As former colleagues at Saving Grace and now both members of Allyship in Action, Erin Rook recommended LeeAnn to participate here. Before we started recording, I asked LeeAnn why she decided to accept the invitation and she said, “… because, as a woman of color, I wanted to provide a voice and a face that had not been represented much in this project yet and have the opportunity to connect other voices from marginalized communities to the project.” That’s a pretty good reason, if you ask me. And our conversation together got me thinking. So, I am going to diverge from the norm and take the liberty to share some of my thoughts on this topic with you in a few paragraphs at the end of the interview.* For now, though, this interview is full of LeeAnn’s heart and thoughtfulness. It was a pleasure meeting her and I am happy to introduce you to her here.
ACT: Who are you and how would you describe yourself?
LO: I would describe myself as, first of all, just a human being. But the way I describe who I am is really kind of a[n] amalgamation of my life experiences and how I react to those. I don't think our life experiences necessarily define who we are because sometimes we're handed a lot in life that is less than others or more than others, but how we react to that and we live in that space is what makes me who I am.
So, I am an adoptee - I was born in South Korea and adopted by a white family. And I grew up in rural west Michigan - a very Christian, reformed area. My parents were actually pretty liberal for that time and space. They were originally from Canada and California and they both came into their adulthood in California. And I'm also a recovering attorney. I was a corporate K Street attorney for about five and a half years and I left it to start over. Basically sold every single thing I owned and had nothing but about two boxes I left at my parent's place and I biked across Mexico. So, I'm a cyclist. I bike year round. In fact, I biked on my snow bike with my studded bike tires (laughs) to this interview. In part because I think just getting outside, for me, every day is really important.
I'm an activist but a reluctant one. I seem to find myself in spaces where I feel the need to be constructive and speak up and participate, but not always that first person jumping in. I'm really into trying to hold onto the boundaries so that I don't get sucked into it and let it take over my life. So, I really fight to have that balance - whether it is promising myself it is okay to go out and ride my bike all day or go for a long hike and not dive into whatever project is in front of me. I'm also, in some ways, someone who always has to stay busy. So, that kind of counters that. And as far as being an activist goes, I found that I have stepped into it more recently. Because I do feel like I have something to say and, especially in this community, it's really, really important.
I'm a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault, which led to me spending almost five years as the legal advocate at Saving Grace. Which provided a valuable way for me to give back to that really vulnerable population. They're some of the most amazing people and resilient people to work with.
A lot of times I also consider myself an artist. I find myself escaping into art and music and play. I'm a capoeirista - capoeira is a Brazilian martial arts form that some would say comes indirectly from Africa and the tradition of slavery in Brazil. It's very folkloric as far as what is true and what is not. But it is something I'm really passionate about now in my life. I'm a dancer. I teach salsa also at Latin Dance Bend. And so, I try to keep all of these things in my life to kind of bring that balance because so much of my day-to-day is throwing myself into Access to Justice projects with my job at the courthouse or through my work with Allyship in Action with another A Community Thread interviewee, Erin Rook, and Kerani Mitchell, who is another amazing equity trainer in the community.
And so how I react to all of this is I try to step into spaces where I feel like I can be useful, while trying to maintain that balance and enjoying everything that this community has to offer. Very long-winded way of saying who I am (laughs).
ACT: So, I've turned this question into a multi-part because asking it in simple terms hasn't really been providing the answers I've been looking for. I want to ask, "What concerns you?" And I would love to just leave it there, but I'm going to add a bunch of things. What makes you sad or breaks your heart in a way that affects the way that you live your life - in a way that inhibits you? And maybe for some they want to say some of the more grandiose life issues, like the failures of society, but I don't know that we're often able to associate with them directly on a day-to-day. So, what affects you in that way and what motivates you to do something about it?
LO: So, one of the things that I really love about my job at the courthouse... I'm the family law facilitator, which means I help folks who can't afford attorneys navigate their family law cases - custody, divorces, and legal separations. About 70% of our cases start without attorneys. And I think it's really easy in Bend to get stuck in our own social circles. If you're upper middle class, that's the circle you get stuck in and you don't see that there's homeless camps down by the Fred Meyer. You don't see that there are people that are living in trailer parks or people are homeless and living in their cars or the folks that live out in La Pine or on the outskirts of Redmond.
And the really unique thing about my job is that I really get to work with and provide assistance to just a really large swath of our community. So, a lot of times it's the individual people's stories that I hear as people come to seek help on very personal issues - a lot of times in crisis and because there's something that's not working or it's their children and that's the thing that's the most important to them. And it's hard because a lot of times I can't help. I'm not licensed to practice law anymore; I can really only provide procedural advice. But I hear these really, really personal stories. Like someone who had to drop out of high school and they really couldn't read or write very well and so I was helping them with the paperwork and they kept apologizing because they couldn't spell basic, four-letter words. And this is someone who, when I pulled up their case, had a criminal record. That first instinct, that gut reaction, is to judge that person. And then you hear more of the story and find out that this person had to drop out of high school to get a job to help out their family so they've not had any education since they were in 9th grade. And they've been in the same job - the same kind of basic labor job - since they were in 9th grade. This person is the same age as I was and still making minimum wage.
And when I think about the cycle of poverty that that person got stuck in... I know you talked about not wanting to talk about systems, but talking about people within that system having that personal story - it really highlights some of the things in our own community that I think are failing. They're failing our kids. They're failing just generally people who have been here for generations and folks who are newer here. And while there's a lot of great things to be said about Bend, there is a really huge income disparity. We have socioeconomic lines across the city. Even when people look at where I live - it's kind of an up and coming neighborhood - but people make comments like, Wow, there's that trailer park that's over there. Don't you feel unsafe? And so, that's kind of what's heartbreaking is that there's that division. We have a lot of really well-intentioned folks that have money, that have means and ability and privilege to be able to do things on a very local level, but don't really take the time to get to know and have actual dialogue with everyone else.
(Brief interruption from housemate coming through in the audio version...)
So, when I hear these individual stories, there are spaces where I can make things better. It's interesting - I was applying for a job and I'd asked a friend of mine, What do you see as one of my strengths. And he was like, You're a fixer. You're that person that's always trying to find that little way to makes things better. And so, whether it's in the context of my work... I'm the only bi-lingual court staff - I speak Spanish and English. Whether it's trying to put all my signs up in Spanish or making sure that things are written at a level that makes sense so its' not all this super legalese. But, I'm always kind of looking at ways to at least find some small solution. It may not be the big solution. For example, we were overhauling our parenting plans and trying to make them serve our population better, acknowledging that there's a whole range of different safety issues that parents who are trying to parent safely have and while they still may be able to parent, they might just need to have more flexible parenting safety provisions. So, the great thing about this community is that you are able to make change if you really want to - if you know how to dig into that space and make a reasoned argument. Because people here are community oriented.
For me, personally, I need to be in a job where I can leave this place a better place than when I started. Whether it's that job space or finding that spark of joy that someone has when they finally figure out how to do that one move in salsa or whether it's me in my own kind of journey in capoeira - it can be really uncomfortable because you have to learn the music and the history and the culture on top of the martial arts piece. It's finding those little spaces where you can leave it a little bit better, leave someone else feeling that they've been helped. And so that's how I kind of get through it because, honestly, in this current political climate, I got pretty depressed after the elections. And my reaction to make myself feel better was like, I'm gonna host a free anti-racism training for the community. And it just happened to fall during Welcoming Week and I was just like, I just need to do this for my brain. To just do something and make it feel like I was being able to impart something that was gonna help other people. And so that's kinda how I cope is I'm forever looking for that thing to leave that mark somehow.
ACT: What do we mean to each other - individual to individual - out in the world?
LO: You know, we used to be a culture and a society of It takes a village - and we've seen it a little bit with these latest snowstorms that have come through - but I think we've really kind of started living in boxes by ourselves and it's become really unhealthy. And what we mean to each other is we really need to re-find that human connection. So much of this world has become kind of an Us vs. Them - the people that live in those trailer parks or the people that live in Northwest Crossing. Those white people. Those brown people. And really realizing that in order for us to really succeed as a community, we need to re-find that human connection and figure out what the heck we have in common rather than what divides us. So, whether that's me sitting there with someone.... I've had this moment where someone was wearing their Make America Great hat in my office and still trying to have that space to make a connection with that person and have that person feeling like they were helped walking out of my office at work. Because I have to deal with a very large variety of people and realizing that that person sitting there who may have done things that seem outrageous to me is still a human being. So, I'm really feeling like that's the way that our meaning with each other needs to be moving towards because this divisiveness is just causing everyone to implode, whether it's locally or on a nationwide level.
ACT: The follow up to that was going to be "What does community mean to you?", but I feel like you just answered it. My impression is that not everybody shares your view. Life has become very compartmentalized and there are all these boxes and you are this and they are that and you make this money and they make that or blah blah blah, on and on and on. There seems to be an infinite number of ways to create that otherness. So, what is it about "It takes a village", what is it about your sense of community, what is it about the way that you feel that this is important that you manage to get and that you're trying to perpetuate? And why is it so difficult sometimes to make that point clear?
LO: I think it's really difficult to make that point clear because for people who making the connections won't necessarily make their individual circumstance feel better, they have the privilege to not step into it. And by that I mean, for example, when we look at doing anti-racism work, I do it out of survival as someone who has experienced hate crimes based on the color of my skin or where people think I'm from. I don't have a choice but to engage it. I don't have choice but to find that connection with that person who's being hateful because my survival depends on it. There are other people who by virtue of the privileges they have, whether it's money or being part of a society that makes it just a little easier to be white or to be a man or to be able-bodied or to be beautiful or all of those different places where anyone can hold privilege, including myself - I hold privilege of education and having grown up in an upper middle class family - it's easy to not engage because it doesn't really impact us. Right?
For me, let's talk about my privilege of education - I can say, You know what, I don't really have much invested in making the educational system better because I'm already there. Me engaging in it isn't gonna necessarily make me better or my life better, so I have that privilege to take a step aside. But let's say we have someone who's living down the street who’s got children who are in that school system that's broken - that's not teaching things in a way that's gonna allow all kids to come up in a way that gives them a chance - that person is gonna do it because of that necessity.
So, I think part of the reason why it's hard for everyone to step in is because some people have that privilege to not have to care and they can focus on their own lives and the small spaces in which they're feeling like, Well, actually, this thing is impacting me badly, so let's focus on that. Rather than looking at that bigger picture. But it's that privilege to be able to say, Today, I'm too tired to deal with it. As a white person doing anti-racism work, I'm too busy. I have my own life things, so I'm gonna take that step away for a second. I think that's where we all get caught up. We all kinda get caught up in our own immediate needs and, as human beings, we're essentially selfish human beings. Right? I have a selfish need to advance equity work because it impacts my day-to-day.
ACT: Do you have a sense of purpose or a compulsion to live a values-based life and a sense of responsibility to affect positive change?
LO: I do think that I have this drive to leave the world a better place than when I entered it or at least not to cause harm - at the very least not to cause harm. There is something that drives me to make things better. I don't know where that comes from - it's just kind of this internal thing that kinda comes out. As far as values-based, I'm always trying to learn because I don't have all the answers now. I'm forever reassessing what that is.
ACT: Do you feel a responsibility to affect positive change?
LO: I do. I actually feel it from a couple different places. I feel it from within. There's definitely this cycle of, I should be doing this. I'm not doing enough. To, Oh my gosh, if I keep doing all of this I'm not gonna be around to continue doing this work. And then, externally, I feel like I get a lot of that pressure, too. Especially in a smaller community like ours, if you're seen as a mover or shaker or an activist, all of a sudden - and this is where I talk about being a reluctant activist - is you start getting asked to do a lot of things. So, if you're a qualified person that comes from a marginalized community, that can speak in terms that the mainstream community can understand, all of a sudden you get asked to do things left and right.
I had several people, for example, approach me to throw my hat in for the empty seat on City Council that Sally Russell vacated and I just... I had to kinda dig my heels in and say no because I felt like people were putting that responsibility on me. They're like, Well, LeeAnn, but you would be so good. Or they do that to a lot of my colleagues, too, You would be so good. You need to do this thing. But these are the same people that are being asked to do twenty other things. So I get a sense of feeling responsible because the community's asking me and also that internal voice that's saying, You need to do all these things. And that's where I really try to lean in to the things that keep me sane, which is dance, art, music, being outdoors, riding my bike - whatever it is - to find that balance so that I can kind of shut that sense of too much responsibility off.
ACT: Do you have anything that you'd like to ask me?
LO: What's been the biggest thing that you've learned about our community from this project? Kind of the big takeaway...
ACT: Well, this is interview 121, so I don't know that I've interviewed enough people to make up my mind about this particular geographic community. And it's also not scientific, right? There's a heavy lean for people to kind of have good answers for these questions. And the answers, to a slightly varying degree, are the same. And so I guess I've learned something through that - that we want to be perceived in a way. We want to be seen and heard as being caring. We want the world to know that we're dissatisfied with the state of things.
I think one of the things that I've learned… and I learn what I want, too, right? I kind of curate my own learning experience. But one of the things that I've learned through this is that it's difficult for people to be vulnerable even when they're given a direct opportunity and a safe opportunity to be. Maybe that's an oxymoron, I guess - safe vulnerability.
LO: Well, how would you describe this as a safe opportunity? Because I think that can mean different things to different people.
ACT: Yeah, right. It can definitely mean different things to different people. If I had the chance to become friends with these 121 people, for example, intimately - really know them and do these interviews, maybe years of having a relationship, and if A Community Thread, as an entity, was more popular or people were seeing that it had a greater effect in real, tangible ways, I think people might be more inclined to answer the questions in a way that I think that they can and in a way that I think would be more contagious positively and affect more positive change.
So, I try to model it. In this answer it's not uncommon for me to have been crying during this. But that's my take. That's my experience in the world. Yeah, I'm disheartened about the way things are, too, but this is my attempt to make it better. I just don't see the point of getting ahead as a singular entity when everything else stays the same or maybe even gets worse. On one hand it's refreshing - what I learn about people through this process. On another hand, it's very frustrating because I want people to meet me in a slightly different space. On one hand it helps me to understand that as I go out in the world and engage and disengage to varying degrees that there are people that do care. And that changes my perception of humanity. There's people from all over the country and the world here in Bend, right, so it's not just this is some weird Central Oregon town where nothing has ever happened. There's plenty of influence here. So, I think I'm getting an example of the world. I wouldn't say there's one big takeaway. There's not something that I could put into my elevator pitch that says this is what I've learned about people through this project. It's very early, even though it's year three...
LO: I agree. I noticed as I went through some of the previous interviews, people try to present this curated face, right? I think a part of that, though... it's hard to create a space for vulnerability, I think, on a first meeting. And so I think that this conversation could have been really different if we'd had an initial conversation kind of just like off the record. And maybe having your personal take on the project and what you're looking for and then to have a little space and then to come back and have a second conversation. Because I know that I can be open in a way that's different when I've already established some kind of connection with whoever the interviewer is. So, just something I would think about. If you're really looking for that space of What's that vulnerable, nitty-gritty underside, and is this person willing to share it in this public space?, I think that comes with needing to create a little bit more of a relationship or connection or trust piece there, I think, before people are just gonna spill that stuff.
ACT: Yeah. I don't know. I think that's individual to individual and also based on how little opportunity we have to show who we are out in general, day-to-day activities - out in public. Whether you're driving in the car, are you using the signal? Or you're letting someone in or you're helping your neighbor shovel. We don't often have chance after chance after chance to prove ourselves, so this is one opportunity, I think, where people can articulate themselves in whatever way they wish. And there's only so much that I think I should do to twist people's arm. So, I don't know. That's just an observation. And it changes a little. It takes people's time, too. This takes planning and effort and trying to cordon off the apartment for the day and this kind of thing. So, then, trying to do that twice with people... there's a lot to it.
Do you have anything that you'd like to say in closing?
LO: No, but if you want something that's a little bit more real... I think when we talk about struggle in our personal life, our communities, I definitely have been struggling a lot with a sense of anger and frustration in doing equity work. When I say I'm a reluctant activist, I'm really speaking to the way that I'm able to engage with meaningful white progressives in our community. And so I was tiptoeing a little bit around that, but I come in and out of some of these spaces because of my real frustration with people being in spaces and not being able to share those spaces and really respecting the voices of color or voices that come from marginalized communities.
I was just at the Muse Conference this weekend and all these folks came out to see these big-ticket activists of color that are known nationwide because they've been splattered over Twitter or Instagram or whatever, but there's very little showing up for the leaders of color in our own community. So, that's something that I really struggle with. And that's kind of part of why I have tried... I'm working with Erin and Kerani with Allyship in Action to really be more intentional and constructive about it. And working with other people that come from marginalized communities to be able to keep engaging in the work without feeling so just angry all the time. Because I can forgive the person who has yelled the crappy thing to me out their window that's racist or misogynistic or whatever because often times there's a whole context behind that where I'm like, Okay, that was your upbringing or your context in life and that's just displaced anger. And then there's folks who think that they kind of know everything - educated people who have the means and the ability to know better. Like the people who didn't vote in the last election. Those are the people I really get livid about.
So, when I do talk about being a reluctant activist, there is a lot of anger there. And that's one of the hardest parts about being in this community - is being in that work and trying to share that space with white progressives who don't want to relinquish control of their little corner of the equity pie sometimes. So, I'll leave it at that - a little bit more of an honest note at the end.
* As I mentioned in the introduction, my interview with LeeAnn prompted some heavy thinking in me on the subject of racism. Maybe you aren’t too interested in hearing what another white guy has to say on that topic. If that’s true, then you can skip this next part. If you are curious, then please read on.
There is an overwhelming white presence here in Bend. The State of Oregon has a very racist history and I don’t doubt we are suffering the consequences from those past decisions. As someone who has lived in major cities all across America and abroad, I don’t feel very comfortable with the demographic here. But, I am a white male, so my perspective is certainly different than that of any minority. And it is very easy for me to blend in, as it were. As the creator of this project, I take on somewhat of a curatorial role, but as this is also a mostly referral-based project, I find myself in the position of interviewing whoever another participant recommends.
I tell people that I welcome diversity of all kinds, but the fact of the matter is that Bend is 92% white, which, according to the numbers I just ran, makes this project a fairly accurate representation of this particular population. But, I struggle with that. Is that okay? I’d like to see more diversity of all kinds here and I’d like to better highlight the diversity that is in this community.
For my previous project - I Heart Strangers - I used to walk the streets of wherever I happened to be (mostly Boston and Denver) and pick someone to talk to and make a portrait of. I did this for 625 consecutive days and I was keenly aware of fairly representing ages, genders, colors, shapes, sizes, etc. And that daily decision ultimately had a very strange effect on me and began to cause me anxiety. Why was I choosing to interact with this or that person? Was I responding to a magnetism - some kind of personal instinct - or was I choosing someone simply for these outward qualifiers? I never found much peace in that role and I eventually gave the project up - not entirely for that reason but it definitely played a part in my decision.
As I make my way through the world, I am mostly concerned with matters of the heart, but those aren’t always apparent. Additionally, I can’t tell by looking at someone if they are gay or trans or religious or conservative or if they mistreat their children, partner, or pet. I can see how people act from time to time - how they interact in line at the grocery store or how they behave in traffic - but for the most part we remain a mystery to one another. And that’s why I do this project. I am curious to know more about folks than I tend to find out in the few seconds I may have them as we both go about our lives.
The color of someone’s skin doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about them. It doesn’t tell me how or where they were raised, how they vote, how intelligent they are, how caring they are, how funny they are, or how capable they are. But for some reason that I can’t seem to wrap my head around, it matters to so many folks. It matters for so many wrong reasons and so much hate and harm comes from this one judgment, both historically and also present day and both here in the United States and all over the world.
This breaks my heart. I know I’m not going to put an end to this issue with this project, but I do hope I can, at the very least, contribute to the understanding and acceptance that what matters is what is on your heart. What matters is how you treat the people around you. Community has many meanings and brings to mind different things for different folks. For example, I think of our planet as a community and all the people and critters and inanimate natural objects as part of it. And I think it is our responsibility to take care of it and each other. But what I see as I observe is a lot of people mistreating one another in myriad ways - a seemingly endless list of ways. And I don’t know why we can’t seem to break that cycle.
Thanks for hearing me.