Taking a stand
Author: Kurt Bedell
Posted: September 18, 2018

Ed Washington, director of community outreach and engagement for Portland State's Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion

Ed Washington reflects on his life of service.

AT 81 YEARS OF AGE, Ed Washington ’74 has spent more of his adult life connected to Portland State University than any other community organization that he’s been involved in during his consequential career.

As the director of community outreach and engagement for Portland State’s Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Washington brings valuable life experiences—growing up black in a predominantly white Portland, getting his degree at Portland State and serving as a champion for civil rights in organizations that serve communities of color—to attract and inspire future generations of students of all backgrounds.

This past June, Washington was honored by the University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs with the Nohad A. Toulan Urban Pioneer Award for Public Service. It recognizes community leaders who exhibits values such as public service and civic leadership that are core to the college’s mission.

We sat down with Washington just after he received this award to reflect on his life and the role Portland State has played in his journey.

When did you and your family first arrive in Portland?

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1937, the oldest of six children. My father got a job working in the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland building ships for World War II, so we moved west. I remember my family arriving at Union Station, taking a cab and settling in Vanport. Vanport was an area outside Portland set up with wartime public housing. Both blacks and whites lived in Vanport and the schools there were integrated. Having black and white kids in the same classrooms and having black teachers was unusual in Portland in those days.

How formative was your early school experience?

As an eighth grader at Irvington School I remember my teacher, Mrs. Hazel Hill, starting class one day by asking for our help. She said that for the next six months we were going to have some new kids attend our school for speech therapy. All the students were wheelchair bound and would need assistance from us kids. “Would you agree to help these kids?” she asked. “A lot of people won’t say nice things about these students and might even say some of those not nice things to you.”

I was among the first kids to volunteer to help, and as I look back I realize that it established the value of service and gave me the courage to stand up for what I believed in regardless of what my friends did or said. I realized that these classmates, whatever their limitations, were just like us. It was a valuable set of lessons.

When was the idea of going to college first introduced to you?

My mother talked with me about going to college beginning at a very early age. When my mother and father separated after the war, she was left with raising six children all by herself. She made it clear to all us kids that no one was going to quit high school early to help the family. Everyone was expected to contribute to the work and health of the family.

In those days there were only certain jobs that blacks worked in. There were very few blacks working for the city of Portland. There was only one black plumber and no black bus drivers. The only teachers were those from Vanport. On the other hand, all the doormen and busboys were black. As were the railroad porters and redcaps hauling people’s bags at Union Station.

As a kid I joined local Boy Scout Troop #90, worked in the Boy Scout headquarters as an office boy and was mentored by the chief Scout executive, George Herman Oberteuffer. Mr. Obie, as we called him, was a profound influence on my life. He recognized that as a black man I would face additional challenges. But he also envisioned a better future. I remember him saying, “I know that things aren’t the way they should be for you. But things will change. And I want you and your brothers to be ready when those changes occur.”

In addition to my mother, it really was Mr. Obie who imprinted the importance of going to college onto me. I remember him saying, “I don’t want to see you pushing someone’s bags at Union Station. You must start thinking about college.”

How did you come to choose PSU for your own college experience?

I went to Grant High School and all my classmates were talking about going to college as they neared graduation. Most were talking about going to the University of Oregon, Oregon State and Linfield College. I wanted to go to the U of O. But in the end my decision to go to Portland State was purely economical. With five brothers and sisters raised by a single mother, there simply weren’t the resources for me to go south to Eugene. I didn’t have that kind of money. PSU was the only avenue for me.

So, I waited a year out of high school and started by going to PSU at night in 1957. In those days Portland State College, as it was then called, ran its night school classes out of what is today the Parkmill building on the South Park Blocks. I studied the preliminaries—English, writing, math and history—and later earned my degree in liberal studies. I was the first in my family to graduate from college.

How did you come to work at Portland State?

I began work at Portland State in January of 1993. I had already been serving as a Metro councilor for a couple of years by then. PSU’s president at the time, Judith Ramaley, approached me about coming to PSU to do community outreach work. She was particularly interested in connecting PSU with members of the African American community, to which I had strong connections given my work with the NAACP and Urban League. In those days the work of diversity, equity and inclusion was just in its infancy. There was no formal office to house the work like there is today. I built relationships with organizations across Portland and made sure those communities were connected with educational opportunities on campus.

Ed Washington, director of community outreach and engagement for Portland State's Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion, receives the Nohad A. Toulan Urban Pioneer Award for Public ServiceWhat is the most rewarding part of your community outreach work today?

I’d have to say that it’s the regular tours of the Portland State campus that I lead for young people. These tours came about rather by accident. It was the early 2000s, and by then PSU had established an official office of diversity separate from the president’s office. The chief diversity officer at the time, Jilma Meneses, got a call from a kindergarten teacher in Beaverton. She was interested in arranging a tour of the University so that her students could get exposed to and start thinking about college. She had called around to the other campuses in the area and none of the others were willing to do a tour for kindergarteners. Would PSU be interested? I jumped at the chance.

I worked with faculty in disciplines we thought would interest young kids the most. We developed a series of quick, 10-minute learning vignettes of academic projects, from exploring meteors with a geology professor to learning about how the PSU library cares for the over one million volumes in its collection. It became a hugely successful program that has over the years touched nearly 2,000 young people. It’s critically important that these students feel like they have a place here and see themselves fitting into our learning community. Leading these tours and introducing these young people to PSU is the most rewarding part of the work for me. You can just see the lights go on in their heads when they get inspired by a particular professor.

What does it mean to you to receive the Urban Pioneer Award for Public Service from CUPA?

It was the biggest surprise of my life. One of the greatest honors you can receive is to get recognition by your peers. To receive this award from the people at the place where I’ve spent the majority of my adult life is truly an honor and a privilege.

I never thought of myself as a pioneer. But as I reflect now I realize that the pioneer spirit was always part of my life, although I never thought of it that way at the time. I was the first black scout in my Boy Scout troop. One of two black students in my class at Irvington School. The first in my family to get a college degree.

I always knew that I was representing not just myself but the many other sets of shoulders that I stood on. I’ve spent a lifetime studying and working at PSU. I consider myself very lucky for the things people have allowed me to do here and the ways in which they have supported me throughout my journey.

Kurt Bedell is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Caption: Ed Washington received the Nohad A. Toulan Urban Pioneer Award for Public Service during the June graduation ceremony of the PSU College of Urban and Public Affairs. Photo by Nina Johnson