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Founder of Vancouver nonprofit says healing her community at heart of Odyssey World

By , Columbian staff reporter
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Odyssey World International Education Services board member Rheta Rubenstein, from left, administrative assistant Miracle Joslin, founder and executive director Karen Morrison, and board member Pandora Pierce stand for a portrait outside RichlandHub Coffee Shop.
Odyssey World International Education Services board member Rheta Rubenstein, from left, administrative assistant Miracle Joslin, founder and executive director Karen Morrison, and board member Pandora Pierce stand for a portrait outside RichlandHub Coffee Shop. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Karen Morrison, founder and senior executive director of Washington-based nonprofit organization Odyssey World International Education Services, says she stands on the shoulders of great Black and African American women.

She said she learned at a young age that for white women, the ceiling is glass. But for Black women, it is concrete.

She said the encouragement of her grandmothers, mothers and daughters has given her the strength to connect with others over traumatic social issues, including houselessness, education inequalities, food insecurity, mental illness, domestic violence and racism.

For Morrison, personal relationships are key to empowering communities.

“Rules without a relationship lead to rebellion,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to connect individual to individual.”

Odyssey World, founded in Spokane in 2006 before relocating to Vancouver in 2014, is primarily run by a volunteer staff of about 20 people along with two part-time employees.

HOW TO HELP

The organization’s acronym spells out “owies,” which Morrison said speaks to the heart of her work: healing the wounds of BIPOC communities. BIPOC is a term that stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

“When you see Odyssey World International Education Services, you see my heartbeat,” she said. “We are faced with so many challenges as BIPOC people living in Clark County and surrounding cities. It is imperative that we work together to eliminate the racist undercurrent that has been here for far too long. It is time to end it.”

Since relocating to Vancouver, Morrison and her staff have provided support to Vancouver’s Black, Indigenous and people of color and low-income families in five service areas: youth engagement, food security and basic supplies, COVID-19 resources, homelessness prevention, and Black/African American women’s peer support.

Recently, Morrison has made police accountability one of the organization’s priorities. She and her staff are looking closely at who tends to be targeted by the police, while advocating for dashboard and body cameras for officers.

“We’re leveling the playing field by taking this in front of people in power to demand justice,” she said.

One of Odyssey World’s biggest obstacles to addressing issues like police accountability — in addition to the racism that Black, Indigenous and people of color people experience in their daily lives — is fear, Morrison said. Minority groups might be afraid to stand up for themselves for fear they will be targeted by law enforcement in the future.

“You would be surprised at the number of Black people who are still scared to come speak out for themselves here in Vancouver,” said Odyssey World Treasurer Pandora Pierce.

Morrison aims to provide a support system for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities to help them overcome that fear. “We’re all of a sudden this huge collection of people,” Morrison said. “Now our voice is louder, is stronger.”

Supporting youth, especially those in juvenile detention facilities, is one mission that is personally important to Morrison. In 2019, she knocked on the door of the county’s juvenile detention center and asked how she could help the children there.

The facility’s manager said he would accept her help, but had no funding to pay her. Morrison told him money didn’t matter.

“I don’t think you should have to pay people to be kind,” she said. “This is something that I want to do for youth that made some bad decisions that are not bad people.”

This led to Odyssey World’s Community Conversations program, which engaged Black, Indigenous and people of color youth at the detention facility in monthly conversations with guest speakers about future goals and self-reflection. Though the program had to stop due to pandemic shutdowns, Morrison aims to restart it as pandemic restrictions ease. She hopes volunteers will step forward to “share their stories of inspiration with youth that desperately need to have a sense of renewed hope,” she said.

Last June, Morrison invited kids from the detention facility to help Odyssey World host the city’s first large-scale Juneteenth celebration at Esther Short Park. Juneteenth, a federal holiday as of last year, commemorates the day in 1865 that the last African American slaves were freed in the U.S., 2½ years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

With more than 80 vendors and five musical acts, the event promoted Black-owned businesses and highlighted the importance of unity. Volunteers from the juvenile detention facility wore the same shirts as the other youth volunteers so that no one would know the difference.

“It was amazing to see the mix of people come together when they don’t know your history,” Morrison said. “They felt wanted, they felt welcomed, they felt safe and they felt significant.”

Odyssey World is already scheduled to host next year’s Juneteenth celebration at Esther Short Park, in partnership with the city’s parks department.

The Juneteenth event catalyzed many more underprivileged youth events throughout the summer, including educational field trips, multiday camps and concerts in the park through partnerships with various city and nonprofit organizations.

Miracle Joslin, a 21-year-old nursing student and Odyssey World’s administrative assistant, helped coordinate many of the youth services events this summer for kids ages 10 to 17. It was “very, very enriching” to see the friendships made between kids in the programs, Joslin said.

Odyssey World’s goal to support people from all walks of life is very meaningful to Joslin, she said. “Sometimes you can just see the relief on their faces from the interactions. You know that you were able to help and make a difference.”

Morrison, by mentoring young people like Joslin, paves the way for more Black, Indigenous and people of color to take leadership roles and thrive in their community.

When she first founded Odyssey World, Morrison committed herself to working without a salary. Now 59, she still refuses a salary, instead living off her retirement funds. This enables her to pay younger staff members like Joslin, who help sustain Odyssey World’s mission into future generations.

It frustrates Morrison that people in government-funded positions who work to address social issues earn salaries based on the trauma of low-income and Black, Indigenous and people of color communities.

“I’m tired of people benefiting from BIPOC trauma,” she said. “And then asking us to volunteer — that’s the clincher. Stop asking our people to do more and do more and do more.”

The Council for the Homeless held a community forum at the end of August to gather input for Clark County’s 2023-2028 Homeless Action Plan. Morrison attended the forum, but questions this long-term approach.

“When I moved here, they were on a 10-year plan. They finished that. So I worry about the things that just give birth to more plans,” she said.

Morrison constantly wants to know, what is getting done? Sometimes people turn that question around on her and ask: After 16 years with Odyssey World, what have you done?

“What haven’t we done?” Morrison responds. “We’ve marched, we’ve rallied for any injustice. We’re out there.”

In addition to its youth organizations and peer support groups, Odyssey World has provided food and supplies directly to homeless communities, helped Black families with COVID-19 rental assistance applications, gone on worldwide service trips to Kenya, Tanzania and Haiti, advocated in response to the nationwide missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, initialized a study out of Portland State University to research the impacts of COVID-19 on Clark County’s Black families, and more.

Odyssey World has also hosted events for LGBTQ, blind, deaf, Hispanic, Ukrainian, immigrant and refugee communities.

Above all, Morrison hopes to spread kindness through what Odyssey World calls “CARE,” which stands for collaboration, advocacy, resource referrals and education. She serves communities with “care” by inviting everyone to the table – especially those who have been personally impacted by injustice.

“I want to see something done. Even if it’s something small,” she said. “That one small thing could be the one thing that people need in order to make it.”

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