SUSTAINABLE LIFE THE MAGAZINE | Portland Tribune and Community 40 Newspapers Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers | SUSTAINABLE LIFE THE MAGAZINE 41 By NICK BUDNICK

Stabbed by a john and left for
dead isn’t how most environmental
activists get started.
For Jeri Williams, though,
the hardships of early years
spent as a hooker and gangbanger
in Northeast Portland
led to realizing she wanted two
things — first, to stay alive, and
second, to keep her kids.
That led her to get a job at
a hotel, which in turn led her
to realize she had rights. Exerting
those rights led her to
realize she has power — and
an organizer was born.
A member of the Klamath
tribe, she fights for poor people
and minorities exposed to
pollution. Just a few minutes
hearing her makes you realize
she’s all about people.
“Her focus is the human
impact,” says her friend, state
Sen. Avel Gordly. “She has a
huge heart for service.”
Starting in 1994, she fought
her employer, Red Lion Hotels
Corp., to help her and
her fellow workers curb their
exposure to toxic cleaning
materials. After six years of
worker organizing, she joined
the Environmental Justice Action
Group and fought Oregon
Steel Mills Inc. to protect the
minority communities nearby
from its pollution.
In 2006, she mobilized a
group that opposed the U.S.
Environmental Protection
Agency’s new regional director,
a former Dow Chemical
executive named Elin Miller,
helping keep the agency focused
on environmental justice
concerns.
As she has battled large
companies and mammoth federal
agencies, she has learned
something — a lot of things,
really.
The first is to have faith.
“You have to believe it’s going
to work,” she says. “Things
take way longer than you think
they’re going to take, but you
can’t give up, because just
when you’re about to give up,
the miracle happens.”
Also, value comes not just in
winning, but in trying.
“It’s better to win something
than nothing,” she says,
“and it’s better to do something
than do nothing.”
The third lesson came when
she joined a church in 2000,
thinking that she would teach
its members to fight for justice.
“That’s where my philosophical
change happened. I
was going to teach them that if
they wanted to do what Jesus
told them to do, they needed
to be out on the streets organizing
with me,” she recalls.
“I learned way more than I
taught … that’s what allowed
me to love people and understand
that organizing out of
love is way better than organizing
out of anger.”
The fourth lesson? “Relationships
are important.”
Indeed, Williams’ greatest
achievement may be an invisible
one, Gordly says — helping
bridge the gap between
environmentalists and people
of color in Portland.
Now 47, Williams recently
went legit. For more than a
year now, her job title has
been a bit less radical: neighborhood
program specialist for
the city Office of Neighborhood
Involvement.
She thought she would hate
it. But she has found her job involves
many of the same missions:
educating people and
making the world better.
Still, the job is not enough.
More than a decade spent organizing
has instilled in her an
array of beliefs, skills and contacts
— as well as that dangerous
thing, knowledge.
All these are tools that Williams
finds difficult to put
down. And now, when she
leaves her day job, she often
puts on her figurative cape
and quietly starts pulling the
invisible strings of power to
fight pollution.
“It was so strange because I
took this job with the city and
I thought my life as an activist
is over: I can become a city
employee, and I cannot think
about things,” she says.
“Then my daughter had my
grandson … I fell so in love
with him; and at the same time
I realized he’s a young black
man who’s going to grow up in
this world. And guess what? I
don’t ever get to quit. I’m going
to have to fight for justice for
the rest of my life.”
Jeri Williams
Saving the urban environment
Jeri Williams, an environmental justice activist, is fighting for a smaller Columbia River Crossing to reduce car pollution and promote the use of mass transit and PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE
alternative forms of transportation.
Green Giants

About jerisw1

Activist, artist , story teller ,writer currently working for the City Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
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