When Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty agreed to sponsor a youth climate justice protest at City Hall in March, she was told to expect about 200 people.
The day of the protest, the commissioner was in her office when she noticed students starting to trickle in. More showed up. Then more. And more. They kept coming in droves until all Hardesty could see on every corner around City Hall were students, from elementary school to college age and their allies, rallying in the name of climate justice. What was supposed to be a modest protest ended up drawing close to 2,000.
This was when Hardesty realized she was witnessing a level of youth activism she hadn't seen since the civil rights movement. Armed with instant access to information, younger people are taking us into a new stage of activism. "If the old people just get out of the way," Hardesty says, "and just let the young people do their thing, we'll be a lot better off." We sat down with the commissioner to discuss activism and civic engagement, running for office, and how to maintain hope while trying to build a future we want to see.
G!G: Throughout your career you've worked as both a community organizer and an elected official. I've seen you lead marches and an impromptu sit-in at City Hall. What's changed for you in regards to community activism now that you're on the other side of things, so to speak?
Not much. I will say that I still extremely value community voices and making sure that the people most impacted have a voice in the outcomes that we seek. Just last night, I had a community listening session, my third since I've been in office, because when I ran I said that getting downtown at 9:30 am on Wednesday mornings is not convenient for most people in the city of Portland. It's my job as an elected leader to make sure I am engaged with the people that I serve, so we've been doing these meetings all over town, in different parts, one a quarter, because I just think it's important to keep that dialogue going. It did my heart good, let me say, last night, to see the diversity of people and ages and experiences that came out to the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon's new building to have that conversation.
How does one go about approaching City Council with their concerns?
People call, they write, they email, they tweet. I don't do policy by tweet, by the way. They set appointments. I meet with anybody that wants to meet with me. Of course, it takes a little while to meet because I'm one person and there's quite a few people in the city of Portland. But that's one of the reasons why I do the community meetings, that's one of the reasons why sharing with people how they can come and testify at City Council is really important. I try to encourage, especially organizations that have a story to tell, to use those three minutes wisely, so if there's four of them, three minutes a piece, you can tell a very compelling story in that time period. I've seen it done very, very well and I've seen it done not so well. What is the tool that you use, right? Which one feels most comfortable to you? So if it's writing that feels more comfortable, then write. If you want to come in and have your voice heard, you want to organize a peaceful protest. I mean, all of the above work. Everything depends on the issue, and then the timing, because the City Council gets a little annoyed when people are talking about things that aren't on the City Council agenda or are not City Council business. It's not the public's job to know that, it's our job to educate the public on which is the right government, what is the right venue for them to have their voice heard in, and I think we could do a much better job, we, the City Council, City Hall, in engaging people where they are, rather than trying to fit people into slots based on what City Hall thinks they should be talking about.
What advice do you have for younger people who are interested in running for office?
Know yourself, trust your gut, and if you're planning to run for office, tell people who you are, and then be that. One of my biggest surprises has been how many people come up to me and say, "Oh my gosh, you're doing exactly what you said you would do." How sad is that, right? That that's, like, "a thing." Don't you expect people to do what they said they were gonna do? "Well, yeah, but they never do!" So why do you keep putting those people back in those same positions if they're not doing what they said they were going to do?
Over the years you and many others have been tirelessly involved in organizing for police accountability over the shooting death of Keaton Otis. This fight has been going on since 2010.
Before that, because Kendra James was before that. And so were a bunch of others.
As time goes on, how do you keep your resolve when engaging in an ongoing fight for justice? How do you remain optimistic?
I think some days that's probably the hardest thing, is to remain optimistic. Again, I go back to history, because I am a child of the civil rights movement. I understand that movements have ebbs and flows.
What's different is, we now have people in positions of power who can really have an influence on how we move policing into the future. For example, what gives me hope now is people don't want to be Portland police officers. Well, what a great time to actually rethink how policing should be in the city of Portland, because if you can't hire people for positions that you've had open for well over a year, then that should tell you that you need to do it a bit differently. And I don't think lowering the requirements, either education or physical requirements, will do anything to get us better Portland police officers.
But what brings me hope is that I have the rest of the first responder system in my portfolio and so the Portland Street Response, which fundamentally rethinks how we respond to 911 calls by sending the right responder to the right situation at the right time, will significantly reduce the number of calls for police services. So at the same time we're rethinking the police contract, we're redesigning the first responder system and the 911 call center, which means that we are going to be moving towards a more globally appropriate direction once all those pieces are in place. It's gonna take a couple of years to have all those pieces in place, but the contract comes up next year for Portland police.
What are the most pressing issues for young people? Do you think it's climate, jobs and police accountability?
I think those are the top three, and if I was going to add a fourth, I would say transportation and transportation infrastructure, because we can't go green and expand freeways at the same time and young people get that. It's like ,"Well, that didn't make sense, how are you going to do that?" and it's like ,"Hey, I hear you." That's probably why I get along so well with them, because when you don't have a filter, you're just like, "It either makes sense or it doesn't," and that's why I love spending time with young people. I've spent a lot of time in the classroom, and let me tell you that the best definition I've ever heard of intersectionality came from a group of third graders. I was speechless. So here we are with a generation that has access to information at the drop of a dime and a fearlessness about connecting the dots with other folks. So we're gonna be in good hands if the old folks don't just destroy the planet before the young folks take over.