Southern Willamette Valley

Community Voices: Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Southern Willamette Valley Leadership Council

Dr. Yvette Alex-Assensoh is Vice President for Equity and Inclusion at University of Oregon and an OCF Leadership Council member, one of more than 1,600 OCF volunteers across the state. We connected with her about her roles at UO and OCF, Black Philanthropy, Oregon's response to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and more.

OCF: How are you doing in these interesting times? 

YAA: COVID-19 has the entire world on a virtual time out. In my opinion, it’s an opportunity to lean into our own families while also asking how we can best support others during their time of need.

OCF: You’re both VP of Equity and Inclusion and a professor at University of Oregon. You must be busy. Tell us a little about your work.

YAA: I am full professor of political science, with adjunct law-teaching responsibilities in the UO law school. I perform administrative, research and teaching responsibilities at UO. My job is akin to juggling in the sense that I have lots of different types of responsibilities, and it is important to keep the balls floating simultaneously.

I am, as well, blessed to work with an amazing team of about 25 colleagues and alongside a dedicated group of senior campus leaders, including President Schill. The Division of Equity and Inclusion (DEI), through which I serve our campus includes four units that provide holistic advising for students and support services for faculty, staff and undergraduate as well as graduate students. Additionally, I work with President Schill and other senior UO Leaders to design our campus-wide strategy for equity, inclusion and diversity; serve as a confidante and coach on campus and beyond; design systems and processes to build capacity for implementing equity and inclusion strategies; design and present educational and professional development opportunities; connect the university with best practices around our inclusion strategy, which has to anticipate and respond to external local, national and global forces. Due to the sensitive nature of equity and inclusion, a great deal of the work that I do takes place behind the scenes. It is a busy but inspiring schedule, coupled with my family commitments and community service.

OCF: How did you get involved with OCF? 

YAA: The Vice President for People and Culture–attorney Mariann Hyland– encouraged me to consider an affiliation with OCF. She knew of my work on campus as well as in the community and saw me as a good match for helping OCF achieve its very noble goals. It’s also an opportunity for me to share my skills and talents with others. She recommended my name to OCF’s Sara Brandt, with whom I engaged via email and also in a face-to-face meeting. After our conversations, I continued to look into OCF’s work and found that it aligns very well with the goals that I share with my husband (a historian and a trained journalist) and our two sons. The rest, indeed, is history, and I am delighted to serve OCF.

OCF: What do you enjoy most about your role as an OCF Leadership Council member? 

YAA: I enjoy the opportunity to contribute insight and perspective to an organization that provides leadership for our state. I am also blessed to meet with and engage other leaders from around the Southern Willamette Valley and to leverage our respective efforts in ways that improve our state and benefit our students at the University of Oregon and beyond.

OCF: Can you think of any OCF responses to community needs that stand out? 

YAA: OCF’s current effort to address COVID-19 impacts is important, and I am looking forward to helping OCF to be more effective in addressing the disproportionate needs of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian, Desi and Pacific Islander (ADPI) communities.

OCF: August is Black Philanthropy Month. What does Black Philanthropy mean to you? 

YAA: Philanthropy has always been a part of my life and that is consistent with research that shows that Black families tend to give more of their discretionary income—up to 25% more—to charitable causes than other segments of society. In addition to giving money, I grew up in a family that frequently contributed time, resources and talent to diverse segments of our community in Southwest Louisiana. My parents were educators and small business owners, and they instilled in my older sister and me the importance of giving back. In this sense, Black Philanthropy Month provides an opportunity to recognize the ways in which Black people have historically been involved in philanthropy. In addition to giving generally, Black philanthropy is also about supporting organizations, interests and causes that are beneficial and life-giving to black communities worldwide. The next phase of our work is to ensure that we are contributing strategically to organizations that propel wellness and life-giving resources for Black people in Oregon, America and around the world.

OCF: Can you tell us a bit about the scholarship?

YAA: My family had set up a 501(c)(3) that awarded scholarships in honor of my late father, a biologist by training who was also a biology, chemistry and physics schoolteacher, small business owner, an ordained minister and a Baptist Church Pastor for 39 years until he passed away suddenly in 1998. During its active phase, the scholarships were given to science students in K-12 to assist with textbook purchases and other materials to further their interests in science.

OCF: Shifting gears, what’s your view of how Oregon—its people and institutions—is responding to COVID-19?

YAA: The state-level response is far better and progressive than the national response and is also coordinated well with institutions around the state, including our own very effective incident management team at the UO, which is led by André LeDuc and supported by over 100 staff and faculty. Moreover, the funds provided by the state to the Black businesses in the Portland area through the CARES Fund, for example, demonstrate a growing recognition of the role that the state needs to play in providing a specially tailored, albeit partial strategy for ensuring that Black businesses are able to survive and continue to contribute to the economic growth of the state.

OCF: How about Black Lives Matter? 

YAA: In the book, “There is a River,” historian Vincent Harding argued that because of America’s racist history, Black protests in the quest for humanity, freedom and justice are like a river, flowing through centuries of American history. The Black Lives Matter movement is part of the larger river. Founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal Treyvon Martin’s murderer, Black Lives Matter focuses on undermining white supremacy and intervening in all types of violence that undermine Black people’s ability to live successful and healthy lives. I appreciate and support the life-giving and democracy-building work that is taking place through this movement.

OCF: How can we move from where we are now to a more equitable society? 

YAA: Equity begins with a conscious decision in the mind that everyone is deserving of an equal opportunity to achieve. Then, it’s an understanding that most of the gaps that we see in achievement are not a result of personal failings, pathological culture or laziness, but systemic barriers that are embedded in our educational, criminal justice, financial and business structures. We also need to collect, review and leverage disaggregated data as a way of understanding the impact of our decisions. Next, we must act on what the data are telling us, and remove barriers for success, even when it leads to discomfort. Finally, we need to evaluate the new outcomes to ensure that we accomplished what we set out to do, and to continue to have feedback loops that provide consistent and timely updates on equity and inclusion.

OCF: What gives you hope? 

YAA: First, the scripture from Psalm 27:13-14:

I’m sure now I’ll see God’s goodness
  in the exuberant earth.
Stay with God!
  Take heart. Don’t quit.
I’ll say it again:
  Stay with God.

Second, the strategic, non-violent leadership of the younger Black generation and their use of technology.

Third, collaboration by people of all backgrounds joining in as allies to lead change from their spheres of influence. God works through people, so the word gives hope and we, the people, provide evidence that history is moving forward in more equitable and inclusive ways.

OCF: Is there anything you would like donors and prospective donors to know?

YAA: Philanthropy meets important needs and inspires innovation. The support and generosity of donors is appreciated, and donors are encouraged to fully appreciate (rather than underestimate) the impact of their gifts. At the same time, the essence of true leadership is being able to see ahead and into the future. In this unique moment in world history, I am encouraging our donors at OCF to see ahead of others regarding the tremendous opportunity to sow into the lives and passions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and ADPI youth as well as the organizations that serve them. I also encourage them to educate themselves and to use their talents, time and treasure in ways that bring greater visibility, awareness and support to small business, corporate, civic, religious and educational organizations established by Black Americans and for the benefit of the African American community.

OCF: What else we haven’t asked that you would like to share?

YAA: My husband and I are parents of two awesome adult sons: Kwadwo Stephen Alex Assensoh and Livingston Alex Kwabena Assensoh. My current writing project focuses on the LACE framework—a system for engaging students, teams and organizations around the values of love, authenticity, courage and empathy.