This time, he was calling for advice. He had long since gone on to hold a steady job and raise a family. Now, he wanted to do something else that was meaningful: become a drug and alcohol counselor. But he didn’t know if he was cut out for it, even though he had gone through a personal transformation himself.
“I don’t know if I can do it, Rachel,” he said. “It seems really hard.”
“You’ve done hard stuff your entire life,” she told him. “You’re deciding to do something different. You stayed sober. And now you’re deciding you want to give back and help transform other people’s lives.”
Pearl stopped working with Demary years ago. But she’s not the type of person who will stop picking up the phone. She believes all people have something incredible about them. Her mission is to help people realize their value and self-worth.
“People desire to feel connection and belonging,” she says. “Listen to people, believe them, and help them realize they get to be whoever they want to be. Our role as supporters in their lives is to fight for systems change and support folks as they navigate systemic barriers.”
As the new deputy director for Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Services, Pearl hopes to leverage those North Star values to transform lives on a systemic level. With a $314 million budget and nearly 1,000-person staff, County Human Services provides safety net services for some of the County’s most vulnerable people: low-income families, older adults, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and veterans.
This is also the department’s first year administering the voter-approved Preschool For All program, which offers free early childhood education to 3- and 4-year-olds across the county. In Fiscal Year 2023 (the program’s first school year), Preschool for All will serve 675 children, with capacity expanding every year after. The eventual goal: universal access to free, high-quality, culturally responsive and inclusive preschool for anyone who needs it.
Pearl’s leadership guided by unique upbringing in Santa Cruz
In many ways, the job as deputy director is a natural fit for Pearl. For as long as she can remember, she says, her actions have been guided by her desire to help people discover their full potential. From working with incarcerated youth to giving families the tools and opportunities to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, she comes to the County with a mission to help people find their strengths.
She traces that spirit all the way back to her unique childhood in Santa Cruz. Her father, Dr. Arthur Pearl, was a well-known professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. As the founder of an education movement known as the democratic classroom, he preached and practiced inclusion, voice and representation.
Pearl’s mother, Mary, was also an educator. As a former nun, she graduated from Immaculate Heart College with a bachelor’s degree in education. She became a school principal and, after moving with Arthur to Santa Cruz in 1972, served as a school board member and a teacher’s aide for children with special needs.
The Pearl home became a central fixture for political and social justice movements. Every night, the house served as a gathering place for wide-ranging intellectual discussions and campaigns. The Pearls let university students live there in exchange for contributing what they could. One of their tenants kept bees. A pair of oceanographers harvested seaweed.
Those formative years showed Pearl that all people want a sense of belonging and contribution. “Our home became an open door for people who needed a sense of community,” she says. “That's how my parents were. We have community, we create community, we show up for people.”
As a teenager, Pearl discovers power of community building
While she was cultivating a community at home, her dad’s public persona sometimes drew unwanted attention. High school was difficult. Her dad’s outspoken positions led to harassment from teachers and administrators. Pearl often felt alienated.
At 15, she took her high school proficiency test and enrolled at Cabrillo Community College. Many of her classmates were moms in their 40s who were reentering the education system. They embraced her and her “punk rock” persona.
While Pearl found a support system, many of her peers her age were getting into trouble. A heroin epidemic was sweeping through her community. Wanting to create a safe place for her peers, she formed a coalition of young people to start a teen center. With support from the Santa Cruz City Council, she held a benefit concert to raise money.
She didn’t realize it at the time, but she was discovering her power and passion to mobilize. She was honing her ability to bring the community together to solve problems. People should not be left to suffer alone, she thought. The heroin epidemic was everybody’s business.
“It was a combination of recognizing how big and small I am at the same time,” she says. “I am a little fish in a big pond, and I can also make a huge amount of difference.”
She continued to get involved with big events, earning money as a rock show photographer. In 1996, she covered the inaugural Tibetan Freedom Concert, which featured acts including the Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Björk, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, and A Tribe Called Quest.
When she was 18, her work took her to New York City. She lived there for a year, before changing her mind and moving back home after her father went into heart surgery. It was supposed to be a valve replacement, and she was assured that she didn’t need to come back to see him, because everything was going to be fine. Her dad went into surgery and she went to work.
She came back to 67 messages on her answering machine. Something went wrong during the surgery. “Your dad isn’t going to make it,” her mom said. “You need to come home.”
But the earliest flight back was the next morning. For the rest of the night she sat by herself in her apartment, 2,500 miles away from the people she loved.
“It was the worst night of my life to that point,” she said.
Fortunately, her dad survived. But coming home, she realized she didn’t want to be far from her family. Her parents were aging, and she wanted to be with them during the next chapter of their lives. She passed up plans to study at New York University, and returned to California.
Early restorative justice work defines career path
Something drew her back to helping others. She started working in a long-term correctional facility for boys, completing an honors thesis on the role of exposure to violent death on risk behaviors in boys who are incarcerated. She interviewed 25 boys who had been through the system about their experiences witnessing assaults and murders.
“It defined what I wanted to do,” she said. “I really wanted to work with people who feel there is nothing for them, oftentimes through no fault of their own, but through structural inequities and trauma.”
She started working in restorative justice, helping victims and offenders understand crime as a violation of relationships. At the same time, she also had to establish boundaries. She wasn’t able to support everyone at overcoming the systemic barriers that come between them and their dreams. Some lost their lives after leaving the facility. She had to keep her energy focused on the kids who still had an opportunity at living.
Pearl knows some people might find it difficult to work closely with people incarcerated for violent acts. But she said she always made sure to see the human-ness in each person. She also believes it’s difficult for people to imagine what they would do if they ever found themselves in a similar situation. Race, class and privilege all affect the options that people have.
Pearl is quick to add that her feelings were not painted with naïveté. She feels strongly that accountability should never cause further harm and that the opportunity to repair harm is critical to a healthy society. And she’s seen both sides.
“My cousin was murdered,” Pearl says. “I know what it's like to have someone who was taken from you by someone who chose to take their life.”
Former justice-involved youth: “She inspired me to stay on the correct path”
Pearl worked with incarcerated youth in San Francisco until 2001, when her dad — at age 85 — accepted a teaching position at Washington State University Vancouver. She decided to join her parents in moving north. Her mom had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and she wanted to be close with her during the end of her life.
Portland was also calling Pearl’s name, and there was an organization called Youth Progress serving young people in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. She got a job leading a transitional program for adolescents.
She set about building programs that leveraged people’s strengths, created networks and helped teens integrate into their communities. Much of it was intuitive. She leaned heavily on the lessons of democratic education instilled by her father. If kids had a stake in their development, they were more likely to succeed.
When Sam Demary met Pearl, he was in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority and staying in a group home. At the time, it seemed like Pearl was the only one who would listen to him.
“She inspired me to stay on the correct path,” he says now. “She’s one of the people in my life I don’t want to disappoint.”
Something about her made him willing to open up and be vulnerable. After completing the program, he had the stability he needed to take control of his life. He found a career, he raised a daughter and he discovered hobbies he liked.
After his most recent conversation with Pearl, he moved forward with his decision to become a drug and alcohol counselor. As someone who has completed treatment, he thinks he can be a role model for people facing similar struggles.
“I’m very productive, consistently looking for ways to better my life,” he says. “We all have our ups and downs and, through those, she gave me an idea of how to stay on the path.”
In 2010, Pearl developed GREEN Corps, a restorative justice program in Clackamas County that offers urban horticulture and small business training for justice-involved youth. The program allows youth to pay restitution fees while also building skills in farming, food, customer service, bicycle repair and forestry.
In one instance, youth in the program helped rebuild a fence in their neighborhood. Many of were in trouble for low-level crimes like vandalism. The project let them work in their community alongside their neighbors and see their value as contributors.
Ethan Foreman met Pearl in 2016 through the program.
In Pearl, he overcame his distrust of adults, he said, and found someone who was exploratory without being judgmental. He says she would spend a lot of time with him and his peers, really getting to know them and talking with them about their goals.
Pearl mentored Foreman while he paid restitution for a vandalism charge. Through community service work with a coffee company and a garden, he learned how to repair harm in a way that benefited both him and the community.
Now he works as an employment specialist, supporting people on-site at their jobs. Many of his clients are people who have disabilities or are differently abled. He attributes his success, in part, to Pearl.
“I had not experienced an environment where community was centered around moving beyond our failures,” he says. “For me, she gave me hope.”
Pearl: “I see the government as an access point”
In 2017, Pearl joined the Portland chapter of Friends of the Children as the director of program partnerships and innovation. The national nonprofit connects youth facing systemic obstacles with professional mentors.
On her first day, Pearl sat at a table with four high school girls. They were talking about what they for a career. One wanted to be a lawyer. Another, a pediatrician. And another hoped to join the Coast Guard. Pearl was struck that the girls — despite their obstacles — saw such a clear future for themselves.
“I felt in that moment that Friends of the Children was helping these young people understand their ability to contribute to spaces,” she said. “They had a sense of, ‘I will get the future that I want because I know that I have everything I need within myself to do that.’”
In 2019, Pearl was promoted to chief program officer. In August 2022, the nonprofit made news when its national headquarters received a $44 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. It was the largest single gift in the organization’s 30-year history.
This summer, a recruiter approached her about the opening for the Department of County Human Services’ deputy director. Lee Girard, the interim deputy, was preparing to retire. Pearl was drawn to the opportunity to influence systems. Working in government presented an opportunity to make a large-scale change.
After a competitive interview process, Pearl accepted the job. But only, she said, after consulting with her partner and her children — and her sister, who lives in South Africa.
“Multnomah County got a gem,” said Phillip Johnson, a co-worker at Friends of the Children. “She’s very nice, but she’s a fighter. She has a quiet strength that is admirable, and she knows how to deal with adversity.”
Her first day was Sept. 19. Pearl says she’s been focused on meeting the staff and learning how she can support their work. She wants to understand what is already happening, because there’s already “incredible work underway.”
“I see the government as an access point,” she says. “Everyone has a touch point. If we continue to create solutions that work for everyone, we will find less need to patch holes.”
Mohammad Bader, director of the Department of County Human Services, is excited about the expertise Pearl brings, especially when it comes to serving young people. He envisions her playing a significant role in supporting the growth of Preschool for All.
“What I like about Rachel is her deep commitment to improving services for the most vulnerable,” Bader says. “In her first few weeks she showed great enthusiasm and hit the ground running. She is honest, candid and brings an unmatched level of energy to this department. I’m glad to have her on our team.”
Outside of work, Pearl spends a lot of time with her kids, going to fitness classes with her daughters, and gardening. She and her husband, Jeremy, have four children: Kaiya, Mila, Israel and Jorey. In the past year, the family moved back into their home after a fire nearly destroyed it.
As Pearl reflects on her new role, she said she can’t help but think about her dad, who passed away in 2018. To honor his life and legacy, she co-founded the Pearl Democratic Remote High School in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school graduated its inaugural class this year. Her daughter was among the graduates.
“My parents would be proud,” Pearl says. “Out of the privilege that I was born with comes obligation, not choice, to ensure others have access to the same privilege I was born with, and to ensure that I leave the world in better shape than I found it. I am working hard to live up to that obligation.”