Think Out Loud

How a Medford nonprofit is building community and belonging for Black people in Southern Oregon

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 25, 2022 1:18 a.m. Updated: March 11, 2022 7:23 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Feb. 25

The Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon helped organize the first-ever Juneteenth celebration in Medford on June 19, 201.

The Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon helped organize the first-ever Juneteenth celebration in Medford on June 19, 201.

Jessica Freedman/BASE


While the number of people who identify as Black in Oregon is only 2%, it’s half that in Jackson county, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. So a Medford-based nonprofit, Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon, is helping build a sense of community and belonging for Black residents and their families in a region where they can struggle to feel accepted, seen and heard. Jessica Freedman, the vice-president of Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon, joins us to talk about the impact her organization is having in the region.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio, this is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. According to the latest US census figures, only about 2% of Oregonians identify as Black. In Jackson County it’s half that. That’s one of the reasons the Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon nonprofit was created. Its goal is to help build a sense of community and belonging for Black residents in a region where they can struggle to feel accepted, seen and heard. Jessica Freedman is the vice-president of BASE. She joins us to talk about her work. Jessica, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jessica Freedman: Hi Dave, thank you.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. I gave my version of the need for BASE, but I’d really rather hear yours. Why was Black Alliance & Social Empowerment Southern Oregon created?

Freedman: There are so many reasons why there was felt a need to begin BASE and, as we’ve continued, that continues to expand. But I think where I’ll start is kind of our origin story: There’s an event called the Black Youth Leadership Summit; it just had its fourth annual event yesterday, actually. The first one [was] a few years ago. It was in person and there were some Black kids just hanging out afterwards with their parents and a couple of them said, ‘This is the first time that I’ve seen myself represented in this way, and this is the first time that I’ve seen a Black educator.’ It was really empowering for them, and it was obvious to the parents how good it made them feel. For the parents, it was like, ‘That’s great. We can’t have this just be one time a year.’ For them and the other Black families that eventually joined with those groups, it was, ‘How can we, as Black adults who now live in Southern Oregon, who love this place and have come for all sorts of different reasons, make this experience for our kids so much better?’ That was a lot of the initial motivation. That was back in 2019, but I think since then the reasons that we have existed and the purpose that we’ve tried to fulfill here continues to grow.

Miller: I want to hear about that growth as we go, but I’m curious- since the beginning of this nonprofit was really focused on a realization about the experiences of young people – my understanding is that you yourself are the mother of a young son – how has becoming a parent yourself affected the way you think about these issues?

Freedman: I know I’m going to put it into words, but I want to say it’s indescribable. Being a first time parent, looking at the world, you get a hardness to the way that you… some of your tougher experiences and suddenly having this innocent little soft being that you’re responsible for, I wanted something different. I was fortunate enough to meet Vance Beach, who is the founder of BASE, his wife and the other people who were already a part of BASE, not long after I had my son. I live in Ashland, and I was so motivated to make this a place where he would feel accepted.

Miller: You are a relatively recent transplant as well, moving with your family from New York in 2019, if I understand correctly, what has the transition been like?

Freedman: Coming from New York City, my family, we were ready to be outside and have access to the outdoors. Southern Oregon offers that in a way that not a lot of other places can. I think the thing that was always kind of nagging, especially for my mom and my family who were concerned about me moving so far away, was the lack of diversity out here.

Miller: Can I ask you, how did your mom or others talk about that with you? What did they actually say?

Freedman: Growing up Black in the US, period, there’s always a different level of protection that family members feel about each other going out in the world because there are dangers that you know your children are going to face that other children, non-Black children, may not face. Of course it’s different, not to say that no one else faces dangers. But I think they were concerned about me being accepted, about having a Black child out here and, yeah, safety but also happiness – being in a place where, from an outsider’s perspective, there might… people would see me, and they don’t see a lot of people who look like me necessarily.

Miller: How many of those fears, on your mom’s or other family members’ parts, have come to fruition? I guess the question is, how right was she to worry based on your own lived experience of the last couple of years?

Freedman: I think that my reassurance from her has been huge and 100%, so much of that, has been because of my involvement with BASE and the existence of BASE. Just as the community at large has been able to benefit from what BASE is doing in the community, I have as well. For me personally, I moved here in 2019, had a baby March 2020 and there was the doubly isolating experience of having a newborn and the pandemic starting and searching for that sense of community, at all. BASE has done work despite the pandemic to really give people a sense of belonging here. That’s been just as huge for me personally as it has been, I think, for everybody else. So I’ve been able to tell my mom and everyone that – especially coming from a city where it’s like, ‘Oh, well there’s more Black people in New York City.’ There is a sense of comfort and safety that comes with that, but what has been a big lesson here is that, there may not be the numbers of Black people here perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have that same sense of community and belonging.


Miller: Let’s turn to some of the events that seem to have really helped foster that in a very concrete way. Last June – I think my timing is right in terms of this being the first one – BASE organized Medford’s first ever Juneteenth event. Is that right?

Freedman: Yeah.

Miller: What was that event like?

Freedman: It was incredible. You create these events and you set your hopes high and you don’t know what to expect. It was really beautiful to see the community – and I mean the whole community – really come out and celebrate this holiday. Juneteenth had just been declared a national holiday, I think, in the maybe days or weeks beforehand. It was also in a slight valley in the ups and downs we’ve had of the pandemic, so people were able to come together and feel safe doing it. You could feel that it was fulfilling something that the community at large really wanted to do.

Miller: When you say the community at large, I hear you as saying both white residents, Black residents, all residents of Southern Oregon. That’s what you felt.

Freedman: Yes, and that is what I mean. Because I think we talk about a lot of what we want to do, at least at this stage, in this phase, of BASE. A lot of what we do we want to impact the Black community, but what we ultimately want to do is make this a more inclusive community for everyone. At Juneteenth, you saw people of all colors and backgrounds listening to music and eating food and having their kids play together, and it felt good. It felt like, ‘Wow, this is what it could be like.’ It was really, really awesome.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with Jessica Friedman, the vice president of the nonprofit BASE. It stands for Black Alliance & Social Empowerment. The Southern Oregon chapter of this relatively new nonprofit. You mentioned food- another event this past summer was a Food Truck Friday. What was the idea behind that?

Freedman: I think, one, we try to do events that we think will just be fun events that will bring people from all over the community to be together. But I think a big part of one of BASE’s goals out here is bringing economic opportunities to the Black community. And I think looking more long term, if we want to make Southern Oregon a place that is more diverse, then a sustainable model includes economic opportunities for business owners and ways that people can thrive here. A lot of what we do is trying to support Black business owners and there’s a lot of Black-owned food trucks here. One, we just want to support what they’re doing and also they have really good food. So it’s a win win.

Miller: How did the racial justice protests in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd affect the work that BASE has been doing?

Freedman: In some ways it was, it brought attention not just here in Oregon, Southern Oregon, but to the country of some of the starker disparities that exist between races. So I think it did help shine a light on the importance of the work that we’re doing. One of the outcomes of that was a series of forums that we held between the Black community and local law enforcement here in Southern Oregon and the ultimate result of that after, these public forums and continued conversations with the police, was the formation of a racial equity liaison that is going to be serving between the police departments and the Black community here in Southern Oregon that we’re really excited about.

Miller: Does Southern Oregon feel like home to you right now?

Freedman: It does. I can honestly say it does, and that’s with the asterisk that so much of the time that I’ve spent here has been with the pandemic, so it’s hard to say 100% that this is what things are like here, but I think especially having found the community that I have through my work with BASE and the other members of BASE and just getting a taste for what community here can feel like. Yeah, it does feel like home.

Miller: What are the ways that you will know that BASE has accomplished its mission, that you’re succeeding?

Freedman: Oh that’s a good question. Doing this type of work and trying to create this kind of change I think there are days it feels like it’ll never be done and I think there will always be work to do but at these events that we’ve had and whether they’re in person or something over Zoom I think having these smaller conversations with people who have discovered BASE and are telling us, ‘I didn’t know this existed,’ you know Black people saying, ‘I didn’t know there were other Black people here’ and feeling like seeing either relief or excitement and feeling safer. I think every time we have those kinds of conversations it feels like we’re always going in the right direction. I don’t know what it’ll look like, I don’t think there will be a day when we say okay, mission accomplished and we pack our bags, but it feels like we’re heading somewhere that feels that way.

Miller: Jessica Friedman thanks very much for your time today.

Freedman: Thank you.

Miller: Jessica Freedman is the vice president of BASE Southern Oregon. It stands for Black Alliance and Social Empowerment.

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