November 10th, 2004 NIGEL JAQUISS | Special Section Stories
 

THE FIREBRAND

Ron Herndon

     
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Ron Herndon
It ain't easy to burn for three decades, but Ronnie Herndon runs as hot now as he did in the '80s.

As a fiery young Reed College grad, Herndon made headlines in 1980 by storming school-board meetings with the Black United Front. They stomped on tables, screamed for justice for black kids, and shut the meetings down.

And they got results. After two school boycotts, the board ended a busing program that put all the burden on black children, opened up all schools to all kids and ultimately spent millions of dollars on desegregation.

"The only time change occurs is when you organize and keep the pressure on," Herndon says today.

Deseg launched Herndon into a position of authority in Portland's African-American community that he's never relinquished, even though you sometimes get the feeling he'd like a little more help.

A few years later, Herndon told Nike that pimping the styles popularized by black kids and black athletes was too much of a one-way deal. He and his allies talked the Beaverton sneaker giant into opening an outlet on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (then called Union Avenue). That might seem unremarkable today, but at the time, it was Portland's version of tearing down the Berlin Wall. As part of the deal, Nike underwrote a community-development organization that built or rehabbed more than 200 houses.

Herndon's brains and charm could have taken him just about anywhere, but he's stayed put in the 'hood, running Albina Head Start, which provides pre-school programs for low-income kids. Sometimes appreciated more outside of Portland than at home, he has for more than a decade been the national chairman of the Head Start Association.

In 2000, Herndon stormed back onstage with an activist group named the Education Crisis Team. Angry at the gap in academic achievement between middle-class whites and low-income and minority students, Herndon and the Crisis Team recycled the same tactics that had proven so effective 20 years before--they disrupted school-board meetings and threatened a boycott.

Their campaign threw a harsh spotlight on the achievement gap and helped force out schools superintendent Ben Canada in 2001.

Today, Herndon, 58, remains critical of district efforts. "The focus was there for a moment, but the children aren't getting what they need," he says. "The wrong personnel are still in place, and nothing of substance is occurring."

Although Albina Head Start recently opened a new $3.5 million facility, Herndon spent much of the past year shuttling to Washington to battle the Bush administration's effort to kill Head Start nationally. So far, Head Start has survived.

"Newt Gingrich tried the same thing in the '90s," he says. "Head Start makes a lie out of the myth that low-income people are incapable of handling their own affairs, and that's why some people want to end it."

Despite decades of activism, Herndon feels most comfortable outside the political process. "Politics is compromise, and compromise buys silence," he says.


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Intro | Tonya's Mob: Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly & Shawn Eckardt | The Crusader: Gordon Shadburne | The Meteor: Billy Ray Bates | Satan's Pilgrim: Rex Diabolos Church | The Firebrand: Ron Herndon | The Bad Boy: Frank Peters | The Broken Halo: Michael Stoops | The Crack Mother: Anita Nichols | The Veejay: Kennedy | The Girl from Electra: Treva Throneberry | The Perfect Victim: Azalea Cooley | The Grappler: Dutch Savage | Wonder Boy: Pat Gillis | The Ex-Files: Marcia & Steve Moskowitz | The Witness: Dave Mazzella | The Prankster: Igor Vamos | The Intern: Monica Lewinsky | The Runaways: Diane Walden & Peter | Top Cop: Mark Kroeker | Sprawl Kitten: Kate Schiele | Authority Figure: Rocky Balada | The Hulk: Dry Dock 4 | The Candidate: Gail Shibley | The Super: Ben Canada | The Organ Grinder: Dr. William J. Brady | Pillars of the Community: The Lovejoy Columns | The Survivor: Giles Thompson | The Contender: Andy Minsker | Space Invader: The Phantom Dialer | The Red Menace: Ma Anand Sheela

 
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