Portland Tribune: Turning a new leaf
Author: Jennifer Anderson
Posted: February 12, 2015

Read the full story and see photos in the Portland Tribune

Jacob Sherman doesn’t have the long, shaggy locks he did 14 years ago.

He isn’t vegan, and he doesn’t go barefoot as he did when following his former friend Tre Arrow, once described as the FBI’s Most Wanted Environmental Terrorist.

In fact, Sherman — a cleancut, meat-eating, 32-year-old Southeast Portland husband, father, marathon runner, gardener, neighborhood advocate and Portland State University employee — can hardly be described as “radical,” except in the ’80s sense.

Today, almost nine years since his release from federal prison — having served nearly three years in prison for two firebombings on behalf of the Earth Liberation Front — Sherman is a change-maker of a different kind, advocating within the system to affect change.

Since graduating from PSU he’s worked for the university’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, helping to champion projects that strengthen neighborhoods across the city. He’s helping to create a gathering space next to the PSU food carts, and a community orchard for Lents neighbors.

Separate from his PSU endeavors, he’s leading the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association to help his neighbors be able to sell the produce they grow from their community learning garden.

And he’s learning to navigate City Hall to find a stormwater solution for his neighbors in Errol Heights who get flooded in big rains.

It’s not sexy stuff; there is no “direct action,” as the ecoterrorists used to call it.

There are just painfully wonky city policies to wade through, grants to apply for, zoning changes to fight for, neighborhood meetings to speak at, and cases to articulate in the form of perfectly worded emails, rather than Molotov cocktails.

From protests to peer mentor

In fact, since Sherman’s release from prison in 2006, he hasn’t been lured by any political movements of the day — environmental, race-related, Occupy Portland or otherwise.

At Occupy, “I sat in on some meetings, was at one of the protests, and decided it wasn’t for me,” he says.

His first step back to activism was as a student back at PSU — the same place he met ecoterror leader Arrow — for the “Take back the tap” campaign, advocating for water-bottle filling stations on campus to reduce disposable plastic bottles.

Sherman not only helped secure a $38,000 grant to help fund several stations, but convinced campus leaders to form a task force to institutionalize water conservation, so it would live on past his involvement.

Sherman has been part of PSU’s Peer Mentorship program, helping to counsel students about academic and personal issues like college loans and resume-building.

But he kept out of the trenches of the protest fray, even when it all but infiltrated downtown.

Which raises the question: In an activist hotbed like Portland, once an activist, always an activist?

“Occupy ... has made student debt an issue that universities and politicians are paying attention to,” says Sherman, who turns 33 this month. “It’s just that I personally think that I can have a greater impact by working with and within organizations and institutions to create change. In a way, both are needed, but I know the latter is where my skill sets and strengths lie.”

Transcendental journey

How did Sherman transform from a 19-year-old convicted felon to a pillar of the community, not just a student but a scholar who delivered his 2012 PSU commencement speech, telling his graduating class to “Dare to fail”? (He got the words tattooed on his right forearm after prison).

When he thinks about his former life now, Sherman says, it’s like watching himself in a movie, surreal.

His perspective didn’t come just after serving his time, but during. One of the first packages he received in prison was a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” — a tale of transcendentalist solitude — from his uncle, a literature professor.

“He said, ‘Jake, you have the opportunity for this to be your Walden Pond; the choice is yours,’ ” Sherman says. “I spent a lot of that time thinking about myself, who I was, how I’d gotten to be that way, trying to use it as an opportunity for growth.”

The first thing on his list when he got out was to further his education, knowing that he had a leg up in prison, having had a private high school education — La Salle High in Milwaukie — while many of the men he served with weren’t as fortunate, and had much longer sentences.

While his undergraduate and graduate studies at PSU led him down the path of sustainability work, he says, “It’s very much about people, the type of future we want to live in.”

As a fifth-generation Portlander, Sherman says the work he’s doing holds special meaning, and he feels a deep sense of place.

He lives with his wife, 11-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter in a 900-square-foot house, no TV and a garden nearly as big as the house.

It’s not far from where he grew up, the oldest of three kids, to a loving mother who divorced Sherman’s dad when he was in middle school.

When he’s not working, Sherman is planning his next hiking or backpacking trip or trying to run around 25 miles per week, training for his first ultra-marathon after completing his first marathon last year.

Recently, he ran home past Ross Island Sand and Gravel, one of the two sites he firebombed in 2001, causing $50,000 in damage to three cement trucks.

For that, Sherman has written a public apology to Dr. Robert Pamplin Jr. (also the owner of the Portland Tribune), asking that he be judged on his actions during the past 14 years, as they’ve demonstrated his life lessons. And he asks for forgiveness.

Two months after the Ross Island arson, Sherman damaged three trucks at a logging company in Estacada, along with two other activists who were arrested and convicted.

Arrow, meanwhile, evaded authorities for years before he was convicted of two counts of arson for both incidents, served his time, made a bid for Portland mayor, participated in the Occupy protests and was arrested on domestic violence charges in 2012.

Not looking for the same kind of attention (even delaying a Tribune request for an interview by four months), Sherman is quick to play down his history, saying it’s part of who he is, but it doesn’t define him. And that he by no means has done it alone.

“We all in some regards stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says, quoting Sir Isaac Newton. “Maybe those are important people who helped us out, seemingly unimportant people. Most anybody can look at their own story and recognize we are who we are today because of those people behind us.”