Interview with Donna Maxey
Donna Maxey is the founder of Race Talks, a conversation series that gives people a safe place to talk about racial issues and learn from each other. Her own experiences make her uniquely qualified to lead these discussions with compassion, understanding, and clear-sighted vision. From growing up in the thriving Black community of Albina, which was later displaced to make way for a freeway; to teaching children (and adults) of all ages, Donna has experienced both the devastating effects of racism and the power of pushing forward, of opening minds and hearts to new possibilities. This is her story…
My parents came North in the early ‘40s as part of the Great Migration. At first, my father, Charles Maxey, worked in Salt Lake City in the munitions yards. They hired Daddy for the job because he had a college degree, but they hadn’t seen him. So when he showed up, they were stunned. Here’s this Black guy with all of these qualifications. Instead of making Daddy the supervisor, they had him training a White kid for the job. And he thought, “Hmmm, wait a minute. This is a high school kid. I have a college degree. And I’m going to train him to be my boss??? Naah.” So he’d go to work, clock in and walk down along the railroad tracks tossing rocks to while away the time. He’s always been pretty courageous. When he was in college, he belonged to the NAACP, which would have been the equivalent of the Black Panthers at the time. When Daddy came to Oregon, he worked in the shipyards, then became a barber.
My parents came to Oregon with the idea that there was opportunity here: jobs, and a chance for their children to experience a fuller life than we would have in the South, as third class citizens. They came to Oregon to be second class citizens—which was a step up, though not what they really wanted: to exercise their full potential as citizens of the United States. My dad was an entrepreneur and opened a barber shop. In the South, he had been a teacher, but when he came North, he was unable to teach because they wouldn’t hire him to teach little White girls for fear that this “big, black buck wouldn’t be able to resist them.” He was never more than a 170 pounds soaking wet!
My parents were very active in their new city: they were in the NAACP; my mom, Johnnie Maxey, was a Campfire Girls and Bluebirds leader; and we had Vacation Bible School in our home. Daddy had the barbershop and later they purchased a Mom & Pop (and the kids) grocery store. Momma and Daddy mentored hundreds of people. To this day, I have adults tell me about the influence my parents had on their lives. My parents were a beacon in the community. They were active in the church, Mothers March of Dimes, PTA President, Little League and Urban League. Daddy was also the President of the Young Republicans where he was cronies with Mark Hatfield, who later became Oregon’s Governor and Senator Clay Meyers, who became Secretary of State, as well as Tom McCall, who also became Governor. Daddy and Momma did it all. They were super parents! I am amazed at what they exposed us to… especially given their humble beginnings.
So when people ask me how I got started in community service… I’m just doing what I was taught to do. This is part of my family’s legacy: community service and social justice. And I passed it on to my daughter. That’s who we are as a family. Sharon Gary-Smith and I grew up together. We had parents who taught us to value ourselves and to serve…and she’s passed it on to her daughter, too. We were taught not only to look forward and better our own conditions, but to better the conditions for other people as well.
I was born here in Portland and grew up in the Albina neighborhood. There were tons of small businesses along the Williams Avenue corridor. The homes in Albina were well kept—most with immaculate yards; our next door neighbor was so fastidious that he’d trim his lawn with scissors to make sure it was even! We’d go caroling at Christmastime and trick-or-treating at Halloween. Everybody knew everyone else in the Black community and it was safe. But, our community wasn’t just all Black. There were people of all different ethnicities there—American Whites, Germans, Japanese, Polish—so diversity is not new to me.
The African American community used to be downtown where the bus depot is. When the Portland Development Commission (PDC) decided to develop downtown, they moved us over to what is now Albina. In the 60s the PDC decided to build the Memorial Coliseum and the freeway. This action wiped out the African American community below Fremont.
As a result, when I was 12 years old, I lost my world:
My dad lost his business, a barbershop that had four chairs and was a respectable place—where women and children could come in alone without fear of foul language or men’s lewd behavior. People came to his shop from all over, not just here in Portland, but from Vancouver, Hood River, and Klamath Falls. Beauty and barbershops, churches, and lots of other small businesses were the hub of the Black community.
We lost our church. We had this huge, beautiful old church.
We lost our home—a beautiful house filled with wonderful memories.
And we lost our community. Every night we’d come home from the store and drive through the community to see who had been moved out of their home. It was like driving through a ghost town. There are people I haven’t seen to this day.
Every time I go up Williams Avenue, my blood pressure rises. It just pisses me off. I see all of these brand new, glitzy, glamorous little shops. And what I’m really clear about is that these are White people who have bank loans that I can’t get. They don’t have money—they have loans; which is part of the structure of White privilege that permeates this society and gives White people advantages that help them advance beyond people of color.
Fulfilling a Dream
I love to bill myself as an elementary schoolmarm. I’ve worked with everybody from preschoolers through adults. I started teaching in California in 1970, at the ripe old age of 21. My husband was White, Jewish and a conscientious objector at the height of the Vietnam War. We were highly visible! We drove a gold Volvo station wagon, at a time when we had to send to Sweden for parts, in John Birch country—the Bible belt of Northern California. I was one of three Black teachers in Butte County. When we left, about six years later, there were only seven Black teachers in the county. I never met any of them. It was a lot of responsibility and pressure for a young person to have to go through that.
Later my husband and I divorced. We have a daughter who just finished law school. I’m really proud of her because she went back to pursue her dream. She’s done a number of things: worked in banking, retail and teaching. But getting a law degree was part of her dream (since she was 8 years old) to be on the Supreme Court. I told her, “Go for your dream. Don’t sit there and ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda.’ Do it!” So she’s doing it. And I’m fully sure she’ll be on the Supreme Court—the first African American Jewish female!
I’ve worked in rural, suburban, urban and inner city settings. I’ve taught in California and Oregon; in Oakland, Sacramento and Oroville. I taught here in Portland in the ’80s and came back after a stint in California again in the late ’90s, after Mom had a stroke. When I was in California, I worked in state government: in the governor’s office, and in the legislature. I sold copiers for Xerox. I did some consulting. I’ve done all kinds of different things.
I recently ran across one of my former students, now 40 years old, who was in my class for both fourth and fifth grade. She said, “You’ve had such an effect on my life!” I was really amazed at how much she remembered from the unique curriculum I designed for them, and the things she was doing in her life and with her family as a result of experiences she had in our class. I recently spoke at an equity conference for teachers and asked her to also speak, so she could share with the teachers what an effect we can have on our students. As teachers, we seldom get this kind of feedback and in such detail! Afterwards, that night, I couldn’t quit crying. I realized—I have lived my dream of being a teacher AND I had succeeded in what I was trying to do: to get my students to view the world differently; to open their hearts and their minds; to change their little corner of the world. I had done it with at least one student and maybe more. And I thought, “Oh God! I can die happy!”
Every time I think about it, I start to cry from an overwhelming sense of humility and accomplishment of my life purpose. It just verifies what I’ve always felt—that teaching is the second most important job in the world, after being a parent, which is the first most important job in the world.
Starting RACE TALKS
In Portland Public Schools, our school was one of 10 beacon schools for a new program called Courageous Conversations about Race. We’d read the book the previous year and the leadership team led activities with our staff. One day we did a particular exercise around race in which the lesson was about Cesar Chavez and the farm workers leading a protest. Our staff got to see actual footage of the law officers and growers attacking the farm workers for protesting the unsafe working conditions and near slave labor wages. The activity was to figure out the different points of view in the film and share what they might be thinking: the growers, the marchers, the leaders of the march, the police, the police chief, and the people who lived in the community—all of these different sides of the story. Everybody had to take a viewpoint and describe what those people thought and saw. I was stunned at the outcome!
There was one person on the staff who had a nasty personality and had even demonstrated prejudicial attitudes toward me. In the past, this person had behaved so poorly that I had White folks in my office crying because they had been the recipients of this vitriol. I explained to them, “This isn’t about you. It’s not personal. It’s got nothing to do with you.” But to my amazement this person, with the difficult personality, took on a viewpoint and got it! I thought, “This is powerful! This needs to be shared with everybody.”
However, in my opinion, one of the problems with Courageous Conversations about Race is that it’s connected to people’s paychecks. Most people feel, “If it’s connected to my paycheck, then what is it you want to hear me say? I’m going to say it.”
I knew we needed something similar to this except with no connection to the schools or people’s jobs. We needed a place where people could come and talk and have a conversation in a safe environment and could share their thoughts without fear of reprisal.
At about the same time, McMenamins Kennedy School asked me to be a part of a History Pub and share “the heart story” about my experience of being displaced in Albina, the Black community. The theme of the talk was “Urban Renewal, Urban Removal.” It included all different kinds of people: a White historian who talked about the government’s policies and eminent domain; Tom Price, a White pictorial historian who showed historical pictures of Albina, pointing out that it was a fallacy that Albina was a ghetto when the orders came for it to be demolished; and Harvey Rice, a Black realtor who was also from the Albina community.
When I thought about how to tell my story, I tried to think of how to explain to a White audience what it was like for me. I wanted to describe our house, but I knew White folks might not believe that I lived in this magnificent house with pocket doors and hardwood floors because it sounded too middle class—too White middle class. They weren’t going to believe that I came from the family that I came from with such an idyllic childhood: we didn’t lock our doors; we left our bikes in the front yard, and people didn’t steal our bikes; cars weren’t locked—and this was when cars could be started by pushing a button and popping the clutch. Everybody knew everybody. People were very caring. So instead I talked about the flora and fauna in our yard. I figured everybody knows what a boxwood shrubbery is and how much it costs. So I told them about our yard.
We had a double lot with three peach trees, two plum trees and two giant walnut trees. It was bordered by boxwood shrubbery. The front sidewalk had a grass border with a row of pine trees. On either side of the walkway were azalea bushes and two camellia bushes by the porch. On the right side of the house was a huge border of laurel bushes. There were long driveways with a grass inset on either side of the house that went the depth of the lot; each driveway led to a triple car garage. We had a couple of Japanese maples and two rhododendron bushes and irises and loads of other flowers. It was just gorgeous. Mom grew up on a farm, so she loved working in the yard. You could have eaten off the floor in the house and you could have eaten off the lawn, too. So it was really difficult leaving that house. I had dreams into my 40s of that house.
When I shared my story, I also shared the story of a guy who got upset because the IRS said he owed $10,000 in taxes. His wife had divorced him. He was angry with the IRS and with his wife. He bombed the house that the wife and daughter lived in. Luckily they weren’t home or he’d have killed them. Then he flew his airplane into the IRS building, wounding several people and killing himself and one other person, who happened to be a Black man, a working stiff who didn’t have the advantages of White privilege and the luxury of owning an airplane. This man—who had many privileges and had made lots of money—was upset because he had to pay taxes! Yet we had lost our entire community and nobody went out and killed folks. If anyone had a right to be upset, it was the Black community in Portland. So that was the start of my speaking out about racial/ethnic issues in a formal public setting.
Tim Hills, who is the historian at McMenamins, called me several times to tell me people had given him positive feedback about my speech. I said, “Have you thought about what you’re going to do with this upwelling of interest?” He said he hadn’t thought about it; and I said, “Well, I have!”
I pulled together McMenamins and Uniting to Understand Racism (which is now part of Resolutions Northwest) because I wanted to have facilitated small group discussions where people could talk about race. I thought McMenamins was a good place to do it, because people could purchase food and it’s a name people trust.
I have a very unique background in terms of academia, jobs and experiences in my life that make me suited to do RACE TALKS. There are lots of skills that go into making this happen. There’s also something about my personality that makes it work—I’ve come to realize that racism and systemic White privilege, and all of the other “isms” are not about race, or ableism, or gender, or money. And it most certainly is not personal to me! Knowing this keeps me sane and not like that crazy man who tried to destroy whomever and whatever he thought were keeping him from getting his way!
At RACE TALKS, I’ve had people of color say, “This is the first time I’ve ever told a White person how I really feel.” And White people say, “This is the first time I ever felt comfortable asking a question about race, not feeling like I was going to stick my foot in my mouth.” And I always tell folks, “Well, yes you will (stick your foot in your mouth). And my job as facilitator is to help you take it out and keep other people from putting their foot somewhere else on you.” This always gets a laugh.
It’s a unique format, but not everybody can do it. White people cannot talk about race in this country from the perspective of oppressed people. That’s like men holding a birthing conference. Men can be as sympathetic, supportive and compassionate as they want—but they will NEVER know what having a baby is like. Only a woman can speak to that! However, White people CAN talk about race from the perspective of a White person—from the perspective of White privilege and being White. And what it does and means for them.
And I can’t talk about race in this country from the perspective of a White person, because I’m not White. I don’t know the unwritten rules of Whiteness. I don’t know how White people convey this information to their children and carry it out. I’m not clear about that. I am clear about ME being Black in America. I have experience with that. But I can’t speak for everyone. I haven’t experienced everything. I can’t speak for every Black person. I can’t speak for every person of color. I can talk about my own experiences as a Black female, which is VERY different from the experience of a Black male.
The whole idea behind RACE TALKS is to provide a safe place for people to talk about race. There’s a facilitator for each group: they’re the partners who guide the group discussions. It’s held at McMenamins, a public place that people know about. And a lot of people know me. There’s word of mouth, people talk about it and share about it. When we did the first one, Tim was expecting maybe 25 people. We had 85 people show up, 25-30 of whom were people of color— up to that time, the largest group of people of color that had ever come to a McMenamins history pub.
At RACE TALKS each month we have a different topic that we discuss. This year we’re doing films by and about people of color. I am the convener, but the real stuff happens in the small group discussions. For many of our participants, it’s the first time in their lives they’ve been able to talk to people from other ethnicities. They’re able to hear from people of different age groups.
We had a film about junior high girls and we had about 30 kids there, out of 200 people. Their parents brought them and they were part of the discussions. It’s free and open to all ages. We’ve had people in their 90s come. So come to RACE TALKS. Come through the door—there’s respect for you and there’s a place for you.
As a result of getting involved in RACE TALKS, a number of people have started their own groups. A discussion group of White people started up. There are people who have done things at their jobs. We had a book group. One of the things we do is hold drawings for people to get to know each other. So people have formed friendships with other folks they didn’t know and who are of different ethnicities. They’ve welcomed these people into their circle of friends. This is what it’s about: getting to know other people. Getting to understand that people are people. We all want the same things—to climb up that hierarchy of needs, as explained by Abraham Maslow.
What is Prosperity?
Prosperity, for me, is… I would like more cash, okay? Let’s be real! But money isn’t everything. I recently had someone steal something from me. It wasn’t the value of the item that was so important. It was that I had opened my heart to whoever it was. (I’m not sure who it was because it was stolen from my home.) I had opened my home to them and they abused it… It just hurt me to my heart. I felt like I had been robbed, not of my money, but of my love and trust. You can get money back, but you can’t mend that kind of betrayal.
Money doesn’t make you happy. Thirty years ago, I inherited a Mercedes sports coupe from a friend of mine who committed suicide because her love had been betrayed. Clearly, it’s not money. She had the money, and a job with a big title. But she wasn’t happy.
I think a lot of times people get confused. My favorite story of prosperity is about Christina Onassis. She was the richest woman in the world. She inherited all of her father’s wealth. But I doubt that I’ve ever seen five pictures of her smiling. And when she was smiling, her eyes never smiled. There was a sadness in her soul. I can’t remember how she died, but it was suspicious. So it’s clear to me that it isn’t money.
I look at Paul Newman and Art Linkletter. They both had sons who committed suicide. So clearly it’s not about fame. If they had the option of having their fame or their child, I’m sure they would opt for their child. I might be wrong… but I know if I had a choice between money and my child, I’m taking the kid!
Donald Trump… Everybody thinks that Donald Trump is such a horrible person. No, Donald Trump has given many White people permission to say what’s on their minds—to express their fears. I started RACE TALKS, too, because of my fear… I know we’re going to have a race war because of people’s ignorance, fear, envy and greed. By 2040, there will be more people of color in the United States than there are White people. And White people are afraid to give up their privilege. I mean, come on, if I had privilege, would I want to give it up? I don’t think so! But the bottom line is that they’re going to have to learn to share it. Either we learn to share the privileges that this system of White superiority has bred, or we will destroy everyone in the process. Besides, if you’re truly superior, you don’t need special advantages to be on the top of the heap.
To me, prosperity is… what I did for my student, who is helping to change her little corner of the world. That’s prosperity. That’s what feeds my soul. That means to me there’s hope in this world. That there are people who will help change the world, who will help make the world a better place. Those are the things that make my heart full. Yeah, I want to go to Africa, the Islands, Latin America, Asia and Europe…and I’m going to. I want to travel all around the world. But if don’t get to do those things, I can read about them. There are other levels of prosperity.
Prosperity is about what feeds your soul. What is it that makes you happy? That, to me, is what prosperity is: having plenty of what makes you happy and making the world a better place for EVERYONE.
So… I want more money. Don’t get confused. But I also know that money doesn’t make you happy. So that’s not my focus. My focus is that I’m about social justice and I’m about leaving a legacy for other people… for the community… for the world.