When James Manning moved from a military base in Washington state to Eugene in 2007, he didn’t think that in five years he would have served on 10 public or nonprofit boards.
He also didn’t think he’d be working on his doctoral degree, which he hopes to earn in 2015.
Manning, 59, moved to Eugene after he got a job at wood products company Weyerhaeuser. He became attached to the community, he said, and decided to stay.
The St. Louis native was elected to the Eugene Water & Electric Board last year to represent the Bethel, Danebo, Whiteaker and Trainsong neighborhoods.
Manning ran unopposed and became the first African-American to serve as an EWEB commissioner.
“I saw it as an opportunity to get involved,” Manning said when former Commissioner Rich Cunningham decided not to seek re-election. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ ”
Manning retired from the military in 2006 after serving for 24 years in the Army and attaining the rank of sergeant major. He was stationed in South Korea, Panama, Puerto Rico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Honduras.
Prior to his military career, Manning was a police officer in Missouri.
The commissioner said serving his country inspired him to serve his community after he retired.
After being named last year by Gov. John Kitzhaber to the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs, Manning last month was elected as the statewide agency’s chairman. He also is the founder of a nonprofit group called the Oregon Black Education Foundation, which helps black and low-income youth in Eugene and across the state have the opportunity to go to college.
On top of that, Manning and his wife, Lawanda Manning, have raised six sons together and have nine grandchildren.
Since moving to Eugene, Manning has volunteered for the Pearl Buck Center, United Way of Lane County, Royal Creek Homeowner Association, Eugene Police Commission, Bethel School District Budget Committee and the Lane County Circuit Court’s Civil Department.
Being a soldier taught him leadership skills he said he tries to use in those capacities and as an EWEB commissioner.
“My decisions at EWEB impact everybody,” he said. “They don’t impact just a class of folks. I’m looking at what I can do for everybody.”
Manning said he is a strong supporter of EWEB’s limited-income assistance program, which helps low-income customers pay their bills. The utility dedicates more than $2 million every year to fund the program, which helps more than 4,000 customers.
“Utilities can be costly, and we have a lot of people hurting for money,” he said. “People are hurting.”
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy last year appointed Manning to serve on a task force to study ways to eliminate homelessness.
He smiles when he recalls being described as a “champion of the underdogs” during a job performance evaluation several years ago.
“You have to provide a voice for those who don’t have one,” he said. “Some people don’t stand up, and I take that challenge and speak on their behalf.”
The Oregon Commission on Black Affairs that Manning now leads is an advocacy group that seeks to establish equality for black Oregonians in education, social services and the law.
Manning, who serves as a legislative representative for the group, testified on more than a dozen bills during this year’s legislative session in Salem. The governor signed eight of those bills, including one that allows authorities the option of requiring that health workers have training in race-sensitive “cultural competency.”
Mary Walston, a Eugene School Board member, worked with Manning two years ago when he volunteered for United Way of Lane County. She encouraged him to run for the open position on EWEB’s board and helped him organize his campaign.
“Even though he hadn’t been in Eugene for very long, I could tell that he cares about the community,” Walston said. “That’s what we need in our elected officials.”
Manning founded the Oregon Black Education Foundation two years ago to provide scholarships for students mostly at the alternative Kalapuya High School in the Bethel School District. The group also started a basketball team for the students there and paid for players to attend a University of Oregon basketball summer camp last year. The organization purchased shoes, jerseys and socks for students.
“The goal is to have these students develop and move on,” Manning said. “We want them to have the bigger picture in mind so they attend college and maybe even the UO.”
Manning recently finished his first year working on his doctorate in organizational leadership from Grand Canyon University, where he is able to pay for school because of the university’s online program for veterans, funded by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. He teaches online graduate classes at Brandman University, which has several campuses in Washington and California.
As for sleep?
“I was up until 2:30 a.m. (last week) working on a paper,” Manning said, laughing. His wife is working on her master’s degree in business at Northwest Christian University. She’s equally as busy, he said.
“She’s upstairs for hours on the computer, and I’ll be downstairs on the computer,” Manning said. “We’ll get together for a meal and then get back to work.”