Like many high school seniors, Byronie McMahon is waiting anxiously to hear back on her college applications. Unlike most, she squeezed 12 applications in between classes at Cleveland High School, volunteering with nonprofits and serving as the only student representative on the Board of Education at Portland Public Schools.
At 17, Byronie serves on the Facilities and Operations Committee of the Board of Education, managing PPS assets and overseeing major projects. She is a student representative on the PPS District Student Council and now runs the Council as part of her duties.
McMahon was named this year’s Jennifer Beegle Award, named for a woman who became an advocate and civic leader despite poverty. Jennifer was serving as a Multnomah County Youth Commission when she died at 17 in a car crash.
McMahon honors Beegle’s legacy through her own “spirited giving and tenacity of spirit,’’ said Alvin Chan, cochair of the Multnomah County Youth Commission for the County and City of Portland.
As a young BIPOC woman growing up in an interracial family with a foreign-born father, McMahon has a unique worldview, according to Casey Nokes, a Portland attorney who also coaches McMahon’s mock trial team and nominated her for the award. “ But she would not tell you that those presented her barriers or struggles, but rather perspective and advantage.”
“My parents (Sara and Nicholas) were super advocates for us,’’ said McMahon, of herself and her little sister. They were also volunteers.
“They were always volunteering,’’ she said in an interview. “We were a food bank (volunteer) family.”
McMahon has been involved in student government since middle school and is currently senior class president. She is also on the board of Recycled Living, a non-profit focused on climate-friendly solutions for homelessness in Portland. She also volunteers as a research team member for Oregon Student Voice, a non-profit run by Oregon students. And in 2021, was selected by the American Civil Liberties Union summer program.
“I just liked to do stuff and tried to see where I could help and add value, and the administrators at CHS, teachers, board members, all encouraged me to get involved as much as I possibly can.’’
One of her proudest objectives has been helping the District Student Council become a majority of students of color.
“Any effort you make is the effort of the whole and I never want to leave behind the people who brought things along, she said. “It’s my community, our teachers, our parents, and our community members. I don’t attribute successes to myself at all.”
“You are clearly making your mark now and will continue to make that mark,’’ said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. “Thank you for all you do. It’s hard enough to be a young person and a student and you are doing all this stuff on top of that.’’
Being so active in government and civic activities isn’t easy. She daily juggles classwork with Board duties and friends and family and admits there have been sacrifices.
“I’ve never been to a party in my life,’’ she said with a laugh. “A lot of my social life is with friends who are also involved.’’
At a time when many people are pessimistic about the future of democracy and the climate, McMahon says “optimism is the best tool for making things better, that as well as gratitude. I say to a lot of the board members, “I am the luckiest kid in the world because I represent the best kids in the world. You can get sucked into how horrible things are, you have to look at the opportunities and try to make things work.”