April 28, 2014

As a juvenile court counselor for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, John H. Ashford has a daily impact on the lives of young people who have experienced trouble with the law.

In January, Ashford spent time in a small classroom at North Portland’s Roosevelt High School to work with a new group of nearly 100 teenagers who are aspiring to better their lives through writing.

Ashford worked with the Rough Writers, a Roosevelt High program, whose participants help produce the Freedom Riders traveling exhibit, which honors Portland civil rights leaders.

The original Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses in the 1960s in order to challenge local laws and customs that enforced the segregation of public transportation in the southern United States.

Ashford was one of just 22 local civil rights leaders or freedom fighters who were interviewed for the Freedom Fighter Project. For this project, each nominated freedom fighter was interviewed by a team of five students in order to capture their personal testimonies and insights about civil rights.

The students’ informative essays about each freedom fighter provide the content for the “Freedom Fighter Book” published by the school. In addition, they also select quotes and passages that highlight their freedom fighter in order to create the Freedom Riders exhibit that travels to numerous sites in the community such as churches, businesses, colleges and government offices. The exhibit will also be displayed at the National Service-Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. in April.

“I received a call about potentially participating in a Roosevelt High School Freedom Fighter Project,” Ashford says. “I immediately decided to help them out and I was very impressed with the quality of the students’ questions and the energy and enthusiasm that these young people brought to the task.”

Ashford was nominated by either a former freedom fighter, community member or student, said Kate McPherson, the project’s community engagement specialist.

“We try to gather people who reflect various cultural and generational perspectives,” McPherson said.

Ashford has been a member of Multnomah County since moving from Chicago in 1987 and has always cherished his ability to inspire others to change their lives. Before becoming a juvenile court counselor for Multnomah County in 1990, he worked three years as a youth minister for St. Andrew Catholic Church and Immaculate Heart Catholic Church.

“One of the gifts that I was blessed with was my ability to motivate people to find their own way in life,” Ashford says. “I just try to reinforce to the kids I work with the idea that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.”

However, his willingness to improve the lives of his fellow community members extends much further than his job as a juvenile court counselor.

His entire life, Ashford has been interested in helping members of the community to conquer whatever societal barriers they may face as a result of the color of their skin, or how much money they have in their bank accounts.

“My grandfather was a minister in Birmingham, Ala., and my cousin was one of the original Freedom Riders” Ashford says. “I guess it has just always been in my blood to help those who face injustice.”

Ashford is a long-time member of the Portland-based Coalition of Black Men, an open-membership, nonprofit volunteer

 organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life in the community through advocacy, empowerment, social education and economic programs that inspire and impact youth, families and institutions.

Although Ashford enjoys his work with this social justice activist group, he also finds his job as a juvenile court counselor very fulfilling.

Ashford works as a member of the Department of Community Justice’s Intake/Intervention Team, which is often the first

 contact with youth, families and other agencies. Staff in this unit provide intensive case management services to medium- and high-risk juvenile offenders who could be adjudicated.

“As a juvenile court counselor for Multnomah County I get to help the youth I work with find their voices and empower them to become self-sufficient members of the community,” Ashford says.

Though Ashford’s work with the county and Coalition of Black Men allows him to offer guidance to young people, he always looks for other opportunities to mentor youth.

“I want to do whatever I can to help people find their voice so that they can be creative, empowered and productive” Ashford says. “I want to help the people that I work with become critical thinkers so that they themselves can navigate their lives on their own accord. I just go where the people are.”

Among the other Freedom Fighters who were asked to participate in the “Freedom Riders” project were two survivors of concentration camps, writers, politicians and other community leaders.

“I was in awe of the other people being interviewed with me” Ashford says. “All I’ve done is help children and their families... I was just honored to be asked to help out.”

The Rough Writers program was developed by the Roosevelt High School Writing and Publishing Center in order to help students build the technical writing skills they need to graduate and be successful in college and future work endeavors. Oftentimes, the project enhances students’ appreciation of history and increases their sense of community pride

As aforementioned, Ashford pushed for many of the same goals as the Rough Writers program through his role as a community leader against social injustice and in his job as a juvenile court counselor.

“There are some common themes of our community programs that I feel can provide a unified front for social equality such as education, speaking up for injustice and everyone being accounted for” says Ashford. “But really our communities are so complex and diverse that the needs must be adjusted for each community.”

Although people like Ashford have helped our communities progress toward social equality in recent decades, many people still face societal barriers that affect their ability to be successful in school and pursue higher learning.

Programs such as the Rough Writers help to improve this trend. However, members of the Multnomah County community can still do more to build on the work of those who have come before us.

“Roosevelt High is doing their part to create an environment that will help their students to be successful in their future endeavors” Ashford says. “And the community can do more to help them as well. Be involved with schools. Donate. Go volunteer. Do whatever you can to help these kids better themselves.”

The Freedom Riders exhibit, which was on display at the Oregon Historical Society until Feb. 15, is on tour through April. Check out local exhibits this week at Portland Community College - Cascade Campus.

Feb. 26-27: Portland Community College - Cascade Campus

April 2-4: Mt. Hood Community College

The students that make up the Rough Writers have also been asked to bring the exhibit to Washington, D.C. to be a part of the National Service-Learning Conference from April 8-11.

If you would like to support the dreams of our local high schoolers you can purchase the “Freedom Fighter Book” at Roosevelt High School or at one of the community exhibits to help fundraise for their upcoming trip.