Interview: City Councilor Ed Junkins Talks Values & Race

Corvallis City Councilor Ed Junkins is at the nexus of some of today’s biggest issues as a physician, educator and  parent. Having devoted decades to community service through his practice in pediatric emergency medicine and service on the Corvallis School Board, Junkins became a member of the Corvallis City Council in Jan. 2019 and will serve until Dec. 2020.  

Familiar with Corvallis through his wife Elisabeth Guenther’s family, Junkins and his family moved here eight years ago when he became faculty at Western University College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific-Northwest.  

Corvallis City Council Anti-Bias Initiative  

Junkins says he is proud that in June the Corvallis City Council unanimously approved the Bias Response Initiative led by members of the local NAACP. He hopes this initiative will be a mechanism to start collecting more concrete information about incidents of bias in order to find solutions.   

“We can act on evidence. We have to have an idea of what the problems are,” Junkins says. 

 Junkins personally experienced an incident in 2019 that caused him to fear for his life.   

“This was shortly after I was elected [to the Corvallis City Council]. And I was alone early one morning,” he says. “I was jogging out to some of the outskirts of the city.” He was jogging on Ponderosa, which at the time had no sidewalk or bike lane, but “a very little gravel shoulder that then drops off to both sides.  

“On that morning,” Junkins continues, I was jogging along and I saw a white pickup truck literally gun it’s engine and pull onto the shoulder of the road and come straight at me. I stopped like I usually stop and am looking at him and I can see him looking at me. I jumped into a blackberry bush to avoid getting killed by this guy! I no longer jog alone. I jog with my younger boy riding his bike with me so that we’re never out there alone.”  

He ruminates over the story: “I’ve told that story out loud. And, you know, people just simply can’t believe that that would happen. When I tell this to somebody of color, nobody has a hard time believing that happened and nobody has a hard time believing why it happened either. Every one of my friends of color who live in Corvallis or who live in Albany have similar stories. So, yes, I believe that there is bias and there’s hate in our community. We’ve seen episodes of it.”   

Challenging Bias with a Growth Mindset  

As an educator, Junkins offers strategies to medical students to uncover their own biases and start working past them. He sees his position on the city council as a means to offer those strategies to now help other people.   

Describing a hypothetical conversation with a student, he says, “Are you expecting to learn biochemistry?   

“[The student replies] ‘Oh, yeah, I know I need to get better at biochemistry.”   

Junkins explains that he may then ask, “Are you expecting to need to grow in cultural competence and diversity? And then there’s a little bit of a pause because people aren’t really sure where they are expected to grow.”   

He encourages students to approach challenging bias with a growth mindset – recognizing there is a need for growth and improvement.   

Junkins recommends a tool many of his students use to raise their own awareness of areas of bias and favoritism, the free Project Implicit tests through Harvard University’s website. Project Implicit is a research collaboration among academic researchers who study topics like implicit bias, diversity, and inclusion. They’ve created a series of tests intended to raise awareness of areas of bias and preference the test taker might not be aware they have.   

He says it’s important to recognize that everyone experiences tragedy and loss, and many people experience discrimination based on their race, cultural background, gender, religion, gender identity or class. Junkins explains that this process also helps with conversations about how “Black Lives Matter” differs from “all lives matter.”   

The Importance of Black Lives Matter  

As a person of color and a father to five sons, Junkins knows firsthand the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. He recalled a frightening experience he had when he was a medical resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore during the early 1990s.   

“I was surrounded by six white cops at dusk, under an overpass. I was pulled out of my car, and I was never told what I did wrong,” he recalls. “I thought ‘this is where I die’… And, to this day, I can still hear what I heard then and smell what I smelled then. Especially when I’m laying asleep at night. The Black Lives Matter Movement is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades.” 

 He says the house fire metaphor can be helpful when talking with well-meaning people who don’t understand why specifically Black lives do matter.   

“So, the metaphor is if your house was on fire and you called 911. The fire engine came into your subdivision and everybody else around your burning house said ‘no, wait a minute, our houses matter, too. Put water on our houses so they don’t catch on fire,’” Junkins says. “What would you say? ‘Yeah, my house is the one that’s on fire. My house is the one that matters right now.’”  

“The Black Lives Matter movement is pointing to the elephant in the room and saying, this is what we’re talking about,” he says.  

Junkins is fearful for his boys – he’s afraid they could be swept up and pulled over by a police officer. While he has faith in local law enforcement, some of his kids live in Portland, New York and Los Angeles, where racial tension over treatment by authorities is peaking.  

You know, you try to raise them to be polite, but sometimes it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says. “It’s how you look. I’m also afraid for other boys of color.”  

COVID-19 & Learning from Historic Pandemics   

When he first ran for the Corvallis School Board, Junkins did so in part because he wanted to help promote wellness within the schools alongside academic excellence.   

In addition to his Doctor of Medicine from Johns Hopkins University, Junkins has a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Utah School of Medicine, where he studied epidemiology of outbreaks and diseases. In addition, he overseas that curriculum at the medical school    

“We can learn a lot from the pandemics of the past,” Junkins says. “That is the stuff that’s been recommended across the country, if not across the world. I believe in social distancing; I believe in flattening the curve.”  

Junkins believes in working towards control of the coronavirus, whether through treatment or prevention measures such as vaccines. He says that instead he expects that humans will need to learn how to coexist with the COVID-19 virus.  

“I don’t believe COVID-19 is going to go away,” he says. I see us being more careful about how we interact … we will emerge from this with a better sense for our impact on each other.”  

Promoting Health, Wellness & Education  

As a physician, Junkins is interested in promoting health and wellness in the community.   

“I was on the school board in Utah before I came here,” he says. “To me, education is the great equalizer. If we could get people educated, that opens up a lot of doors.”  

 Junkins has high expectations for public schools and was impressed with the superintendent and many of the local educators, as well as fellow school board members. His primary goals in being part of the school board were to help the school improve on promoting equity and wellness – his main concerns being access to physical and mental health services and resources in the schools and community  

“I see us making strides in academic performance and the graduation rates of vulnerable populations of students, students of color, students who are from poor families and those from traditionally underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. I worry about the overall wellness of our students – literally how healthy they are. Because you can’t learn if you’re not well either mentally or physically.”  

The Road to the Corvallis City Council  

Junkins says he was approached to run for the Corvallis City Council to fill a vacancy left when Mark Page left. After his election, he served on both the school board and city council, and found he was spread too thin.  

“So regrettably,” he says, “I left the school board for the City Council. I knew that the school board was in good hands.”  

Junkins finds affordable housing is another big challenge facing Corvallis.   

“The housing issue is central to community wellness and to access and equity,” he says. “It affects sustainability. It affects livability. It affects the city’s ability to expand its services or to sustain those services. I choose to look at everything through the lens of wellness.”  

Family Hobbies & Community Service  

Junkins says that in his spare time he shares a few hobbies with his family. Music and running are two hobbies that Junkins has enjoyed throughout his life. He has sung in several choirs including the choir at St. Mary Catholic Church in Corvallis.   

Making music is a family hobby. “We have a piano and a drum kit in our living room,” Junkins says, as well as a bass and a guitar. So, all of our boys play some different instruments and my wife plays piano. When our family is home together, we all get on an instrument and usually I’m kicked to the drums or vocals.”   

Public service and volunteer work are also family hobbies. Junkins is a member of the Corvallis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other organizations. His wife does volunteer work in the schools, and his sons are each involved with community service in different ways. Both as a member and as a public servant, he appreciates the work of local NAACP leadership like Angel Harris and Jason J. Dorsette.    

“These are wonderful people across the spectrum. I mean, not only people of color, but it’s white people, and it’s LGBT+, and the immigrant community,” Junkins says. “It’s a community of people who are very comfortable having conversations that are difficult.”  

By Samantha Sied