Clark College’s new president, Karin Edwards, knows the power of education’s role as “the great equalizer.”
When Edwards was in eighth grade, she received a scholarship to attend the historic Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in Manhattan — a private school a subway ride away from her family’s home in the Bronx. She rode the No. 2 train every day to school, an experience she said split her life into “two different worlds.”
“It was the amount of wealth that I’ve ever seen in my life, ever, ever,” Edwards said.
But, she remembers reasoning, if she could walk this path, why couldn’t everyone from the Bronx walk it?
It was a realization that would lead Edwards to a career in academia, and eventually to Clark College.
Edwards, the first Black woman to lead the community college, begins her tenure in a time of strife. Her predecessor, former President Bob Knight, was found last year to have discriminated against women of color, tarnishing a 13-year legacy. The college’s faculty union went on strike in January, briefly canceling classes. Now, the college is grappling with its response to the new coronavirus.
But, armed with fresh eyes, Edwards is looking forward to the institution’s future.
“That’s about providing access to quality education,” Edwards said. “It’s about providing a well-trained and ready workforce. It’s about working to improve economic development.”
Edwards spent the past six years at Portland Community College as the president of its Cascade Campus in North Portland. She also sits on the Partners in Diversity leadership council, the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs advisory board and the boards of housing and development organizations serving North and Northeast Portland.
Tiffani Penson, head of the city of Portland’s Minority Evaluator Program, was elected to the community college board in 2019, overseeing the northern part of the community college system’s reach. But Penson recalls her relationship with Edwards beginning years prior, at early-morning meetings of various committees and volunteer programs around town.
“I always got the impression from speaking to her and getting to know her, but also seeing her show up, that she is just committed,” Penson said. “That’s the only word for her.”
Rekah Strong, chair of the Clark College Board of Trustees, noted Edwards has existing relationships with local employers as a Portland Community College president. Among them was shipbuilding company Vigor Industrial, which recently selected Vancouver as the site of its new aluminum fabrication facility.
Strong said the college has struggled to move workforce development forward as far as it would like; she described Edwards as a “solid and strong” presence on that front.
“There’s so much talent here, and ability,” Edwards said. “We are very much an economic engine for Clark County.”
Edwards said she’s also focused on promoting equity at Clark College, a significant issue in recent years as the college investigated and responded to complaints alleging racist and sexist behavior by its former president.
Edwards noted her work on development committees in the historic Black neighborhoods of north Portland, as well as her championship of the Evelyn Crowell Center for African American Community History at the Cascade Campus. She also oversaw the creation of a re-entry program for juveniles incarcerated at Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, Ore.
“We’re just working so closely with these students in the community, to give them another opportunity, and they are eating it up,” Edwards said.
Strong said she was struck in interviews by Edwards’ calm presence, and is optimistic, despite the challenges of social distancing, that she’ll be able to build relationships and begin the healing process for a community hurt by inequities.
“We had strikes, we had lawsuits,” Strong said. “We needed someone who could come in and be a healer and create the kind of inclusive, calming servant leadership culture that we felt our institution needed.”
As a Black woman, Edwards said she’s familiar with the frustration of feeling isolated in professional environments, of having her identity tokenized.
“I know what that feels like,” she said. “I know the frustration. I know the pain. I know the anger and the disappointment, and it’s not something that you want anybody else to have to experience. I’m committed to fighting against it.”