By a show of hands, it was the first time many in the audience had attended a Nature Night Speaker Series event, hosted by the Portland Audubon Society. The series’ usual attendees share a passion for the Audubon’s natural history programs, which does not traditionally feature a political leader. However, the inaugural event for 2019, titled “Harnessing the Power of Grassroots Organizing with Jo Ann Hardesty, Portland City Council,” was an opportunity to learn more about Portland’s newest commissioner who was sworn in with the new year. Commissioner Hardesty ran a historic campaign fueled by her record of public service and community organizing. Now for the first time, an African American woman serves on Portland City Council, and also for the first time, women make up the council’s majority.
Hardesty told the audience a bit about herself and how her background has formed her values. She described her childhood in Baltimore as one of 10 children “in a community where everybody was your mother.” This type of community is less common today, she lamented, but posed questions that she’s carried through her career: “How do you build community in a way that respects every individual no matter what their background is—no matter where they started in life—no matter what their socioeconomic status is? How do you actually make sure that we’re looking out for each other?”
She delved into her U.S. Navy assignment in the Philippines as one of the first women on a deployed ship, an experience that she said taught several lessons. She had a brief stint as a commercial real estate agent in the Bay Area. Hardesty recalled thinking, “Man, this is like the most boring job I have ever had in my entire life—and actually it was probably the second most boring job I’d had in my entire life. But what I also realized then, was that I could not work for money. I could not work for money. I needed money because I needed to eat, and I needed a place to live, but I couldn’t work just for money. I had to have a job that mattered. I had to do something that made me jump out of bed in the morning with excitement about what’s possible in this day.”
“I remember the day I moved to Portland, January 1st, 1990. It was a Sunday. At that time it was the biggest snowstorm that Portland had had in like 20-plus years. But I remember the very first page of the Oregonian because the story was about a white gentleman who was recovering in the hospital from coming to the aid of an African-American gentleman who was being harassed and abused on a public bus. And I read that on my first day, now I’m having my first cup of coffee in Portland, I’m sitting on the couch, reading the first Oregonian—when it was a newspaper, when it actually looked like a Sunday paper, right?—and I thought ‘Where did I move?’ right? Because everything that I had heard about Portland, before January 1st, 1990, was: It was progressive, it was inclusive, everybody could get along in Portland. That’s what I had heard, before I moved here. But that paper was like a stark reminder that maybe I hadn’t heard everything I needed to know about this city that I had just moved to. Maybe I just needed to do a little more education.”
Hardesty was the first director in development and marketing with Black United Fund of Oregon. She was thankful for the opportunity to travel around and see the state, get to know people and small nonprofits. One of the first boards she joined was the Environmental Justice Action Group, EJAG, which she felt was disconnected from the community at large. EJAG, she said, “didn’t really understand what environmental justice looked like, how to carry it out, and how to be inclusive of communities of colors as frontline communities who are suffering from many of the environmental issues that we were confronting.”
In the early 2000s, Hardesty found a group of people that understood the premise that environmental and social justice are interconnected and together they founded The Coalition for a Livable Future. At the coalition, Hardesty said strong environmentalists, racial, and social justice champions advocated for each other’s issues. “We were able to develop proposals and curriculum and educational opportunities that help elected leaders really learn that you can’t separate clean water from somebody’s ability to feed their children.”
For seven years, she was the Executive Director of Oregon Action. In 2000, the organization registered 56,000 voters, a feat that Hardesty said lent her credibility and attention when she went to legislature to advocate for an issue. Oregon Action, she said “worked with people who were on the downside of power, to teach them to advocate for their own best interest.” She recruited people from substance treatment programs and soup kitchens—people with felony convictions, who often don’t realize they can vote in Oregon—people, Hardesty said, that “didn’t think anybody would listen to them,” that “didn’t think that they had a voice in a political process.” But everyone on the “ragtag group of community organizers” shared certain values: a passion for Oregon and concern for their kids’ future and food stability.
In 2005, Oregon activists hit the streets to get support from over 10,000 people to help pass Oregon’s only public campaign-finance system, Portland’s Campaign Finance Fund, a voter-owned election program that used tax dollars to fund campaigns, “so that regular people could run and serve in public office,” said Hardesty. But, after three campaign cycles, the measure went back to voters. It was narrowly defeated in 2010; Hardesty said this is due to a counter-campaign well-funded by “the people who would prefer to pick our leaders for us.” Another public-finance campaign system was passed and will go into effect for 2020. Hardesty said this new system will be better.
How did Hardesty run a successful campaign without a public campaign funding system? “I can tell you as someone who has spent the last 18 months of my life running for office that it is the hardest job in the world to run for public office, especially if you are not someone who has access to big money.” What she had that her opponents did not was the confidence from people she’d met through decades of community organizing, people who were willing to volunteer time, money and hard work.
Plans for the Portland Clean Energy Initiative began by challenging the mechanics of the Energy Trust of Oregon, which used a utility tax to subsidize energy-efficient upgrades for homeowners whose houses were in good repair—it not only excluded most low income homeowners and renters, but taxed them to fund it.
Hardesty said many groups were planning programs to mitigate climate change, but weren’t involving frontline communities—“communities that have always been most impacted by activities and policies that impacted their life,” but “didn’t actually have a lot to say or do with actually developing it.”
When they began developing the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, the central question was how to reduce carbon emissions around building a new “green” workforce. Critics pushed back out of concern that it would discourage the state legislature from taking action—Hardesty knew that state legislation hadn’t been able to pass similar plans for 25 years. She also had an opportunity to center the measure around the frontline communities that are traditionally excluded from planning. She met with the Pacific Islander Network of Oregon, the NAACP, Native American Youth and Adult Association, “talented groups that are accustomed to fighting pushing back on bad ballot measures, bad legislation—just bad stuff coming down the pipe, but never ever ever ever ever get invited to tables to think visionary, and to think proactive, and to think about ‘what would it look like if we design the system?’ Right?”
It was important, Hardesty said, that they build the coalition slowly, and on a core set of values, starting with ensuring that organizations would be stronger for having participated, no matter the outcome. Since ballot measure campaigns are demanding and can tank an organization, Hardesty and her coalition partners took a few months to go through some in-depth training, so that the campaign would leave them wiser for the experience.
They also gained early support from environmental groups like 350PDX and the Sierra Club. When she sought input from “some of the traditional environmental groups,” many questioned why they weren’t invited to the decision-making table. “Well, because we didn’t invite you,” she’d respond, “because you tend to take over tables that you get invited to participate in.” This was important, Hardesty said, because ultimately, they were able to come up with a measure that, for the very first time in Oregon’s history, was centered around and led by communities of color. “For the very first time in Oregon’s history,” She said, “here was an opportunity for communities of color to talk about their lived experience in Oregon, in Portland specifically, and how having resources dedicated to both climate mitigation, energy efficiency and workforce training would benefit their communities.”
As they collected signatures to get the measure on the ballot, it was imperative to get community support for the measure since they were sure to face a well-funded counter-campaign. They spoke with faith organizations, labor unions, environmental groups. They got a whopping 44,000 signatures in 6 weeks, and enough support for the measure to withstand the negative counter-campaign.
However, before they put the measure on the ballot, they went to City Council. The council had just passed a resolution to make Portland energy-efficient by 2050, but had no plan. Hardesty thought her coalition’s plan could get the ball rolling. If City Council didn’t want to pass it without voter support, she wagered, they could send it to voters themselves. “Mayor, we have an opportunity for you!” Hardesty spoke with Mayor Ted Wheeler, “and his words, and I quote, ‘Jo Ann, I just don’t want to tell my friends that they gotta pay more money to do business in Portland.’” Ultimately, 68 percent of voters chose to pass the measure anyways.
Now that Hardesty is part of City Council, she is committed to seeing that the Portland Clean Energy Initiative is implemented as it the voters intended. “Our goal,” Hardesty said, “is to make sure that we are training the workforce of tomorrow, because we spend a lot of time training today for jobs that won’t exist anymore.” The implementation she imagines involves getting apprentice workers in green energy fields the training hours they need to achieve journeyman certification, an appealing status in its national recognition and livable salary. : “once you are a journeyman, you can go anywhere in the country and get a family living wage job.”
Starting in 2021, the Portland Clean Energy Initiative is estimated to bring in $80-100 million of revenue annually, and Hardesty says she’s watching where that money goes like a hawk. “There are people trying to get their grubby hands on this money.” Three percent of it will go toward testing innovative, creative approaches; 15 percent will go to green infrastructure and parks. The next step for the initiative is assembling a “community oversight committee,” made in part by representatives of frontline communities and people with energy expertise. She intends to oversee the Office of Clean Energy Initiative when it emerges.
Portland’s new City Commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty wants people to know that she’s driven by a commitment to community engagement: “We are in a wonderful position in Portland to really do things differently than we have done them in the past, and to do them in a way that is inclusive of all community members, of all community voices, and to be able to leave a legacy that our grandkids will be proud that we were the ones that moved this forward.”
Hardesty was able to take a few minutes to chat with us after her talk.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
JoAnn Hardesty: I like your jacket!
Margo Craig [wearing a sweet pink jacket]: Oh likewise! Where did you get your sweet pink jacket?
JH: (laughs) Online! A store called thredUP, which is a secondhand online shopping experience.
MC: Cool! We match! You spoke at DisarmPSU in the past, so you’re aware of the effort on campus to disarm our security officers, and a man recently died on Thanksgiving in police custody and CPSO [Campus Public Safety Office]. Our campus security officers were the first to respond to that scene and he is not a student at PSU. [Do] you have plans to include PSU’s first responders—who can be first responders in our urban situation—in the approach to changing how first responders are on scenes with mental health crises?
JH: So, they are a separate police force that I have no oversight over. But I’ve used my voice and my experience in supporting the students who want to make sure they’re disarmed. I don’t know if you know, but I was actually on the community committee at the very beginning, when…[the] Board [of Trustees] were debating whether or not to have to arm the security…The only people who thought it was a good idea was the Board [of Trustees]. The students, the faculty, the community members, nobody thought that was a good idea, because we all know that when police have guns, they use them.
I was concerned from the beginning…we were told that PSU Police would not be modeled after Portland Police Bureau, and the first thing they did was hire predominantly retired Portland Police officers.
MC: One of which was the first to respond in this instance.
JH: Ah—and so, you can’t create a new police force that’s going to be Officer Friendly if they’re all coming from a police force who is not known for Officer Friendly behavior, right? So I think that was the second mistake. The first mistake was actually arming them. The second mistake was actually hiring retirees from Portland Police Bureau. And, most of the people over there, to their credit, aren’t people who have actually had any incidents of community violence attributed to them specifically. But having said that, if you’re recruiting from a force that’s known to use excessive force, then that’s not going to be good for students. At all. So, I will continue to use my voice. I know for Mr. Washington, who was killed, whenever his family does…a public event, they ask me to come and speak. I will continue to do that, and will be there to be supportive however I can.
But, I mean, I’m still waiting. Do you know? Did the report come back from the overpaid consultant that they hired from California? Is there a public report that came out of that?
Jake Johnson: We haven’t heard about the report actually being released from Margolis Healy, or the other people yet.
JH: Well I’m really concerned, because we were promised right after Mr. Washington was killed that there would be an independent investigation of the incident—the entire incident. Heard nothing about that, yet.
So, PSU is losing community credibility. Because…those two things were promised, and I was not impressed with the consultant that came up at all, because, he appears to be just a someone that shows up after an incident and gets paid big money and then goes away. So he has no responsibility for implementing any recommendations that he makes. When I asked him, “Are you local?” Because I thought, well, if we’re going to be talking about how do people in the community feel about police on the campus—if we’re going to be talking to students and faculty and community members—you would think he would hire someone locally…And so, the fact that we still have no information, right? And he’s been gone for quite some time. Would certainly like to know where the President stands on making that information available to the community, because we’re entitled to know—because, quite frankly, now we’ll be scared to walk through PSU. Because if you’ve got people who are prone to shoot people…that would create community fear.
MC: What would you former-activist self want your current politician self to do now?
JH: My former activist self would want to remind the politician self that at the end of the day, I’m a community organizer, so, I need to continue to do all the community organizing I did to get me into this position in order to move good policy.
MC: Are there any parts of the mission you’ve found unrealistic now that you’re in the job.
JH: Well I’ve been there two weeks. (laughs) So probably not long enough to do an assessment of it.
But let me tell you the “aha moment” when I first got there. Two weeks before I started, I show up and they gave me a temporary office. They gave an iPhone and a Dell computer. You know, Dell computers don’t talk to iPhones and vice versa—and I didn’t even know Dell still made computers! I thought that was, like, a relic from the good old days. So it gives you a sense of how disconnected we are from the best technology that we could possibly have available to us as someone who works for the city. In fact, I refused the Dell and made them get me a Surface. I was like, “I’m not going backwards. Thank you but no thank you.” That was a shock to me.
I realized that—as I get more into the bureaus that I’m responsible for—that technology is one of the city’s problems, and should be one of the easiest ones to solve, since we are surrounded by tech folks, right? But, for some reason that doesn’t appear to have been a priority to the city yet.
JJ: Yeah, they still make the Dell computers because they need them for flashback movies—(laughs)—in case someone wants to make movies about the early 2000s.
JH: Right, right! The good ol’ days right? I bet they got 8-track players right next to them.
MC: What would your current politician self tell your activist self what’s possible. Everything you dreamed of?
JH: Again, it’s so early—I’m not quite sure if it’s everything I dreamed of. But what I can tell you…just to stay connected. Right? I think what’s easy to do once you get elected to office is to isolate yourself, because you’ve got people coming at you all the time…It’s easy to say, “Well, I talked to 50 people today, so I don’t actually need to go out and talk to anybody else.” But I think the reality is that the more I talk to people that are having a diversity of experiences—whether they are people living on the street, or whether they’re people running Fortune 500 companies—the more I talk to them, the more I stay connected.
(JH to an attendee of the event: Hey! How are you?)
MC: Would that [connectivity] be one of those bottom lines you mentioned your values have shaped?
JH: Absolutely. Yeah, when I was a legislator—and that was 18 years ago—I knew who I represented in the legislature, and who I represented was those people who didn’t have a voice in the legislative process. So, it’s not lost on me—being the first African-American woman on the City Council—that there are a lot of people that just don’t see City Hall as a welcoming place and we have to change that. But more importantly, we have to get City Hall out of City Hall and get City Hall, like, out in other communities, and I’ll be working on that as well.
MC: I just have a couple more—did Ted Wheeler really say that?
JH: He did! He really did. Yeah, “I just don’t want to tell my friends they have to pay more money to do business.” Right?
JH: That’s what he said.
MC: And—do people in county jails get ballots automatically?
[As a friend is leaving on a bike, JH realizes the room is emptying and she can’t get a ride to the MAX.]
MC: I’m banking on the 15.
JH: Oh, 15 comes by here!
JH: That’s perfect for me.
MC: Love the 15. We were just wondering if people get ballots in county jails automatically?
JH: Not automatically—
JJ: Because if they don’t know, how do they end up—
JH: —they don’t know! Right. Because, what they would have to do is actually change the location of where their ballot came. So, they could either change it to the jail address, or they could change it to a social service agency that could take them. Now, when I was with Oregon Action, we were able to go into the jail and actually collect ballots. I don’t know if they still allow them to do that now, but we just did it. They were OK with that. So, they have to already be registered, right ?
JJ: They can’t register once they’re in prison?
JH: They could, they could. It just depends on how long they’re in jail, right? Because anything less than a year…would be in the county jail. So, if they’re in the jail and they’re not registered they can register while they’re in the jail. If they’re already registered, then they would need a family member to bring their ballot to the jail, and then we [Oregon Action] could pick it up from there.
JJ: Lots of cogs to be able to make it happen.
JH: And, quite frankly, the first thing that you’ll hear is, “Oh, you can’t do that!” Because that’s what I heard when I first said, “Well, we need to collect ballots.” And they were like, “Oh you can’t do that!” And we’re like, “Yes, I can!”
JJ: You were right earlier, when you were talking about how talking to people who happened to be felons are like, “Oh, I can’t talk to you because I’m a felon, so I can’t vote.” But, no, you can!
MC: [The Pacific Sentinel] summarized Oregon voting laws in the wake of everyone scrambling to figure out their own states elections. I was surprised to find that out.
JH: Right, right! Go Oregon! Right?
JJ: Do you know of anything else that people aren’t talking about that you wish people would be talking about.
MC: Like, any politicians getting you excited these days?
JH: Well, I’m looking forward to the federal government being reopened again, so we can see what the new Congress is going to be able to do. We have the most diverse Congress ever, which is a huge change.
I think over the last couple of years, since the election of 45—I just can’t quite get that name out of my mouth—since the election of 45, what I have noticed is that people are much more intentional, and we can see that from the outcome of the ballot that we just had…We had more bad things on our ballot than we’ve had in quite some time, and every last bad thing went down in flames, right? And the good stuff passed overwhelmingly! Right? That said to me that people are paying close attention. I mean, when I started campaigning—it was a year ago, August—and people came to house parties, standing room only! In August! A year before the May election! So that was pretty phenomenal.
So I knew people were paying attention and people were being much more intentional where they put their vote and where they put their energy. So, I think that’s a good sign—it can only get better from here, right? I think that some people were surprised at the outcome when 45 was elected, and many people are shocked now that hate is so visible is our community again. But the reality is that you gotta fight back, right? And i think this election was a good first fight back.
MC: Thank you so much.
JH: You’re so welcome. My pleasure.
JJ: Thank you.