Late last month, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw marked her official swearing in with a speech that tackled head on racial inequity in policing.
Outlaw, the first black woman to lead the department, spoke to a room crowded with black community leaders at the Oregon Historical Society, talking about effective policing, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter.
On Thursday, Outlaw brought those same messages to a room no less filled with people hungry for change in their community, albeit, a smaller group and a community defined by school walls.
New to Evergreen High School this year is the Black Students United club, an organization founder and president AB Holifield hopes will bring unity and empowerment to black students at the Vancouver school. In this conversation with Outlaw — an intimate, after-school meeting — students asked her questions about how she’s managed policing as a black woman in light of Black Lives Matters protestors and how she’s responded to critics.
“People need to know your place of truth,” Outlaw told the students. “Create your own story.”
It’s a significant moment for the club, which is ramping up efforts to bring in guest speakers and hold community events.
The club also hosted a social on Friday featuring keynote speaker Erin Jones, a former teacher who ran to lead the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction last year.
“(Black students) need to be able to experience meeting people like that so they can know that they can do that,” AB said of these meetings.
According to the latest demographic data from OSPI, from October 2016, there are 62 black students at Evergreen High School — 3.6 percent of the district’s 1,739 students. Sara Richards, the club’s adviser, is the only black teacher at the school.
It’s no wonder black students, like AB, feel isolated on campus.
“I feel like most black people feel that way,” the 17-year-old senior said.
BSU meetings give this group of about eight students an opportunity for frank conversations about racism, racial identity and growing up black that students may not be having in their daily classes.
Here, they air concerns about how their teachers and classmates perceive them and discuss unity and empowering black people in a predominantly white city and school.
“We’re so close as a BSU now,” AB said. “We’re really close because we feel like we have support.”
Richards, the adviser, said the students’ conversations are “leaps and bounds ahead” of where she was in school.
“It’s the space to share with each other,” Richards said. “I didn’t get that until I went to college.”
There’s hope that, in the future, the club will expand and students of various races will attend.
That’s what brought Ricardo Melendez, a 17-year-old senior, to the club.
Ricardo’s goal is to see the organization help “unite all the races,” he said, and feels young people have a unique role to advocate for that.
“It’s all about uniting and being better than our past,” he said.