After several months volunteering to improve a visible but neglected area of Bush's Pasture, I decided the best thing I could do for the park was to offer my skills as an organizer and manager to the "friends of the park" organization. My timing was good. The Friends of Bush Gardens had recently come to the conclusion that they had to expand to be more effective park advocates. Together we founded the Mission Street Parks Conservancy. I served as MSPC's full-time executive from October 2017 to March 2020 and continue to serve on the board.
In the two and a half years I led the organization, MSPC incorporated, obtained tax-exempt status, and reached an MOU with the City. We also competed a significant new landscape rehabilitation project, commissioned and released a report on the health of the park's native Oregon white oaks, and began the process of documenting the park's collection of trees and woody shrubs.
Friends don't let friends run for public office. But if you can't persuade them to say "no," the next best thing is to help them win. So when my friend Dr. Trevor Phillips asked me (repeatedly) to manage his campaign for Salem City Council in Ward 3, I said "yes."
A 20-year incumbent, a ward evenly divided between D's and R's, a global pandemic? No problem.
I led Project Vote, a national voting rights and civic engagement organization from 2008 through 2017. Prior to that, I served as programs director (2003-2006) and then deputy director (2007-2008).
During my 14-year tenure at Project Vote, I developed and led two voting rights programs that won significant federal court cases enforcing the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), the US Constitution, and other federal laws. I also served on the leadership team that developed and managed two of the country's largest nonpartisan voter registration drives in communities of color.
In 2006 through 2008, I helped expose what turned out to be the US attorney scandal, efforts by the Bush Justice Department to force states to illegally purge their voter rolls, and other systematic efforts by the GOP to suppress minority voters.
Salem's urban forest needs our help. The estimated 9,100 acres of tree canopy help clean our air of pollutants, reduce the urban heat island effect, improve our health, and sequester carbon. Yet they can't vote, lobby their city councilors, or give news interviews. As a result, the City's tree program was underfunded and often overlooked.
My background as a community organizer led me to believe that I could play a role improving the situations. Over the past three years, I've had the privilege of working with Salem City councilors, city staff, arborists, many committed residents, parks advisory board members to improve our urban forest.
The results have been rewarding: a 5-year $550,000 street tree planting plan (July 2018), a commitment by the City to hire licensed arborists for their street crews, a new urban forester (February 2020), the exposure of the City's failure to enforce its tree protection ordinance (2020) and, soon, a City Council work session on Salem's urban forest (May 2020).
For six months in 1998, I worked with SEIU 1199 in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia to organize nursing homes workers. I quickly realized that labor laws and the legal process failed to protect workers who wanted to organize a union.
I decided to look for opportunities to use my community organizing skills to support workers. In September 1998, I accepted a position as executive director of the newly-formed Las Vegas Interfaith Council for Worker Justice, a position I held through March 2003.
My first real job was with MN ACORN in 1993.
I was hired and sent to Little Rock, AR, where I trained as a community organizer in the neighborhood around Little Rock Central High School. When I returned to Minnesota three months later, I became MN ACORN's executive director at the age of 25.
In my three years at MN ACORN, my team and I helped pass the country's second living wage ordinance, held bank accountable for redlining and excessive bank fees, and expanded our low-income, multiracial membership. We also proudly continued ACORN's tradition of direct action protest while helping build Minnesota New Party, a sophisticated and racially diverse political coalition of workers, low-income neighborhood leaders, and progressives.