Jason J. Dorsette takes the lead at the NAACP Corvallis/Albany branch as racial equality and equity are once again in the national spotlight, dominating this past year’s discussions after the widely publicized deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement.
Dorsette originally hails from High Point, North Carolina, which is notably the furniture capital of America, if not the world. He relocated to Corvallis in 2014 for a job at Oregon State University, where he currently works in the Educational Opportunities Program, which academically supports traditionally underserved groups such as students of color and those with marginalized identities. He’s also pursuing a PhD from the educational policy and equity program, looking at the ways racial identity impacts the perception of the environment.
Coming to OSU from the south was partly an opportunity for Dorsette to achieve his goal of seeing all 50 states. He’s up to 46 states now, but Oregon isn’t letting him go so easy. What he intended as a brief visit for a job interview turned into something more. When he got back to North Carolina, he couldn’t shake thinking about Oregon, so after praying and meditating on it, Dorsette quit his job and moved nearly 3,000 miles for a new adventure.
“I fell in love with the people, the faculty and staff and students on the campus of Oregon State University,” Dorsette said.
Dorsette’s Educational Background
Education is fundamental to Dorsette, who attended North Carolina Central University, a historically Black university in Durham, North Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in middle grade education and history that led to a stint as a seventh-grade social studies teacher. He moved to Washington D.C. to teach and work in a Department of Education program supporting students of color in the area.
“While I was living in D.C., I realized I really love politics,” he said. “I really love the hustle and bustle of the government of a big city.”
When an opportunity arose to get a master’s degree in public policy administration, Dorsette jumped at the chance. From there, he developed and grew a successful and ongoing males of color mentoring program for college campuses, called the Centennial Scholars program. He said the program has been shown to improve retention and graduation rates for men of color.
A bit of trouble aside (what can you expect when a bunch of guys are living together), that program allowed Dorsette to tap into a primary interest of his – working with Black men. As a Black man himself, raised by a single mother, he knows firsthand how difficult it can be to navigate spaces in society.
Dorsette and the NAACP
When he was interviewing at OSU, Dorsette met Barry Jerkins, who was president of the local NAACP branch at the time. They hit it off immediately – Jerkins is from Alabama so they shared stories about living in the south and adjusting to the Pacific Northwest. An older man, Dorsette looked to Jerkins as an “uncle” figure, a role model. Plus, he was really the only Black person Dorsette had gotten to know here.
Finding out Jerkins was involved with the NAACP tightened the bond. Dorsette grew up in a family that was invested in social justice, civil rights, and civic organizations, so he was essentially birthed into the movement. Surprised to learn there was even a branch in Corvallis, Dorsette came to check it out. There was some immediate confusion – almost everyone was white.
“I remember calling my grandma and saying ‘Granny, I went to this NAACP meeting and the president was Black, and of course I was there, I was Black, but everyone else was white,’” he said. “And she said ‘Oh my, what in the world?’”
But Dorsette stuck with it out of fondness for Jerkins, and it wasn’t long before he was fond of the branch members as well, impressed that they were so actively involved in working to end racial inequities. He became immersed with them, joining committees and working on projects, giving presentations and hosting discussions, eventually rising to vice president in the organization.
When Angel Harris chose not to run for re-election, she came to Dorsette asking if he was interested. It seemed daunting at first, particularly when reflecting on her leadership and accomplishments, but Dorsette gave it some thought and decided to gamble on it – to see what he could do on behalf of racial identity, as well as for humanity itself.
“The NAACP is important because humanity is important,” he said. “When we think about race and racial identity, or humanity in general, we have to recognize that people are all coming from different walks of life, and we are made up of various different experiences that shape how we view the world.”
Getting involved with the NAACP is about more than the shared experiences of people of color, Dorsette said. It’s also about learning opportunities for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of cultural differences, racial identity development, and the importance of both. More people appear to see the benefit in recent years, as Dorsette noted a swelling in membership from a few dozen to several hundred. The monthly Zoom meetings easily top 250 people, he said.
“There is a level of engagement like never before,” Dorsette said, adding that much of the uptick in involvement is directly tied to the deaths of Floyd and Taylor among others, magnified by the inescapable reality of the coronavirus pandemic, which has left us with nothing better to do than self-examination of the nation’s ills and our own. The lack of leadership in the White House and Congress further added to people seeking answers from organizations such as the NAACP.
The organization makes a difference locally, advocating for initiatives such as the creation of the first bias/hate response program approved by the Corvallis City Council this past year, which includes a full-time project manager to address bias and hate concerns. Tremendous strides have been made in partnering with the local K-12 school system, bringing racial justice discussions to the classroom and breaking up the traditional curriculum that is dominated by white cultural and historical achievements by introducing people of color as important figures.
Racism in Oregon
That work couldn’t be more important in Oregon, where many of us grow up never realizing the racist history of the state, which was founded as a white separatist utopia with laws excluding people of color. That legacy is responsible for the lack of diversity in Oregon today. Dorsette, despite being a student of history, was also blissfully unaware of Oregon’s terrible secret past until one day he got a raw, nasty dose of it.
“I certainly experienced a lot of racism in the south, but it felt different,” Dorsette said.
On his first day of work at OSU, he was walking to campus when he encountered a white woman in maybe her 70s or 80s. He was headed into a coffee shop, and as a classic southern gentleman, he held the door for the lady to enter first, saying, “Here you go, ma’am.”
The woman looked at him, pointed, and hurled a racial slur. He responded, “Excuse me?” She doubled down, despite the massive size difference between the two, firing off the expletive a second time and pointing again, stating: “You’re not supposed to be here, and you’re not supposed to dress like that.” Dorsette was wearing a suit; loves to dress well.
He started putting it together in his head. He’d been in town for three days and hadn’t seen a single Black person. His first experience with another person was the coffee shop racist. Out of curiosity, Dorsette hit Google for the diversity demographics of Oregon and found that shockingly low number — less than 2% of Oregonians are Black. From there, he clicked a link to the Oregon Black Pioneers page, and a video there laid out the history of Oregon for him.
“And I said wow,” Dorsette said. “What have I gotten myself into?”
Since then, Dorsette has been able to recruit and hire people of color at OSU, but retaining them is a struggle. He chalks that up to the racist history of the state, but also the cultural environment, which is largely absent of Black churches, restaurants, barbershops – the little things that add up to a sense of place, good or bad.
Meeting People Where They Are
Dorsette is a glass-half-full kind of guy, so he’s looking to the positive side on race relations in America. He has a feeling that awareness is growing, bringing with it boldness and courage out of individuals, and sparking tough conversations about where we go from here.
“I’m all about calling people into a conversation, versus trying to call people out,” he said. That means meeting people where they are, and being open to everyone’s perspectives and experiences. It’s a little easier with the intellectual capacity of a college town like Corvallis, because education makes a great vehicle for open discussions and critical thinking.
Going forward, Dorsette plans a handful of new initiatives along with carrying out ongoing work. He wants to promote environmental climate justice programs and activities and show how communities of color are disproportionately suffering from climate change. He’ll work to advance the partnership with local and regional organizations and government institutions, including the City Hall and Corvallis Police Department as well as OSU.
Developing a strong support system for the area’s homeless population is on the agenda, as are overall housing conditions in Corvallis. Building a stronger relationship with the LGBTQ community is another key goal, especially because there are many identity intersections between that community and people of color. And he’s looking at economic opportunities to aid the Black, Indigenous, People of Color community, hoping for collaboration between city and county governments and business owners of color.
“Lastly, I’m all about learning; I love to facilitate and lead learning opportunities for everybody to come and learn about social justice, social change, and the history of Oregon,” Dorsette said.
By Cody Mann