Edward James Washington, an Alabamian-turned-Oregonian, has not only experienced Portland history, he’s helped shape it.
When his family moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Vanport, Oregon in 1944, Washington was just seven years old. His family became one of thousands to lose everything in the Vanport Flood. Years later, Washington attended Grant High School, and then studied and worked at Oregon Health and Science University. As a young man, Washington also got involved with the Portland chapter of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as it was working on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.
And he became the first African American to be elected to the Metro Council, serving from 1991 to 2001.
Washington still remembers the class field trips his seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Hill, led to to Portland City Council and the Oregon State Capitol. The field trips and related learning inspired him to participate in government, as he truly believed it to be “by the people, for the people.”
Washington currently serves as community liaison for diversity at Portland State University. But he’s stayed involved with Metro over the years. In 2013, he spoke at a Metro event about Oregon’s history of racism and what it was like to grow up black in Portland. This year, the former councilor has been helping Metro get input from community members about what the garbage and recycling system should look like in the future.
Washington’s recent role has been part of Metro’s work to develop the 2030 Regional Waste Plan, the blueprint that guides how garbage and recycling in greater Portland is managed. Over the summer and fall, he spoke at community events, including three forums where participants had a chance to share their perspectives with elected officials.
The goal of the community events was to elevate the voices of people, such as communities of color and immigrant communities, who have been historically underrepresented in government. Washington shared stories with participants about his time as a Metro Councilor and encouraged everyone to have honest conversations with local officials.
Metro communications supervisor Kendall Martin, who helped coordinate the events, says that Washington was able to connect with the many different event participants. “He reminded us all that the communities that have the least amount of influence over policy decisions tend to experience the greatest amount of impact from those decisions,” said Martin. “He is uniquely qualified to discuss complex topics such as racial equity, social justice, and the economics of the garbage and recycling system.”
Talking about race
Washington says the events made an impression on him as well.
“One of the things that touched me was seeing the diversity compared to when I was here 20 years ago,” Washington said. “It’s so pleasant because I always felt very strongly that even when I was here, Metro did not reflect the nature of the region at that time, particularly with regards to people of color.”
At the forums, Washington talked about what it means for Metro to take an active approach in addressing racial inequities throughout the region.
In 2016, Metro adopted its first plan to address racial equity and has been working to implement strategies that engage more diverse communities, from parks and natural areas to transportation. Washington saw that playing out at the Regional Waste Plan events.
“(Metro is) just very specific about how they’re going to address the issues of inclusion and diversity and I think that’s what’s made a huge difference,” he said.
When Washington served at Metro, there were a total of 12 councilors representing smaller districts throughout Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. From 1993 to 1994, that number increased to 13, which made making council decisions difficult, Washington says.
As a Metro Councilor, Washington represented District 5 which encompassed the former landfill now-turned-prairie in St. Johns, as well as other Portland-area garbage facilities. Washington took a leadership role in related issues, chairing Metro’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee and the North Portland enhancement grant committee.
But in 1992, voters approved the Metro Charter, which officially reduced the number of councilors from 13 to seven. Now, Metro Council is comprised of six councilors and a council president. Washington says he thinks Metro became much more efficient after it switched to having both a president and chief operating officer.
With four Metro councilors, including the president, reaching term limits at the end of 2018, Washington hopes Metro will continue doing the work they’ve set out to do. “They have laid out a wonderful blueprint – follow it. Don’t back up one step, expand it.”
Though he remains the only African American ever elected to the Metro Council, Washington hopes that one day marginalized communities will be better reflected in government. And, just like his work decades ago with the NAACP because “it just sounded like the right thing to be involved with,” he continues to focus on the work of diversity and inclusion.
As part of that, Washington encourages people to engage with the government institutions around them and speak out against any injustices or unfairness that may be oppressive to groups of people. “Just based on the history of our country, Americans have a difficulty talking about race, but you know, it’s not going away,” Washington said.
“Whether it’s county or small local city governments, where there’s a sense of injustice,” Washington said. “Say it and don’t be afraid.”