Community Voices: Dr. Dalton Miller-Jones, Central Oregon Leadership Council
Dr. Dalton Miller-Jones is a retired Portland State University professor emeritus who now lives in Bend, where he pursues work in the area of identity and learning. An OCF Leadership Council member, he’s one of more than 1,600 OCF volunteers across the state. We spoke with Dr. Miller Jones about his distinguished career, his work in education, civil rights and organizing for racial justice in Central Oregon.
OCF: How you're doing in these interesting times?
DMJ: It's going well surprisingly well. I don't get in my car and drive from La Pine to Bend and Redmond and Prineville for all kinds of meetings all the time. Being stationary and somewhat restricted in my movements has forced me—I'm going to say, provided the space that I need—to be more reflective about what I'm doing to go deeper into areas that I’d normally be rushing through. There’s been a shift in time and space for me with COVID.
OCF: Tell us a little about your career.
DMJ: I've been always curious about what makes us work, what makes us tick. I love the attempted objectivity in the sciences. My master's thesis involved work around a structure in the brain stem, which has a role in directing attention. After my master's degree I became a science curriculum developer. Before that I got involved in community organizing and became the director of the Northern Student Movement in Boston. We held the nation’s first citywide boycott of public schools in Boston and established “freedom schools,” until the school board met our demands for equity. And so cognitive developmental psychology became the place where my work around equity in education and my interest in neuroscience came together.
My research has focused on the impact of culture on development and learning, especially for African American and Indigenous First Nations children. I studied reading acquisition and teachers’ attitudes and responses to speakers of Black English during reading instruction. I served as research coordinator for the Center for Learning and Teaching in the West, a $10 million dollar National Science Foundation funded collective of five universities, whose purpose is to improve mathematics and science education, with a special focus on increasing participation in STEM fields among urban and reservation-based Native American, inner-city and rural African American and Latino middle school and high school students. I’m currently working on a book about African American students’ development and school achievement.
I taught at Cornell where I helped to establish the Africana Studies and Research Center, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Williams College, City University of New York's Graduate Center, and at Portland State University from 1991 until 2010, where I also served as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs for three years.
OCF: What are you working on now?
DMJ: Since I moved to Central Oregon from Portland after I retired in 2010, I’ve continued to serve on boards and projects. I continued to work with the Portland African American Leadership Forum (PALLF) to reduce achievement and opportunity gaps. A number of organizations here in Central Oregon that I work with include: Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice & Equity Group, the Central Oregon Diversity Project, the Central Oregon Peacekeepers and The Father’s Group. Most recently I’ve worked with the Restorative Justice & Equity Group to organize a series of “Let’s Talk About Race” town halls for high school students of color.
With the Restorative Justice & Equity Group we’re looking at achievement gaps and the processes of “othering” that are taking place with our Latino community and with the African Americans, First Nations and Asian students as well.
We knew we needed to work with the school teaching staff and the school board. We had met with the principal and leadership at Summit High School at the end of August 2017, pleading for them to adopt restorative justice practices. I have to say the tragic loss of life of an African American student, Deshaun Adderley, to suicide in December as a result of bullying and harassment that he experienced at high school really made an impact. It made our case more urgent.
I think there were over 400 people gathered this past August 12 in Bend, where ICE detained individuals without warrants or even verbal explanations. It’s not the first time that we've pulled together to be advocates for the Latinx community, which is under assault. There is no other word for it. They've been stigmatized and terrorized verbally with microaggressions and intimidation.
Emotionally, psychologically and physically, these forms of intimidation produce levels of stress and anxiety that as a developmental scientist, I know have tremendous impact on the people in these communities. African Americans have been terrorized and bullied and harassed through slavery, and then Jim Crow and continuing on to police actions today. Imagine the school environment we had here in Bend after the last presidential election where dominant culture students paraded around the cafeteria with the American flag, chanting “Build the wall. Build the wall. Go back home, go back home.” You just can't expect these young people to come to school in a frame of mind where they're going to be open to reflect on the content of any kind of teaching.
The Restorative Justice Town Hall project provides opportunities for students of color to talk among themselves with adult support, and to share their experiences around racism and ethnic harassment. Oregon Community Foundation awarded us $20,000 to assist with the implementation of the last town hall on February 28, 2020 and our subsequent training in restorative practices of 39 community advocates and seven teachers who will work with the Bend-La Pine middle and high schools. As soon as we're able to go socially gather again we will do a fourth town hall.
OCF: How does the COVID-19 impact students’ learning, particularly children of color?
DMJ: COVID-19 has disrupted the communities of color perhaps more than other students’ communities. For one thing, the Latinx and First Nations students often have after-school and weekend jobs that provide critically important income to their families. With social distancing most of these jobs have evaporated. In addition the work most of these students do places them and thus their families at serious risk for contracting novel coronavirus.
Having instruction delivered online is also difficult for students in elementary and middle school whose parents may not be able to give the assistance needed to clarify lessons. The technology is also potentially a problem with internet hot spots are not always accessible or reliable. What is desperately needed are teams of instructional support people who have be trained to understand culturally responsive instruction and can work with teachers to assist in students learning. Most authorities familiar with the situation are anticipating dramatic gaps in academic learning.
OCF: Shifting gears, how did you get involved with Oregon Community Foundation?
DMJ: After Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed me to serve on the Oregon State Board of Higher Education in 2010, I chaired the Participation and Completion Committee with representatives from higher ed, the community college, the K-12 system and various community organizations. We met with the African American, Latinx, First Nations, LGBTQ, other-abled and rural communities to explore their barriers to post secondary education. An aspirational goal was to have 40% of Oregon's population with a bachelor or better degree, 40% with at least an associate's degree and the remaining 20% with a high school diploma or high school graduation certificate by the year 2020.
I'd also been asked to serve on then-Portland mayor Sam Adams’s kitchen cabinet to talk about how to how to reduce achievement gaps and how to increase graduation rates.
The Oregon State Board of Higher Education Participation and Completion Committee issued two reports that identified a major barrier to higher education: underrepresented groups didn’t understand the culture of post-secondary education. They didn't know about the college application process and how to apply for financial aid.
We consulted with Oregon Community Foundation to advise us, based on their work in this area. They had been doing some phenomenal funding that did a lot to help students get ready to go to college. When I retired, Belle Cantor at the Oregon Community Foundation asked me if I'd be willing to review some grants for them. Later, Foundation staff here in Bend invited me to do some grant reviews and then they asked me to join the Central Oregon Leadership Council for the Foundation. My term expires this coming fall, but I will continue to work with the Foundation. It’s phenomenal in terms of its commitment to fill in the strategic critical gaps projects need to really make a difference.
This strategic application of financial resources can make huge differences when you're this intimately involved. It's not this anonymous mega-grant deal. It's the $16,000 that helps an organization get over the initial hump and then supports its vital work, like restoring the Deschutes River to its healthiest possible condition. It's more than that, it's bringing together stakeholders—the farmers, the recreational people, the fishery people, the tribes—all around the same table. Oregon Community Foundation helped to pull that off, bringing people that have widely divergent political persuasions together—this country really needs to have that if we're going to move forward.
The support that the foundation has been giving to communities of color—the Latinx community, organizations like the Restorative Justice & Equity Group and others—it's just remarkable, the difference that you can make when you have an intimate relationship with the problem and the resources to help move the situation forward. I am just so proud of the work of the Foundation.
OCF: Please tell us about your activities serving on the Oregon Community Foundation Leadership Council.
DMJ: The Central Oregon Leadership Council officially meets twice a year to share what’s happening in the region and what specific needs are critical for our attention. The Council is extremely competent and knowledgeable about the areas of arts and culture, economic development, political and civic issues, as well as the health and educational needs in the region. We give advice to OCF about urgent needs in communities and how they are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. We voice support for grant opportunities that make a real difference and we encourage donors to consider making gifts to OCF by creating charitable funds to support areas of need.
OCF: What gives you hope?
DMJ: The forces that lead to prejudice, to discrimination, emerged out of the properties of our brain. The brain is a category making machine. However, the values and meanings we assign to those classifications—this one's “good” and that one’s “bad”—are learned from our families, friends and our society, and leads to the kind of implicit bias that we see operating in our culture today, for example the practices in law enforcement.
But it gives me hope that we’re beginning to understand this and we’re beginning to find ways to counteract the predisposition to create the “other.”
I've seen this shift happening with groups working on policies for the Deschutes River Basin, like the Coalition for the Deschutes, accommodating all the potential users and stakeholders. I see it again with Blue Mountain Forest Partners where you have environmental lawyers, advocates for the environment, people who are concerned about the economic base of rural communities all coming together to find solutions.
The work of the Restorative Justice & Equity Group, with its town halls, helped to create a sense of community and belonging for students of color. It also helped to develop leadership skills and engagement in their schools.
I also see signs of real change towards equity and inclusion in steps taken in the election of our local school board, which recently passed an executive limitation contract committing the next superintendent to an aggressive diversity, equity and inclusion agenda. A similar motion was approved by the Bend City Council to establish a human rights and equity commissioner with exceptional powers.
All of these direct actions are positive indicators of progressive changes that give me hope!
OCF: Is there anything that you would like potential OCF donors to know?
DMJ: Oregon Community Foundation works with you to achieve your charitable goals. Most of the donors, I think, want to know that their money really does go directly to where it has an impact, where it makes a difference. This organization is built around that, it wants every penny, if possible, to go toward impacting the conditions that make our lives more fulfilled, healthier, more vital. I think this organization is the one that you want to sit down and work with because they'll help you to achieve your goals and ensure that your contributions have an impact.