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ALEX ZIELINSKI

[In an effort to reflect on a very tumultuous year, the Mercury asked several Portlanders to look back on their 2020 and share how their lives have changed and what they've taken away from their experiences. Nkenge Harmon Johnson is an advocate and CEO of the Urban League of Portland. Here is her 2020 story.—eds]

In some ways, I am sorry that 2020 is ending.

I was delighted to see thousands of Oregonians march in their communities week after week to insist that justice become real in our state and across the nation. Strangers became allies. Together they organized in support of the movement for Black lives. Moms, dads, and many others formed human walls and mutual aid collectives to protect each other. I was one of more than 20 million Americans who stood up against police violence, fascism, white supremacy, and injustice. Here, in the least diverse big city in America, led by youth and supported by elders, community members raised their voices for justice despite the COVID-19 pandemic. We experienced a much-needed revitalization of the civil rights movement.

I worry that as we welcome a new year, too many people are hoping to leave that activism behind, despite the fact that ittle has changed in government, in business, or in our culture. Neither electing a new White House administration nor a more diverse Portland City Council lets us off the hook. While we celebrate the New Year and hope for better days, we must continue to unify, change government and corporate policies, and build justice.

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This year I have learned to see myself in a different context, which I intend to keep. I am a Salemite and a Portlander. I am Oregonian, and an American. My mother, father, and their parents were born in this country, as were my grandparents, going back generations. My family were kidnapped Africans, then enslaved people forced to work for no compensation to build much of the wealth and infrastructure upon which this nation still relies. Later, my family members were steel workers, letter carriers, law enforcement officials, military veterans, teachers, artists, and more. Regardless of our occupations, we share something in common beyond our family ties: None of us has enjoyed the full rights due to American citizens under the United States Constitution. Those rights are denied to us because of skin color, even in 2020, in a nation that espouses liberty and justice for all.

Following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of vicious and incompetent police in Minneapolis and Louisville, many thousands of Oregonians, Americans, and others around the world, declared that not one more generation will have to live as we do. We demand that not one more person is unjustly killed at the hands of state violence, knowing that federal, state, and local governments blatantly value some lives more than others. In the midst of our outcry, in this region we are faced with the unjustifiable killings of Kevin Peterson, Jr. and Aidan Ellison, a Black man and a Black teenager. All of that is allowed by systems abhorrent to our Constitution, and in opposition to a culture of fairness, opportunity, and justice that our society claims to value.

I hope that as 2020 comes to a close, we reflect upon the good that we created together this year. In the face of many terrible experiences that we would prefer to forget—from continuing conflict in war zones abroad to forest fires sparked by reckless people to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans due to a feckless government response to the COVID-19 pandemic—we worked for justice and peace. We created the Oregon Cares Fund to help people in need put food on the table and pay their employees. We spurred elected officials and community members through the Reimagine Oregon effort. We baked bread—so much bread—and adopted pets. We learned how to work and volunteer remotely.

We have more work to do. It will take more people of goodwill in our community to make the necessary changes.

If you are wondering what to do for New Year’s Eve while you stay home and stay safe, I suggest spending time discussing the movement for Black lives, civil rights, and justice. Plan the ways that you will act to build justice in our community: Which groups will you join? What will you learn? How will you spend your money? When will you call public officials to advocate for just policies? How will you lead your business partners or coworkers to do better? Where will you organize for change? Do not be complacent. Be ready for what comes next.

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Nkenge Harmon Johnson

After working for members of Congress and the Obama White House, Nkenge Harmon Johnson returned home to dedicate herself to those most in need of a powerful advocate. Since 2015, Ms. Harmon Johnson has led the Urban League of Portland as its Chief Executive Officer. The 75-year old civil rights organization serves Oregon and Southwest Washington with direct services, research, and advocacy designed to build justice in the region. Contact her via Twitter at @truenkenge.