Nkenge Harmon Johnson officially took over as president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland May 8 when her predecessor, Michael Alexander, began his retirement. Prior to that, the two worked side-by-side for about a month to ensure a smooth transition.
Harmon Johnson grew up in the 1980s a few blocks away from the Urban League of Portland. She returned to Oregon after gaining a law degree and working as a staffer for the Obama Administration.
“For me, the Urban League has always been there and has always been an important part of what community means,” Harmon Johnson says.
However, she lives in Salem now, not Portland, and she says she doesn’t want to relocate.
“My Portland was a very vibrant place, a very different place than Portland today,” Harmon Johnson says. “When I’m in Portland, it doesn’t feel like my Portland and some of it is quite painful.”
She grew up before gentrification and urban renewal projects had totally altered neighborhoods in North and NE Portland. Harmon Johnson describes being on a local rec league soccer team in her early years, where children of a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds played together while their parents cheered side-by-side.
“I have looked for a team like mine, but can’t find it,” Harmon Johnson says.
From January to July of 2014, she served as communications director for former Governor John Kitzhaber and was outspoken about being fired for pushing back against what she saw as blurred lines between public and private interests. (Later, publicly released emails showed Kitzhaber was unhappy about a comment Harmon Johnson made about then-First Lady Cylvia Hayes).
“I was disappointed to note how often people were excluded from the conversation. For example if I left the room there would be no one at the table who wasn’t white,” Harmon Johnson says of her time in state government. “So in the governor’s office itself, his senior staff was rather diverse. When we would step out of the governor’s office for a regional solutions meeting in Pendleton or in Eugene or in Souther Oregon… In those rooms, there weren’t people who reflected the community in which we were. I found that time and time again, quite frankly.”
Harmon Johnson spoke candidly about why she thinks there is little ethnic diversity in Oregon state politics.
“I think it’s because people don’t care enough to bother to make that happen,” she explains. “And that’s a strong statement but there’s no other way to explain it. I think people of good will also believe that they know enough that it is fine for them to be the only ones at the table. [They think] they care enough about these issues so they will give voice to the populations that aren’t there.”
She also related a story that reflected the racism she encountered in state government.
“I actually stopped and asked one of my colleagues and said, ‘Hey I’m not a transportation expert, I’m not an expert in education, I’m in these meetings and traveling around the state so that I can learn more… but my role in these meetings is not to put forth policy ideas. There should be some other people in this room who are Latino, who are Native American, who are Asian, who are African American. They’re not here, why not?’ The answer I received, it made me feel like I was in the ‘Twilight Zone.’ He said to me, ‘Well you know we’d like to have more African Americans at the table, more Hispanics too, but they just don’t know how to do this kind of collaborative work.’”
Harmon Johnson took the helm of the Urban League just as the organization released its State of Black Oregon report, the first since 2009. The report shows that 30 percent of black families live below the poverty line and black unemployment is at 20.7 percent for African-Americans, as opposed to 7.6 percent for white people. Harmon Johnson says she hopes to address these problems in her new role. She’s also passionate about tackling disparities in higher education.
“We have great schools, but they’re not graduating enough African American students,” Harmon Johnson says.
Despite her personal connection to the Urban League and to Portland, she says she continues to see differences in the city she grew up in and the city where she works now.
“When I grew up with black middle class kids… even in a black neighborhood in Portland, it was still integrated,” Harmon Johnson says. “You go there now and you can’t find a family that is not white. Portland actually does look like the TV show ‘Portlandia.’”