barry Gierkins, who invited him to be the treasurer. We went to a meeting as a family, and my husband ended up joining — which meant I joined too.
That meeting was what I needed at the time, because about a year or two before, Trayvon Martin was murdered. That was my biggest wake-up call into systemic racism. I kind of mourned for about two years, and then that meeting happened — serendipity if you will — and it gave me an outlet. I had done things in the past, like in ‘96 when we boycotted the University, but I didn’t understand quite fully how many layers there were to racism and how we treat each other based on the color of our skin.
The NAACP came at the perfect time, when I could start talking about it and figuring out how I could be useful. Ever since, I feel like I have really grown, and have been empowered to mobilize the community, and to give me a positive thing to do, instead of just crying and being sad and depressed about it.
Q: How did you become president of the local chapter?
A: I was the community coordination committee chair, and that was nice and safe for me — because then I could just say, “go talk to the president,” if anything serious happened. But there comes a time in your life when you realize that you’re seeing things that other people aren’t for a reason. Instead of just continuing to say “why don’t we do this, why don’t we do that,” what if you’re the one who’s supposed to do it?
Elections happen every two years, and instead of cowering away, this time I said, “It’s time to step up, instead of just being scared and making someone else do it.”
I don’t take it lightly. I think it’s a great responsibility.
Q: How has the membership of the NAACP changed?
A: In the year I joined, we would have maybe ten people show up to our membership meeting, and maybe half of those people would be from the board. It would be pretty small, but it was also a rebuilding time. As far as demographics go, we’ve been in this area since the 1970’s, so we had quite a few older people. Then there was this switch that happened, probably around 2016 or so, when we were wondering if we needed to find a bigger venue. I think what happened was that our events were being noticed more in the community, especially the conversations about living the black experience. By 2017, we would have around 50 people in the room, and on the membership roster, upwards of 180.
I always say, “If you do what you’re supposed to do, they will come. They will not only come, they will give, and they will be motivated.” And when they don’t see you doing the work, they’re definitely not going to want to sit in a meeting.
We want everyone at the table, but we want to make sure that we’re supporting our communities of color, because those are the people who are being marginalized, and we don’t want our meetings to be another place where they are still marginalized. There’s room for everybody, and if we have to get a bigger venue, we will do that.
Q: How has the climate in the community changed?
A: I think the climate in our community, particularly in our schools, is representative of the climate in our nation. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the schools — not just in Corvallis, but across districts, in Philomath, Albany and Lebanon.
There’s a lot of hate speech, a lot of name calling, racial slurs, and that’s just in our schools. And I notice that because my son, as a kindergartener, has experienced things that my kids who are four or five years older than him never did. He became a kindergartener in 2016, and there’s definitely a difference in the conversations we had together. One kid was chanting “build a wall” at a school here in Corvallis.
Racism was always here, we’ve always felt it. But now, we experience it in a way where it is no longer hidden. It’s more open, more explicit. And people aren’t even apologetic about it, people aren’t shameful about it. That’s pretty disturbing, because that lets me know that they think it’s okay, that it’s accepted, and no one’s going to challenge them on it.
So as far as the climate changing, I think everyone’s feeling it, even if they say they don’t, because we’re seeing it all over. These are not just random things – these are dealing with our kids. Our kids are being impacted by these systems of racism. If that doesn’t encourage anyone to want to change it, I don’t know what will. I have first graders and second graders who are telling me all these horror stories. So now, no one can tell me that it’s only happening in the South or it’s only happening in the East. It’s happening in our own city, and area, and state.
Q: How is the NAACP confronting implicit bias in the community?
A: The first thing you have to do is talk about it, because you’re exposing that implicit bias is a thing. How toxic it can be, how damaging and harmful it can be.
I think people are more open to talking about implicit bias, because it affects everyone. It’s when you single people out that they start to shut down. When we all realize that we all have implicit biases, that’s when the conversation gets juicy, because people get really engaged.
With those conversations comes action. For the NAACP, we get to shed light on things. We ask, “how can we partner with you to help this situation?” But it is not our job to fix it. I feel that it has been put on people of color to fix the problem. We want to be a part of the solution, but everyone has to do the work.
Q: What local efforts are the NAACP leading?
A: There is a bias response initiative that is happening right now. We’re working with the King Legacy Advisory Board, the NAACP, the Corvallis Friends Meeting, and we’re trying to get other organizations on board. What we’re trying to do is petition the city to have a bias response person. With the passing of the Hate Crime Bill, they’re hiring one for the state, but what about in our cities? I can’t just be calling the state every time something happens.
Hopefully, with the things that have been happening in the community that shine light on the fact that racism is real, that will motivate people to say, “we really need someone who’s working on this full-time.” We’ve been talking to the city for at least five years, but it’s always kind of been the runaround. Now, we’re making sure that it’s not a runaround anymore – we want it to be considered. We want it to happen.
Another thing that we’re working on that’s fairly new is helping get people of color elected. In our city, when you’re talking about elected officials, it’s very homogenous. It’s not just how to get people of color in those positions, it’s how to keep them in those positions — meaning we’re not tokenizing people. There’s so many people who would be great for public office — they just never had the opportunity. We want to see that in our community more, and we don’t want it to be the same people over and over again. There are other people who would also be good out there; we just haven’t identified them, because we always have our favorites. And that’s not fair.
Q: What would you say is the biggest red alert priority going on in the country now?
A: I think people would like to be able to put things in boxes like “this is a priority,” but it’s hard because we’re people, and we can deal with different things. What is a red alert for me might not be one for other people. And all of it is important. Like, if we don’t deal with the climate, I’m not here either way.
Here’s how I like to think of it: we are a choir, and we each have our parts. Just like you have the altos, the sopranos, the tenors, and the bass, you’ve got different organizations doing all these different things. We’re making this beautiful music because we’re working together. When the tenor tries to sing first soprano, it doesn’t really work as well. Sometimes we’re singing in unison, because something happens, and all hands need to be on deck for it. Other times, we grow apart, but it’s all one choir so we’re all together. So long as I know my part, it’s beautiful.
So when you talk about red alerts, for me all these organizations are working on vital parts. Sometimes, we line up and we come together, but if we all did all the things, none of them would get done. We can work together, and we do work together, to make it better for everyone. If you’re in Eugene, Salem, or elsewhere, there’s an organization — it may not be the NAACP, but there’s an organization that we’re going to find for you. That’s our choir.
Q: What would you say is the takeaway from the Genesis Hansen incident?
A: For some people who don’t experience life in a brown body, the Genesis case was about a number of things. But when you experience life in this body, it’s just one of many incidents. I was at a conference when it happened, watching a six minute video of a black woman getting beat and murdered. I went to my hotel room because I needed a break after watching that, to hear about the death of Atatiana Jefferson that same day. And then the next day, Genesis. So for us, in this body, that’s not a new story, that’s life. It’s super sad.
I think Genesis showed me that even when we know our rights, it’s dangerous for us. My white friends who know their rights, they get to walk away, as if everything’s okay. So can we really know our rights? When we saw Genesis, we were just happy that she was okay. The unfortunate thing is this is why we have to tell our kids, “just do whatever you have to do, even though it’s not fair.”
I just hope that each of these events will shine a light on the truth, so that people can get off of the couch.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: First of all, I have hope because I feel like I’m called to do this. I’m a Christian, and I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. What has given me hope the most is the fact that I see progress happening. I think my fear was that we as a people who are fighting racism and fighting just to live would give up. And so to see every day that people are pressing on — even in the midst of being abused — that gives me so much hope, because I know that as long as we don’t give up, it’s going to happen. Things are going to change, they are changing, and I can say that because it’s different than it was last year, two years ago, and three years ago.
For more information on the Corvallis/Albany NAACP and the Bias Response Initiative, check out their website, https://www.
By Brandon Urey