25 Aug BIPOC Celebration Mural (Part 3 of 3): People in the mural
Who is portrayed in the mural?
Learn about each person.
New Public Art on Mountain Avenue.
BIPOC = Black, Indigenous & People of Color.
Artist: Isa Martinez Moore.
Ashland Public Art series.
The BIPOC Celebration Mural is a bold statement, located on a wall of Ashland High School but meant for the entire Ashland community. This is Part 3 of three articles. I will share a little of what I have learned about the meaning of the mural and the people portrayed in the mural.
“This mural is a reminder, a gathering place, and a promise.”Simone Starbird at the mural dedication
Truth to Power club reaches out
The Truth to Power club chose the seven people to be portrayed in the mural, along with a memorial portrait of Aidan Ellison. Each of the seven has an Ashland connection.
The Truth to Power club sees the mural as an important part of their long-term goal to educate people who live in and visit Ashland about the need to reduce racism and increase tolerance both locally and nationally.
As club member Zia Brandstetter put it, “Our mural location is in between the high school and the rest of the community, so we want to reach both. It’s important to us that we have these people recognized. It’s important to us that in a very white community, both in the high school and in the entire Ashland community, that we pay attention to and honor these people who have created such big change in communities that are hostile to them or communities that don’t represent them.”
Truth to Power co-founder Anya Moore added another aspect: “We want to get plaques to put next to all the mural portraits that explain who the person is and what they are doing, so that when people walk by there is a teaching experience every time.” I asked how much information might be on each plaque, and Zia replied, “We want enough so that it creates intrigue, so people think, ‘I want to learn more about this person.’ The plaque might say basic information like what these people do, what organization they’re involved in, what do they contribute.”
My goal with this photo essay is to be part of that “teaching experience.” Though this is the longest photo essay I have written, I think you will find it stimulating and educational. Here is an introduction to the life and work of each person portrayed in the mural, going from left to right.
“Winona LaDuke (Mississippi Band of Anishinaabe Indians) is an internationally respected Native American environmental leader, author, politician, and economist. She is best known for her work in the contemporary Indigenous environmental movement, which is rooted in traditional knowledge, values, and practices.”From the Oregon Encyclopedia entry by Mary Jane Cedar-Face
I interviewed Winona LaDuke
Regarding her portrait in the mural, Winona said: “I am happy to be in it. I’m considered a public figure, so people put my face on murals in a lot of places. I am happy to be part of this mural project, because I was a student of color at Ashland High School in the 1970s.”
I had an opportunity to interview Winona during May 2022. I asked about her activism for the environment and for Native Americans. Her response surprised me, but made sense the more I thought about it. “First of all, I don’t consider myself an ‘activist.’ I consider myself a responsible person. I mean, if wanting clean water makes you an activist, that makes no sense. There is a human right to clean water. Wanting that is being a responsible member of society.”
Winona’s mother is long-time Ashland artist Betty LaDuke. Her father was Native American activist and spiritual leader Vincent LaDuke (Anishinaabe), also known as Sun Bear. Born in 1959, Winona moved with her mother to Ashland in 1964, when her parents divorced and her mother became an art professor at Southern Oregon College (now SOU). She attended Ashland schools from kindergarten through high school. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “[Winona] LaDuke’s activism began at the age of ten at a peace rally in Medford that she attended with her mother.”
“John Tredway is the single most influential person in my academic career.”Winona LaDuke
As we talked on the phone, Winona described Ashland High School as “a very significant time in my life. John Tredway [Ashland High School speech and debate teacher] is the single most influential person in my academic career. I was definitely a disciple of John Tredway. I spent a lot of time on the debate team. He was very influential in developing my skills and my knowledge, and encouraging me. I owe a lot of my skills and foundational work to John Tredway. I won second place in the state in Lincoln-Douglas debate. The other influential person is Harry Detweiler. He ran the Special Ed program. He was a really kind and patient person as well.”
Winona may not like to call herself an “activist,” but her life is dedicated to working for better lives and environmental justice for Native Americans and for all of us. In 1982, she moved to the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. In 1985, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project. She co-founded Honor the Earth in 1993 with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls musical group. The Honor the Earth website [https://www.honorearth.org] is a good place to learn about her work. She is also widely known as the Green Party Vice Presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as their Presidential candidate.
When I asked how she would describe her current life and work, she replied: “I just spent about eight years fighting pipelines, and one we defeated and the second we didn’t. Not unlike the Jordan Cove pipeline [in Oregon]. Now I am continuing my work as a Water Protector and a farmer. I grow a lot of traditional corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and then I also grow hemp. I’m a fiber hemp grower.” She also encourages adoption of wind and solar power on Native lands as part of her work with the larger environmental movement.
“I’m a home girl from Ashland.”
As we concluded our conversation, Winona said that she still comes back to Ashland several times a year. Regarding the Ashland High School students who created the mural, she said, “That’s a great project they did and I appreciate being honored by the students in that way. It’s nice to be on the wall. I’m always going to feel like I’m a home girl from Ashland. Best of luck to the students.”
“Name a small town in Oregon. I have most likely been there, talking about race. For the past eight years, starting as part of Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project, I’ve stood in front of thousands of attendees in packed libraries, community centers, senior homes, college campuses, and prisons.”Walidah Imarisha, from her website
Walidah Imarisha is a dynamic Black professor, writer, speaker and community educator. She has spoken about Black history in Oregon more than 100 times all across the state, including in Ashland, Medford and Jacksonville.
She wrote on her website that she moved to Springfield, Oregon as a teen. She added, “I was lucky enough to hear Portland State University’s Darrell Millner lecture on Oregon Black history while I was still in high school. He changed the course of my life, influencing me to attend PSU’s Black Studies Department. And served as a mentor for my own historical work.”
I interviewed Walidah Imarisha
I had the pleasure of talking with Walidah on a Zoom video call March 9, 2022. I began by asking Walidah what she would like to say to people if she were here, standing by her portrait on the mural. She replied, “I would want to redirect people to the students’ purpose for the mural. It is a beautiful and powerful one, rooted not only in honoring their classmate, but also putting that in a larger context of work and struggle for justice. I hope that serves as an inspiration for everyone who sees it to honor those that we’ve lost and connect them with this larger work of changing this world for the better.”
I mentioned a photo I have seen of the Ku Klux Klan marching in Ashland’s 1922 4th of July parade, how shocking it is for us to see today. “That photo is one that folks have seen,” she said. “It’s an important one. But it’s also important to recognize the Klan’s power and influence ran so much deeper than just showing up in numbers at parades, or marching as they did in nearly every city in Oregon in that time period. Across the state, the 1921 – 1922 elections were pretty much swept by either Klan candidates or Klan supported candidates. That was also when we had a Klan governor voted in. They didn’t just have numbers. They had far-reaching power into the highest echelons of government. They used that power by embedding their ideology in different ways, as much as they could.”
How you can learn more from Walidah
In conclusion, I asked what her community outreach focus will be in coming years. She talked about the importance of history to our lives in the present day. “We can’t begin to understand this place where we live without understanding the living legacy of the experiences, the leadership, the vision, and the oppression of folks of color here.”
Then she described the many different ways she reaches and teaches people. “Most of the way my work has traveled is through video. The videos travel much further than the written pieces I have done. Though it’s not either/or; I think it’s a yes/and. Part of my work as a public scholar is how to bring this history and engage with as many folks as possible, outside of classrooms and academic settings where I teach.”
Following up, she suggested these two videos for me (and now you) to learn more about her educational focus. She is a dynamic speaker, so I would recommend them if you would like to learn more about the history of Black people in Oregon.
As mentioned above, Walidah has traveled around Oregon presenting a talk called, ‘Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History.’” She told me about a 15-minute video that summarizes her hour-long talk. It was a powerful eye-opener for me.
You can watch it at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTZlNEZ3NEw
If you want to learn more in depth, Walidah created a video of her Oregon Black History Timeline. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo2RVOunsZ8
Tehlor Kay Mejia
“I want [Mexican-American kids] to feel like they can be the hero of a story. I am thankful that I have received lots of positive fan reaction from kids who are not Mexican-American, who read the book and are shocked by how much they found in common with this character and how fun the story is. So I would say, if you’re part of this culture, I hope you feel at home. And if you’re not, I hope you find something you can relate to in this story and learn that there’s always something you can relate to in all people, and in all stories.”Tehlor Kay Mejia, from an interview
Raised in Ashland, Tehlor Kay Mejia is a first-generation Mexican American author who lives in Southern Oregon. Her website describes her as “a bestselling and award winning author of young adult and middle grade fiction.” I have not been able to speak with her, but I reviewed her website and found online interviews that give some insight into her writing.
Why she writes
Interviewed by Mimi Fong for the Disney Parks blog, Tehlor was asked how she first got started with writing. She answered: “When I was in second grade and I won a poetry contest, I started thinking, ‘Man, this is something I could really do….this is fun, writing is fun!’ People enjoyed my writing from such a young age, which was really motivating as a kid. I didn’t actually complete a novel until I was probably 30, so it’s been a long ascent, but I am proud of the journey.”
Tehlor writes for teens and young adults with an interesting mix of themes, including her Mexican American family background, same-sex friendship and romance, and speculative fiction. Many of the characters in her books are of Mexican heritage like her, and she says that she wants to make other Mexican American youth feel more represented in books.
She told Fong the middle grade Paola Santiago book series is “about a science-obsessed girl named Paola who is really skeptical of her mom’s superstitions and folktales. But when her best friend goes missing, all of the monsters straight from her mom’s stories begin appearing in her little Arizona town, and she has to admit to herself that the world is more than black and white.” This series must have struck a chord with young readers, because it is currently in development at Disney as a television show, to be produced by Eva Longoria!
“Representation” can be a matter of life and death
During the interview with Fong, Tehlor discussed “representation.” She described two aspects of representation. One is the importance of young people seeing people like themselves in the books they read. Equally important is learning through books we read that people who are different from us are real, complex people, not stereotypes. This is deep wisdom, addressing how we learn (or don’t learn) to respect and love ourselves and others. Tehlor also discusses how important it is for kids to see realistic people portrayed in stories, rather than heroes with no relatability, and how that can help their self esteem.
She said, “I read a lot as a kid and I loved books. I was lucky enough to sometimes see books with characters that looked like me, but they never reflected what my family felt like. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to critique books, so I used to think, ‘Oh, I guess books aren’t supposed to feel like home for people like me.'”
She elaborated on this thought. “Not to be dramatic, but I feel like representation can literally be life or death. When we don’t have representation, it is so much easier to dehumanize people who are different from us because we don’t see them as real, complex, nuanced people. For so long, we’ve been seeing these two-dimensional, stereotypical forms of representation for marginalized communities, if we see them at all. This actually makes it harder for people to believe in themselves, and for people outside those cultures to see them as uniquely human. This can lead to issues like crisis of confidence or inequality and can even lead to violence being perpetrated in those communities. On top of that, being able to see yourself as the hero of a story is an experience that every kid deserves.”
“I think the big similarity that’s through all of [my books] is the idea that you don’t have to be a particular kind of special or chosen person in order to be a hero.”Tehlor Kay Mejia, August 23, 2021 podcast.
In conclusion, I like this question and Tehlor’s response. Mimi Fong asked, “What advice would you give to young aspiring authors?” Tehlor replied, “I would give the same advice I would have given myself. But as far as writing advice goes, I think being an author is about being an observer of the world. Your unique perspective is going to be different than anyone else’s, so cultivate that! Observe the world and notice the things that only you see — those little details other people may miss. Those are the things that really make a story personal and help it come to life.”
Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Grandma Aggie)
“In her 95 remarkable years, Grandma Aggie demonstrated her reverence for all living things through music, teaching, environmental activism, and ultimately, serving as the spiritual elder of her Takelma tribe. She believed in the power of kindness and reciprocity, and she recognized the biological interconnectedness of all living things.Tish McFadden
Whether addressing a small child or speaking with the Dalai Lama, Grandma Aggie treated everyone she met with respect. She was adept in knowing how to listen to the needs of others – including wild rivers, salmon, and trees.”
Big picture perspective
Grandma Aggie had a true big picture perspective embracing all of life. She was an Indigenous spiritual leader descended from generations of Takelma tribal leaders. The Takelma had lived in the Rogue Valley, including the Ashland area, for thousands of years before American pioneers settled here in 1852. The Takelma, Shasta and other Southern Oregon tribes were rounded up by the U.S. military in 1856 and forced to leave their homelands. They were marched on foot more than 150 miles north to the Siletz and Grande Ronde reservations, allowed to bring only what they could carry.
Grandma Aggie’s many life experiences
Grandma Aggie was born in 1924 near the headwaters of the Siletz River in Oregon, and passed away in 2019. Her website described her early life in a big family. “Aggie grew up close to the Earth with her brothers and sisters, gathering greens, picking blackberries and apples, riding horses, fishing and gardening. ‘At first we were given four plants to take care of. When I was old enough to go to school, I was responsible for four rows.’ They had chickens, milk cows, sheep, longhorn cattle and horses, canned lots of fruit every fall, and there were plenty of eels in the creek, so they never went hungry.”
She talked about a very different aspect of her youth in her 2015 book. She wrote, “I remember how hard it was when I was a child growing up because in those times, in Lincoln County, there was signs on restaurants and different places where Indians and dogs weren’t allowed. And you know, I grew up from that era, but I am not bitter about it. What was is what was. I know I am limited. I can only change right now. I can’t change anything a minute ago, an hour ago, a week ago, or a year ago, so I know I am limited. So, what I did is I forgave all that in my background, of what happened to our people.”
The first decades of her adult life didn’t appear to be training for becoming a spiritual leader for her people and for people around the world. Here’s how her website described those years. “Over the next years she pursued a wide variety of careers, including hiking far into the woods to gather cascara bark and other wild plants, singing in a band, being a bouncer at a nightclub and a barber in a jail, driving a log truck and setting chokers for the logging of old-growth trees, racing stockcars, working as a scrub nurse at a hospital, and managing a restaurant. She also fished and hunted deer and elk.”
Becoming a local and worldwide teacher
Aggie described fighting a spiritual call for many years. In her mid-40s, she finally accepted the call from Creator and began her life as a Takelma spiritual elder. Among many impacts locally, she reestablished the Takelma tribe’s ancient spring Salmon Ceremony at Ti’lomikh Falls on the Rogue River, just upstream of Gold Hill. She taught indigenous life wisdom to thousands of people here in Ashland and Southern Oregon.
She ended up reaching people not only in Oregon, but literally all over the world as one of the founding members of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. Her website says that “her guiding vision was to be a ‘voice for the voiceless.'” The voiceless included the trees, the salmon and all of Mother Earth.
“The First Nations include not only the Takelma, Shasta, Tututni and other tribes, but also the Salmon Nation, the Bear Nation, the Tree Nations, and all the species of life in this region.”Grandma Aggie, in a quote from her book
Southern Oregon University honors
In her 50s, Grandma Aggie decided to study at Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University or SOU). She majored in Psychology with a minor in Native American Studies and graduated with a B.A. in 1985, at age 61. According to SOU News, “She is a co-founder of SOU’s Konoway Nika Tillicum Native American Youth Academy – an eight-day residential program for Native American middle school and high school students – and received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002.” Near the end of her life, in 2019, she received the SOU President’s Medal, the most prestigious award bestowed by SOU.
I wrote quite a bit about Grandma Aggie in my three-part series of articles about the Ashland public artwork called “We Are Here,” which honors Native Americans of the Rogue Valley. You can read the first article of that series here.
I was not able to interview Michelle Alexander, so I did internet research and read much of her powerful book. First, let me say that I can understand why her book, The New Jim Crow, has had such a large impact in the past twelve years. The book makes a strong case for her thesis that the prison system – and the War on Drugs in particular – have been set up since the 1980s to disenfranchise and limit the life prospects for millions of people, especially Black men. She describes the effect of this as similar to the effect of the “Jim Crow” laws in the South that “legally” kept Black Southerners segregated and nearly powerless after the Civil War.
According to Kiper, “The Jim Crow laws to which the title refers were originally state and local laws implemented after the end of the American Civil War, especially in the South. These laws created segregation in virtually all aspects of society, including public spaces such as schools, restrooms, and public transportation. As a result black people were treated as second-class citizens.”
Impact of the “War on Drugs”
The War on Drugs has caused great harm in Black communities nationwide, leading to new forms of “legal discrimination” against millions of people who are given felony convictions. Here are a few brief quotes from Michelle’s book that caused me to stop and read them two or three times, then shake my head with a combination of surprise and anger.
“People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” [page 99]
“Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” [page 98]
“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.” [page 98]
Since Alexander published her book in 2010, overall rates of drug arrests have gone down somewhat for all racial groups. What has not changed is that Blacks continue to be charged, sentenced and imprisoned much more frequently than whites for the same offenses.
Her early years
Michelle Alexander learned about racial discrimination at a young age due to her parents’ interracial marriage. Her mother Sandra was white, while her father John Alexander was black. In a 2011 interview, Michelle described her mother being disowned by her parents and being excommunicated by her family’s church because of that marriage.
Michelle’s connection with Ashland is that she and her sister Leslie completed their high school years at Ashland High School. Michelle went on to get a Bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University and her law degree at Stanford Law School. She was an advocate for racial justice from the very beginning of her legal career, with a belief that lawsuits would continue to dismantle “the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation,” as she wrote in her book.
Her legal work led her to question why so many Blacks, especially Black men, were in prison or sucked into the criminal justice system. She began to discover new ways that have been developed to “legally” keep Blacks, especially Black men, in a racial underclass in America. She traces the origins of “the new Jim Crow” to the War on Drugs, combined with sensational media coverage of crack cocaine use in Black ghettos beginning in the 1980s. It’s not just because “they” use a lot of drugs. As mentioned above, the proportion of whites and Blacks in the United States who use illegal drugs is about the same. The problems are in our criminal justice system.
Example from Florida
As one example, here are a few statistics from Florida that shocked me when I read them. It is important to know that in some states, people who have been convicted of a felony crime cannot vote even after serving their prison sentence. This is called being disenfranchised. In 2016, 10.4% of the Florida population was disenfranchised – that was more than 1.6 million people! But as per Michelle’s thesis, they were disproportionately Black. In 2016, 23.3% of Black adults could not vote because of felony convictions. And it was not just a matter of being unable to vote. People nationwide who have been convicted of a felony have difficulty getting a job, are ineligible for many professional licenses, are unable to serve on a jury in many states and may have difficulty getting loans and housing.
Back to Florida. In 2018, voters in Florida passed a law that would automatically restore voting rights to most convicted felons who had served their prison sentences. This would have made approximately 1.4 million more people eligible to vote in the 2020 election. However, the Republican controlled Florida legislature passed a bill in 2019 “that declared that felons must pay all outstanding fines, fees and restitutions before they are deemed to have ‘served their sentence’, and thus regaining their right to vote.” To me it looks like a racist law, though it was no doubt dressed up as “good for society.” Most felons who have served their time struggle to make ends meet once they are out of jail. Paying outstanding fines and fees would be out of the question for many. So as of 2020, “about 15% of the state’s African American population cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement, as compared to about 6% of the state’s White population.” [Quotes from The Sentencing Project, 2021]
Alexander’s new perspective
In her 2020 interview with David Remnick, Michelle described how her perspective is changing once again. “I’m working on a book that is very different from “The New Jim Crow.” It’s much more personal, and it’s about my journey going from a liberal civil-rights lawyer who was tinkering with the machine, and believed that we could somehow get to the Promised Land if we just filed the next best lawsuit, or met with the governor, or organize the right number of people for the next protest, to someone who now believes that much more revolutionary change is required, and it’s not simply a political revolution. A moral and spiritual revolution is also required of us now.”
I would agree that if we are to achieve “liberty and justice for all,” as we recite in the Pledge of Allegiance, we need to tap our spiritual depth as well as fighting for justice through legal and political avenues.
We all know that the safest communities are not the ones that have the most police, the most prisons, or the highest percentage of people on electronic monitors under constant surveillance and control. No, what creates safety in our communities are good schools, plentiful jobs, quality health care, and a thriving social fabric.Michelle Alexander, in her 2020 interview with David Remnick
I interviewed Gina DuQuenne
Speaking of her portrait on the BIPOC Celebration Mural, Gina laughed as she told me: “I have become quite the rock star for my grandchildren.”
“When I look at that mural, it’s an honor and it’s humbling to be on that mural, when I think about where I come from. I am the third generation removed from slavery. I think about my ancestors. I think about my great-grandma, who will always be my shero. When I think about the humble beginnings that I came from, the humility just wells up in my heart.”Gina DuQuenne, in my interview with her.
Life leads Gina to Ashland
Gina’s extended family moved from Texas to California in 1933, when her mother was only three years old, to escape what Gina described as “the racial violence and bigotry of the South.” She was raised in Los Angeles with a “work hard” ethic, and eventually owned her own event coordination business there.
In a 2021 Mail Tribune article, she wrote: “At one point, I visited Ashland and liked the small-town ambiance and knew I was ready to leave my life in the fast lane. I drove up to Ashland and toured the Ashland Springs Hotel and thought, ‘if I want to work for somebody else, I could see myself working in this environment.’ I called the general manager and requested an interview. Within days, I was hired. The general manager said, ‘You can go back to L.A., move here with your husband and start work immediately.’ ‘I don’t have a husband. I have a wife,’ I replied. Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Move up with your wife, congratulations.’ I was heartened by the full acceptance and being embraced by a prominent local business that I am a Black queer woman. That was 2007.”
The importance of story telling
Gina has strong feelings of both pride and humility in her daily life. She said, “One of the things that I feel very strongly in my life is that part of my purpose for being here is to be of service.” She was elected to the Ashland City Council in 2020. She is proud to have served on many nonprofit boards such as The Children Advocacy Center, Addiction Recovery Center, Ashland Rotary, and the Martin Luther King committee. Gina also founded the education and advocacy group Southern Oregon Pride.
Gina talked to me about the importance of storytelling in our lives, both the telling and the hearing of stories. Among the stories she told me, this memory from her childhood hit me especially hard. “I was three generations removed from slavery. I remember being a kid and my great-grandmother would slap our hands at Sunday dinner, saying ‘Get those cotton-pickin’ fingers off those biscuits.’ It didn’t dawn on me until I was much older, until I was a teen – ‘cotton-pickin’ fingers, cotton-pickin’ hands’ – that her fingers, her hands, really were cotton-picking. So were my grandmother’s.”
As I listened to Gina tell me this story, so many emotions and images flashed through my mind and heart. Sweetness. Strength. Pain. Photos of slaves, and later share croppers, leaning over in long rows of cotton plants in the Southern heat. How far we have come as a people, and yet how far we still have to go.
Circling back to a discussion of the mural, Gina talked about Aidan Ellison. “His life was taken away from him before it even started. People say, ‘This doesn’t happen in Ashland.’ Well, yes it does – and it did. Now what are we going to do about it? I don’t want this young man’s life to be here and gone and taken in vain. I applaud the Truth to Power club members who raised the money, and the artist, who is amazing. I applaud our youth, because our youth are our future. For the youth to take it upon themselves and put this together is pretty doggone amazing.”
Lawson Fusao Inada
Lawson Inada was a professor of English at Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University or SOU) from 1966 to 2002. A Japanese American poet, he served as Oregon’s poet laureate from 2006 to 2010. His son Miles Inada is currently a Professor of Art at SOU.
I interviewed Lawson Inada
I was able to interview Lawson in January 2022. He told me how different Ashland was when he moved here. “I came in to teach English and writing at Southern Oregon College, when we all used to wear neckties and suits. When I first moved here in 1966, this was a sleepy little burg, a working class town. There still used to be lumber mills in town. There was nothing so-called ‘hip’ about Ashland at that time. It had a J.C. Penney’s, a Sears, a Five & Dime downtown. There were no foreign cars in town. This was all 50s Americana.”
Then he described how the college and town started to change in the late 1960s and 1970s. “I came here as an English teacher and creative writing teacher, and I was trying to make it as an American poet. This was before the San Francisco State Third World student strike [note: the student strike was in 1968, and it led to the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies]. After the strike, there was a rise of ethnic and minority consciousness across the nation, so my role changed. I think I was the only minority or Person of Color on the faculty at that time. I think the only other Asian-American in town was Sam Wong, who owned the Dahlia Café on the Plaza.”
Influences on Lawson Inada’s poetry
Lawson said the college students who began to get interested in Asian religions and ethnic studies gravitated to him. As a result, when Dr. Sours became the new college President, he asked Lawson to set up a program that would encourage minority and ethnic enrollment. Lawson set up the program along with Professor Art Kreisman. Part of his job was to recruit students, including African American, Latino and Native American youth. One of the first classes was one in multi-cultural literature.
Lawson is a third generation Japanese American, born in Fresno, California in 1938. His grandparents founded the Fresno Fish Market. His father was a dentist. His mother had a teaching degree, but stayed home to raise children. Speaking of his mother, Lawson said, “She became a big influence on me. She would always see that I had books to read, which certainly developed my language fluency. She bought a lot of books of poetry for kids – for example, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Even when we went to the internment camps, she managed to buy books for me. That’s where I started school.”
The entire family was sent to internment camps in 1942, when Lawson was only four years old. They were locked up in camps first in Fresno, then Arkansas, then Colorado. Lawson has listed the internment camp experience and jazz music as two major influences on his poetry.
With new hope.
We build new lives.
Why complain when it rains?
This is what it means to be free.
This poem of Lawson’s is inscribed in a rock at the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland. The Plaza tells “the story of the hardships suffered by Japanese immigrants and the indignities imposed by the incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II.” [from the Oregon Encyclopedia]
Lawson has been active in educating Americans about this pain in our history through more than just his poetry. He edited a book anthology published in 2000: Only What We Carry: The Japanese Internment Experience. He also narrated two PBS documentaries: Children of the Camps and Conscience and Constitution.
“Inada’s poems show influences from his wartime incarceration in themes of identity, dislocation, and a longing for home. He has said of his work: ‘I try not to get bogged down in old wounds. I try to write from a plane of spiritual serenity. Understand, there is nothing wrong with anger. It’s got its place. You can make a career out of it. I know people who have. But in the end, where does it get you? Compassion and understanding are what I’ve chosen.'”Oregon Encyclopedia
“Many people are wanting to know more about Aidan Ellison and who he was in his short time on this Earth. What can be said about this teenager who was full of spirit? He was just getting started on his lifelong journey when he was taken from us. What you need to know is that this young man’s life was taken and nothing can justify that. Nothing he did, legitimizes the cold-blooded response of being shot in the chest.”Statement from Aidan Ellison’s family after his death
Truth to Power club member Anya Moore talked with me about the design of Aidan’s portrait. “Talking to Aidan’s mom was amazing. We were a little bit nervous going into it because we weren’t sure what her response would be. We wanted to ask her about her son and how she wanted him to be represented. She ended up being so receptive, so welcoming, bringing us into her home and talking about Aidan. We felt her supporting us, and we were able to have that moment of connection. As Isa was designing Aidan’s portrait, we were able to take some of her requests into account. She asked that he have the lion portrayed there as a shadow. We were able to work with her to have him portrayed in the way she wished to have him portrayed.”
A poem about Aidan Ellison
Aidan’s mother Andrea Wofford wrote this moving poem, which she shared with the Truth to Power club and for me to include in this photo essay. The theme of Aidan as lion carries through both the mural portrait and the poem.
Aidan loved to laugh, his smile had such a gleam
Another senseless black death,
he was only nineteen
He often was the center
to everyone he knew
and tried to be their mentor
no Black man to live up to
Pork chops and applesauce was his favorite dish
Whatever he had, was yours
he wasn’t selfish
His eyes engaging would put you in a trance
Only his music understood him
would express it when he danced, what else to do for fun?
Such a talented lyricist, always had a pun
So limber, so great at parkour
much rather have his freedom
His heart big as all outdoors
Surrounded by so many, yet always felt alone
Searching in this city
where his kind doesn’t belong
If you were the underdog,
Aidan was your protector
Irony of this, being a conscientious objector
Aidan was strong, courageous,
golden skin, and hair of a lion’s mane
Leo was his SunSign
True to himself was his
~Love my Pride,
I would like to conclude with club member Simone Starbird’s closing remarks at the mural dedication on November 23, 2021.
“In honor of Aidan Ellison’s life, we dedicate this mural to champions of justice for people and the planet throughout Oregon and the world. We celebrate the passion, resilience and creativity embodied by the mural’s subjects and the countless other Black, Indigenous and People of Color who shape our communities for the better. We affirm our commitment to anti-racism, both in words and actions. This mural is a reminder, a gathering place, and a promise.”
I encourage you to learn more about the people portrayed in the mural. Some resources are shown in the references below. Of course you can find much more on the internet or at the library.
To read Part 1 of my series about the BIPOC Celebration Mural, CLICK HERE.
To read Part 2 of my series about the BIPOC Celebration Mural, CLICK HERE.
References for the series of articles:
Alexander, Michelle. Her website is https://newjimcrow.com/about-the-author
Anon. Digital images at Minnesota State University, Mankato. https://aytch.mnsu.edu
Anon. “Native elder ‘Grandma Aggie’ recognized with SOU’s President’s Medal,” August 14, 2019, SOU News.
Anon. “Lawson Fusao Inada,” Poetry Foundation website. [accessed 11/15/2021]
Anon. “Isa Martinez Moore, Editor,” The Rogue News (AHS paper), November 16, 2021. [accessed 11/16/2021)
Brandman, Mariana. “Winona LaDuke.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/winona-laduke
Brandstetter, Zia and Moore, Anya. Truth to Power Club members. Interview, October 2021.
Carson, E. Ann. “Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables,” U.S. Department of Justice, December 2021. [accessed online 8/3/2022]
Cedar-Face, Mary Jane. “Winona LaDuke (1959-),” Oregon Encyclopedia. [accessed 11/17/2021]
Darrow, Allayana. “We are inheriting this world,” Medford Mail Tribune, August 21, 2021.
DuQuenne, Gina. Interview, January 2022.
DuQuenne, Gina. City Council member page, City of Ashland website.
DuQuenne, Gina. “Hello! Can I Help You?,” Medford Mail Tribune, April 5, 2021.
Ehrlich, April. “Oregon Town Grapples With Shooting Death of 19-Year-Old Aidan Ellison,” NPR.org, December 4, 2020.
Fong, Mimi. “Author Tehlor Kay Mejia Shares Why Representation in Literature Matters,” Disney Parks Blog, October 14, 2021.
Gunadi, Christian & Shi, Yuyan. “Cannabis decriminalization and racial disparity in arrests for cannabis possession,” Social Science & Medicine, Volume 293, January 2022.
Imarisha, Walidah. Interview March 2022.
Imarisha, Walidah. PDX Talks video, 15 minutes, describing her talks around Oregon called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History.” [accessed 4/2022]
Imarisha, Walidah. Her website is https://www.walidah.com/home-1
Imarisha, Walidah. “How Oregon’s Racist History Can Sharpen Our Sense of Justice Right Now,” Portland Monthly, March 2020. [accessed 2/17/2022]
Inada, Lawson Fusao. Interview, January 2022.
Kiper, Dmitry. “Michelle Alexander,” hwwilsoninprint.com website. https://www.hwwilsoninprint.com/pdf/cbioy16_samplepgs.pdf [accessed 11/15/2021]
LaDuke, Winona. Interview, May 2022.
LaDuke, Winona. Website about her work, https://www.honorearth.net/just-transition [accessed 5/2022]
Longshore, Jennifer. Interview, January 2022.
McFadden, Tish. “Taowhywee Agnes Baker Pilgrim,” uprivertomorning.com. [accessed 7/25/2022]
Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Her website is https://www.tehlorkaymejia.com.
Mejia, Tehlor Kay. “An Interview with Tehlor Kay Mejia,” The Half Blood Report, YouTube August 23, 2021.
Moore, Isa Martinez. Interview, September 2021.
Nellis, Ashley Ph.D. “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” The Sentencing Project website, October 13, 2021. [accessed 8/3/2022]
Peace House. “Sorrow at the Murder of Aidan Ellison,” Peace House website. [accessed 2/18/2022]
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker. Her website is https://agnesbakerpilgrim.org.
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.
Remnick, David. “Ten Years After ‘The New Jim Crow,'” The New Yorker, January 17, 2020. [accessed online 8/10/2022]
Sakamoto, Henry. “Japanese American Historical Plaza (Portland),” OregonEncyclopedia.org. [accessed 11/15/2021]
TRNN. “TRNN Town Hall: In Conversation with Michelle Alexander,” April 22, 2015, The Real News Network website. https://therealnews.com/townhall0422 [accessed 8/3/2022]
Vivrett, Tara (Truth to Power Club media liaison), and other Truth to Power Club members. Personal communication, October 2021 and other dates.
Wixon, Vincent. “Lawson Fusao Inada (1938-),” OregonEncyclopedia.org. [accessed 11/15/2021]