Native American activist in City Council race
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
Dedicated to the fight for justice and real change, one local Native American woman, after 17-years advocating for minorities in Portland, is on the May Primary ballot for a seat on the Portland City Council.
Jeri Williams, 51, has seen a plethora of problems unique to minority communities within the city in her employment with the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and as a native Oregonian and Klamath tribe member.
She has seen how the wheels of politics turn within the city.
The people in leadership actually chose what they are going to prioritize, she said. “We should be powerful leaders.”
Although Williams acknowledges that she could choose to keep her mouth shut and make really good pay and benefits, “That is not how I am made,” she said.
According to Williams the word ‘equity,’ is continually used when addressing the work that needs to be done within the city.
“But we keep talking about equity, and yet we have no equity on who gets elected to City Council, and who are the higher ups in the bureaus,” she said. “I believe we need to have people of color in office with good political analyses of race in order to shift that paradigm.”
Williams, a grandmother of eight, is excited to one day see a better future for minority youth in Portland.
“I was a welfare mom,” she said. “And I have dealt with the police and know what it is like to be pulled over when you are a brown skinned person in this city, because I mostly lived in northeast.”
She proudly pulls out a wallet size image of two smiling grandchildren. “I want them to have a future where they feel like they can do anything, and I don’t think they have that opportunity just yet,” she said.
“I worry about the future of my grandchildren and my children, and quite frankly I am not confident that anyone who is running right now knows the experience of what I, and other people of color, have gone through while living in the city of Portland.”
When Williams, who grew up with five siblings in Salem, first moved to Portland, she was a single mother with a history of domestic violence.
“I was trafficked in 1989 when I came here after I got away from an abusive ex-husband,” she said. “I got involved with drugs and gangs and that part of my life lasted about four years.”
Also periodically battling homelessness, her children were taken from her for a number of years by the state until she was able to get her act together.
She said, however, with the help of the community, she was able to turn her life around and carry her past experiences to make for a better life.
“I came from the streets and became an organizer,” she said. “I learned the power of organizing, working collaboratively and building collaborative partnerships like defeating the expansion of the I-5 freeway when no one said we could.”
According to Williams, some of the people who empowered her the most were individuals she didn’t initially think of as advocates.
Williams said she was recently looking at the campaign pins she made for her election contest, and the emotions of everything she has overcome came to her in full-force.
“I would never be running for office if someone didn’t step up and help me get straight, and do what I need to do to give back to my community,” she said.
Last week, while in the waiting room of a health care facility, Williams said she began to talk with a woman and her daughter in the clinic. “We were laughing and talking, and then she looked at me and asked, ‘Are you Klamath, did I see you on TV?’”
Following their talk of the elections, the woman said, ‘you might know my husband.’
“And I did,” said Williams. “He was the CPS worker when I got my children taken away,” she said. “While I didn’t appreciate him in 1993, he is responsible for me walking around with these pins (made for her campaign) today.”
“Sometimes when you look at people, you feel like they were part of a divine intervention for you, but you just didn’t feel it at that time,” she said.
Williams added there have been several members of both the Native American and African American community who have helped her become the strong woman she is today. “These people in this community watch over you, and they have watched me grow,” she said.
Today, Williams is a known advocate for communities of color and low income communities in the workplace. She has also been educating students on Environmental Justice issues for over 10 years through speaking engagements, conferences and teaching a senior capstone class at Portland State University for five years.
At the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, she manages Diversity Leadership Programs.
Williams said her current passion is on the cleanup of the Willamette River. “If you spent 50-years on that river as a factory polluting that river, then you should spend the next 50-years cleaning it up because it is our children’s legacy,” she said.
“We need to create green jobs off that river, clean up and restore that river with schools teeming with fish you can eat,” she said.
In Native American ways we plan for several generations, not just five years, she said.
Williams, who founded the organization Survivor to Survivor, also advocates for survivor’s rights, and the group helped in the creation of the new seven bed shelter for commercially sexually exploited children, as well as aided in the development of the last six human trafficking legislation over the last three years.
“For me as a woman in Portland, I don’t want to see women get the short end of the stick,” she said. “We have a lot of jobs for women that provide no workers compensation, no health insurance and no unemployment benefits, and that is treating women as second class citizens—many whom are young mothers and deserve much better.”
Knowing first-hand what it is like for a minority working single mother, Williams said she wants to see women be empowered in Portland and be able to be the head of the household and also make a living wage.
She said the barriers for many residents living in Portland need to be addressed through collective action.
“My little tag line for my campaign is ‘opening doors,’” she said, a message for people who have been historically underrepresented.
If you want government to be smaller, you actually have to make community larger, which requires an increase in meaningful community involvement, she said.
“But it is exciting,” said Williams. “To shift what you once believed was unshiftable.”
For more information on Jeri Williams, visit jeriforportland.com.