Joy DeGruy can remember being sent to the store as an 8-year-old to buy cigarettes for her family members and neighbors. She’d carry a note with her so the clerk would know it was OK to make the sale.
“If someone in this room lit up a cigarette right now, two things would happen,” DeGruy said Wednesday in an address in the Multnomah County board room. “One, I think the peer pressure would just put the cigarette out; it would just go out. And if that didn’t work, there are a number of Multnomah County people here that would start diagnosing them. ...Because clearly you have lost your mind if you pull out a cigarette in here.”
What happened between then and now to force the kind of cultural change that makes it not only unfathomable for an 8-year-old to legally buy cigarettes but also illegal to smoke indoors?
“What happened was there was a preponderance of evidence, so much evidence that it forced a paradigm shift,” DeGruy said.
Tobacco companies, she said, have been forced to acknowledge and the general public has been educated on the addictiveness and health hazards of cigarettes. And, as a result, behavior and laws have changed.
DeGruy, who spoke at the Multnomah County Employees of Color Employee Resource Group’s Black History Month program believes America is on the precipice of a similar change in its treatment of racism and other injustices.
“There is a preponderance of evidence that humanity is one,” DeGruy said. “There’s a preponderance of evidence that genius occurs across the spectrum and that beauty and love and light and joy and justice and fairness are not peculiar to any of us. It is part of the human condition.”
DeGruy sounded an optimistic tone even as she acknowledged that the current state of affairs for minorities in America can seem grim. DeGruy said a fear of being usurped, a fear of losing power has created a “struggle to hold on to the old.” That struggle, rooted in white supremacy, is behind the increasingly brazen acts of violence towards communities and people of color, she said.
“It is fear because we are on the precipice. We’re getting ready to have a paradigm shift and when that paradigm shift happens, we will not return to where we are,” DeGruy said. “But this is going to be an ugly fight. The question is where are you going to stand on it?”
She added: “I want to be counted among those that exercised integrity in the moment of choice. I want to be on the record knowing the intrinsic worth of all human beings. I want to be on the record saying that mankind is one and that I embrace that oneness.”
Commissioner Loretta Smith called for equity, diversity and inclusion to serve as actions, not just buzzwords at Multnomah County.
“Black history is American history. As we go forward we can only make progress as a united people,” Smith said. “Diversity is the issue, but inclusion is the answer. The work to be done is too great for each of us to handle alone. We need to link arms and work together.”
Ron Herndon, who has spent decades promoting civil rights in Oregon and who has served as the director of the Portland-based Albina Head Start since 1975, also was presented with the Champion of Change Award. The award is given by the Employees of Color ERG to recognize contributions of community leaders that have pioneered to make a difference in racial equity. Herndon urged those in attendance to become better acquainted with the black community’s long history of fighting for fair and equitable treatment in Oregon, including in the public school system after integration.
“I say to the folks who are here, especially the young folks, change is possible,” Herndon said. “It is very, very possible and certainly if you put out the call…the community will respond. They will answer. It is not easy. It may take months. It may take years. But it is very possible.”