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Black community leaders discuss white nationalism in Southern Oregon

Three Black women sit at a table in front of microphones. A table skirt and banner above reads "Urban League of Portland"
Roman Battaglia
JPR News
Urban League of Portland President Nkenge Harmon Johnson, Ashland Councilor Gina DuQuenne and OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett discuss living as people of color in Southern Oregon

Local Black leaders gathered in Ashland Tuesday night to discuss growing concerns about white nationalism in Southern Oregon.

Members of the Urban League of Portland came to Southern Oregon University to hear how people of color feel living and working in the Rogue Valley.

Panelists discussed the ongoing trauma of Aidan Ellison’s death, a 19-year-old Black teenager who was shot in Ashland in 2020 by a white man. They said that murder showed even a progressive town like Ashland isn’t immune to racial violence.

“Being in Oregon is being in a place where people that look like us have been excluded in every aspects of community," said Vance Beach, the founder of B.A.S.E., or Black Alliance & Social Empowerment, one of the local organizations featured for their work in the region. "So our work is all around how do we assist in building an inclusive community?”

Urban League President Nkenge Harmon Johnson discussed the economic implications of creating an unsafe community for Black actors coming to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"When you have world-class talent asking, ‘Is it safe to come and work there?’ The folks who care about dollars and cents in your town really oughta be worried about that," Harmon Johnson said. "The best of the best say ‘yeah, no, I don’t want any parts of that place.’ Then what do you get?”

Black people were banned from living in Oregon through much of the mid-1800’s.

Harmon Johnson said we must recognize how minorities have been put at a disadvantage in the past, and that only then will we be able to find ways to level the playing field for the future.

While she and the other panelists discussed threatening aspects of Black life in Oregon, she said there’s still lots of opportunity for change.

Despite its size, Harmon Johnson said Oregon’s small population makes it easier to reach out and have conversations about how the state can be made safer for people of color.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.