Honoring African American Leaders in the Northwest

February 2019
Collage of Joyce Harris, Lyla Brown, Akeema Wignall, and Dr. Damien Pattenaude

To celebrate Black History Month, we recognize the accomplishments of nine leaders and role models from the Pacific Northwest connected to our public schools, higher education and the development of young people.

This year, we honor Akeema Wignall; Curtis Wilson, Jr.; Dr. Damien Pattenaude; Joyce Harris; Kia Addison; Lyla Brown; Melissa Lowery; Muhammad A. Rahman; and Murray Pierce. We asked them to share a few thoughts on topics ranging from their role models, what schools can do better and how African American history has enriched them.

Akeema Wignall

Akeema Wignall is a senior at Idaho State University and the current president of Black Student Association and the Women of Color Association—groups that are striving to create a safe place for minorities to have a voice and be heard.

“I have a deep appreciation for my culture whether it be in American, Caribbean or African,” she says. “In the end, there is always something that pulls my back to my roots.”

“One criticism I have of American schools is that when minority students are trying to find authenticity about our history at a young age, the “truth” we are told is from the perspective of people who try to marginalize and dominate us.”
—Akeema Wignall

Curtis Wilson, Jr.

Curtis Wilson, Jr. has been married for 24 years to his wife Yushonna and has two boys. He attended Roosevelt High School in Portland and the University of Oregon. He is currently the principal at Portland’s Benson Polytechnic High School and the 2018 Oregon Principal of the Year.

“I am proud of all African Americans have accomplished for this country,” he says, “and I believe that I am setting a huge example for the students in my building who can look at me as a role model and support mechanism for them here at Benson Tech.”

“My role model is Dan Malone, one of my most trusted teachers in high school. He was a social studies teacher and track coach at Roosevelt high school and has been part of my life for 35 years. Mr. Malone gave me the opportunity to understand how valuable education was to myself and my family.”
—Curtis Wilson, Jr.

From the Portland Tribune: High school principal of the year Curtis Wilson wants focus on kids, not him

Dr. Damien Pattenaude

Dr. Damien Pattenaude is superintendent of Renton School District in Washington. He grew up attending Renton schools and has served as a teacher and administrator in Renton. His work in the district has always been in service of improving student achievement for all children.

“I know it might be cliché but my parents have been my greatest role models,” he says. “They taught me how to be a man, husband, and father. Additionally, they stressed the importance of service and community.”

“All of us privileged to serve children in our public schools can continue to find ways to help students find their passions and pursue their dreams. No matter one’s role—teacher, custodian, paraprofessional, superintendent, etc.—each of us can play a part in removing barriers and supporting our students.”
—Dr. Damien Pattenaude

From the Seattle Times: Damien Pattenaude had a quick rise to the top of Renton schools … but also a long journey

Joyce Harris

Joyce Harris is an educator and community activist who serves as a manager with a focus on community engagement at Education Northwest. She has won numerous awards over a career that has been defined by her professional (and personal) work in making connections and meeting the needs of communities and educators.

“My role model was Dr. Ethel Simon-McWilliams,” she says. “As CEO of an education research organization, she was a leader in a field where you don’t see many black women, and she was courageous in advocating to ensure that African American children and all children are treated equitably in their education. She influenced me and encouraged me in my career, and I hope that I am able to pass along what I learned from her to the younger women and men who I work with today.”

“I’d like to see schools become more proactive in including black history in their curriculum and social environments. Black students need to see historic role models, particularly in areas like STEM. It’s like the saying goes, 'If you can see it, you can be it.' Schools should celebrate and widen their viewpoints on what African Americans and Africans have contributed to the world.”
—Joyce Harris

From Portland State University and the Black United Front Oral History Project: An Interview with Joyce Harris

Kia Addison

Kia Addison is an undergraduate at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, studying the English language. “I’ve been an intern at Literary Arts, president of Black Student Union at Pacific and other things—but really, I’d like to be known as a writer, sister, speaker and a daughter,” she says.

“African American history has enriched me the same way that reading Gandhi sparked seeds of passive resistance in Rustin Bayard or learning from Socrates inspired deeper contemplation in Plato. I realized that people like me fought for centuries for me to be here, and that if I fight just as hard, in my own way, thousands more can get further than I ever could.”
—Kia Addison

From Pacific University: Kia Addison '20 Seeks Truth in Writing

Lyla Brown

Lyla Brown started the Black Student Union at Montana State University last year and has been serving as the president ever since. She is a junior studying psychology and sociology with a focus on criminology. She hopes to go to graduate school in public policy or law.

“One of my biggest role models is my mom,” she says. “She instilled the values of hard work and determination in me from a young age. She is constantly challenging me to grow into a better version of myself, and I owe her so much.”

“I think that our schools can do better to integrate black history into the curriculum that is taught throughout the year. Black history is American history and having children of color see the accomplishments of other people of color iis so important—because I did not learn enough black history in school!”
—Lyla Brown

Melissa Lowery

Melissa Lowery is a filmmaker and homegrown Oregonian who grew up in West Linn. Black Girl In Suburbia is her first feature documentary based off of her experiences growing up as one of very few kids of color in her area. She is currently working at Jesuit High School as the director of diversity and inclusion.

“I understood and connected quickly with the history of black people in this country not through school, but through generations of my family experiences, storytelling, struggle and resilience,” she says. “African American history is a part of me and who I am. It is hard for it not to be.”

“For me a role model is an imperfect person that encompasses qualities, values and talents that are worthy of respect and acknowledgement. The role models I have looked up to my whole life include family members, teachers and Civil Rights activists. All folks who lit a flame in my belly and gave me the courage and strength to live my best life and be the best me I can be!”
—Melissa Lowery

Muhammad A. Rahman

Muhammad A. Rahman is a teacher and change agent at Floyd Light Middle School in Portland’s David Douglas School District. He currently teaches eighth-grade history and math.

“African American History has been a part of me since I was born,” he says. “It's like having a super power. I have a multi-faceted lens by which I see history that impacts how I teach history to my kids. African American History is U.S. History, and I treat it as such.”

“Schools can do many things better. Understanding implicit bias in our thinking and teaching can pay huge dividends in regards to empathy and culturally responsive practices in our curriculum and discipline. The foundation—the underlying premise of school and the teaching profession—is in need of reimagination that takes these ideas into account.”
—Muhammad A. Rahman

Murray Pierce

Murray Pierce presently serves in the joint role of Special Assistant to the Vice Provost for Student Success and Administrative Representative to the Black Student Union at his alma mater, the University of Montana. For several decades, he has worked in areas centered on exploring, developing, and promulgating issues of diversity, inclusion, cultural competency and identity development for adolescents and young adults.

“My most significant role model was my father,” he says. “He demonstrated daily the importance of starting a task and finishing it to the best of your ability. Most critical to me, he and my mother emphasized the importance of education and giving back to the community.”

“We have moved the dial in several areas of concern relative to the learning experience for all students. However, we are in dire need of expanding our ability to teach diversity and inclusion and its impact beyond the campuses. We need to concentrate greater effort on diffusing cultural stereotypes, deconstructing racism, teaching tolerance and promoting intercultural understanding—invaluable tools directly related to retention. We need to embed these concepts in the fabric of our academic institutions as they are central in providing a holistic education experience. Once learned, these developed skill sets will also express their utility long after students have moved beyond our campuses.”
—Murray Pierce