By Michael French | CNews Special Writer
Activist and Alameda resident Karen Wells carries a business card with the job title “change agent.” It’s a phrase that sums up her approach and five decades of social justice work aimed toward a long-term goal.
“What keeps me going is hope,” she said. “Hope that the walls of isolation will be dismantled. Hope that the pitfalls of white supremacy will be eliminated. Hope that the differences between people will be respected instead of disparaged.”
Exposure to TV coverage of civil rights movements, coupled with surviving and navigating incidents of racism while growing up in San Diego, awakened Karen to the importance for social change.
Throughout the years, episodes of racism and white supremacy erupted in her life – sometimes overt, sometimes subtle – which continue even today in Portland. By her late teens, Karen became an activist.
After moving to Oregon in the mid1970s and through the 1990s, Karen was involved in local women’s culture and the progressive political scene, was a performance artist and poet, and served on boards of gardening-focused nonprofits Groundwork Portland and Our Garden.
Karen said within these organizations, she was often the only black woman. She was often subjected to the covert pressure to fulfill the unwanted and awkward role of representing the entire black community of Portland.
As part of her journey, she embraced different approaches to social justice work over the years.
Emotionally exhausted, she changed tactics. “I decided ‘each one teach one’ was the best way to go.” “Each one teach one” is an African-American proverb that originated during slavery. When few enslaved people were literate, those who could read felt a duty to teach others. Karen’s approach to each one teach one is aimed at broadening perspectives, one person at a time.
Today Karen continues to work to improve the lives of oppressed or marginalized groups and writes for Concordia News on public art, education and other topics.
She still practices each one teach one, and in recent years she has volunteered with Health Care for All Oregon and Nasty Women Get Shit Done.
Karen is active on the planning committee for Portland Womxn’s March 2020, which sprang from the 2017 women’s marches following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
She encourages others to join in. Details are at WomxnsMarchPDX.com. You can also find/follow the effort on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with the same handle.
For potential allies who want to support Karen and others pursuing social justice and social change work, she asks for a change in mindset. “Believe us. See us. Respect us,” she said. “The number one thing you can do is step up.”
Michael French is grateful to live on 28th Avenue in Concordia, a place where neighbors talk to each other and he can get most places on foot, by bike or transit. Contact him at MFrench96@gmail.com.