Celebrating Black History Month

Black History Month celebrates both the historical and modern-day contributions made by phenomenal African Americans.

This week is the start of Black History Month, an annual celebration of both the historical and modern-day contributions made by phenomenal African Americans.

This commemoration happens in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. While it is important to honor the contributions of Black people year-round, this month is dedicated to recognizing Black trailblazers who have contributed to the good of our society.

This month, deputy director Nakeia Daniels and I asked several of our African American teammates to talk about their work at our agency while also reflecting on the people who have inspired them. It’s important that, rather than focusing only on the past, we also shine a light on current people continuing to impact our world.

You’ll see our interviews with these teammates below, but first, we wanted to call out a few inspirational Black historical figures:

  • Thurgood Marshall: A lawyer and civil rights activist, Marshall was the first African American to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before serving on the nation’s highest court, Marshall’s legal work had vital impacts on the rights of African Americans. He argued the case Brown v. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. (Recommended reading and viewing: “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary” by Juan Williams; the 2017 film “Marshall”)
  • Janet Mock: Mock is an Emmy-nominated writer, director, and executive producer for the TV series Pose and for two Netflix series, Hollywood and Monster. She is the first transgender person to sign a production pact with a major studio. She also is the New York Times best-selling author of two memoirs, Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty.
  • James Baldwin: Baldwin was an American writer and activist who gained wide-spread critical acclaim for his essays, novels, plays, and poems that frequently tackled the issues of masculinity, race, class, and sexuality. He was also an outspoken activist and public figure during the civil rights movement. (Recommended reading and viewing: Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” or “The Fire Next Time”; the 2017 film “I Am Not Your Negro”)
  • Marie Maynard Daly: Daly was the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry in the U.S. She conducted important studies cholesterol, sugars, and proteins and how these affect the body. Daly also helped develop programs to increase the enrollment of minority students in medical school and graduate science programs.

The Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations is currently planning Black History Month events at several of our facilities. If you hear about one of these events happening at your facility, we hope that you’ll participate.

Please read on to learn more from some of our inspiring teammates. Also, Nakeia and I hope you take some time this month reflect on the countless historical and modern-day accomplishments of African Americans.

Robert Mountain, acting field supervisor

Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Lake counties

Headshot of an African American man, smiling, standing outside, wearing a gray t-shirt

Robert Mountain joined OYA in 2005 as a group life coordinator (GLC) at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. He worked there for seven years before becoming a juvenile parole/probation officer (JPPO) in the Jackson County field office. About two years ago, he took on the role of field supervisor.

Before coming to OYA, Mountain worked as an advocate for homeless youth at a youth homeless shelter in Eugene and at the Medford School District.

Q: What is your approach to working with OYA youth?

“I’ve always tried to meet youth where they’re at. I try to find things to help engage them, whether it’s through the relationship with myself, or just finding ways to connect them with others who can mentor or guide them. Whatever the situation, I try to present a whole bunch of options and have them be part of that so they feel they are part of the process, the solution, and the results. And I just listen. I try to let youth be heard and be really clear about expectations and what their situation is going to be like.”

Q: What is something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“Through my career I’ve always had particular youth who I was very proud of. One that sticks out is a youth who came from a situation that was completely drug-affected, and the first day I met him, he said he was ready to change. I was very proud of the accomplishments that he made during his time with us.

“I also worked on Delta unit at Rogue Valley as a GLC. I worked with two other staff on that shift and we really had a lot of pride around our ability to de-escalate youth verbally instead of physically. It was because of the problem-solving we did and the relationships we had with the youth. Every day I showed up for work and I was on fire because of the environment we had created.

“I’m also proud of the team that I work with now. We’ve gone through many difficult situations as an office in the last few years, but this is an excellent and amazing team to work with.”

Q: Who is one of your favorite Black historical figures and why?

“I have always been fascinated with the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a brilliant, educated, motivated person who was really challenging the minds of the Black community and the world as a whole. He was instrumental in developing the NAACP, and he was always looking at ways to lift up the spirit of the African American community through the mind. When I read “The Souls of Black Folk,” it really inspired me to take a look at the deep institutional divide and the consciousness of the African American mind living in an environment where there’s a huge color line. In 1903, this was radical stuff. He was under a lot of pressure and scrutiny, and he was constantly pushing it.”

Rosa Howard-Mumford, security manager

Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility

Headshot of older African American woman with long braids, wearing a black sweater and a scarf

Rosa Howard-Mumford joined OYA in February 2009 after a 21-year career with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where she worked in at least 10 different locations and moved her way up the ranks before deciding to retire.

However, she found herself still wanting to work, so when she saw an opening for a treatment manager at Oak Creek, she applied. She held that job for only a few months before moving to the security manager position, which she has held ever since.

Q: What is your approach to working with OYA youth?

“I’m still learning. One thing I have to remember is that, even though I’m a mom, you can’t fix them, and they’re not yours. I tend to look at everything as a mother would, and I think, ‘What if it was my daughter?’ You have to find that happy medium between getting too emotionally involved and staying professional. You’ve also gotta be human. You need to show that you care and you want to help, but then there’s that line you can’t cross or else you’ll be an emotional wreck yourself.”

Q: What is something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“The population in Oregon, when it comes to African American youth, is not as diverse as some places I have lived. When I first came here, I noticed the African American girls’ hair looked bad. The water was hard, it was tough on their hair, and they didn’t have the right shampoo. Everybody knows when you get your hair done, you always feel better. I got with Mr. Riggan, took over the hair program, and we were able to get the products and things they needed for their hair. We were also educating the staff that if a girl wants to braid her hair, that’s fine — you cannot deny a kid hair care if they’re sitting at a desk. Doing your hair is like brushing your teeth — it’s all part of getting your day started. Some staff didn’t understand that some people’s hair is just different. Now they’ve learned, and they pass that information on to newer staff, and it’s a whole lot better.”

Q: Who is one of your favorite Black historical figures and why?Maya Angelou. With all that she went through in her life, I love the way she was able to put it into words and speak not just to African American people, but to everybody. To come from where she came, especially during that time, when women weren’t supposed to be educated — it laid the groundwork for other women, that you can use your voice to get things done and be a strong woman.”

Johnny Demus, youth services coordinator

Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations

Headshot of an African American man smiling, wearing glasses and a purple polo shirt with black leather jacket

Johnny Demus just retired at the end of January after more than 25 years working for OYA. He started with the agency in October 1995 as a group life coordinator at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. After about three years, he went to work as a GLC on a behavior modification unit located at the time in Portland.

After that, he worked for several years as a juvenile parole/probation assistant (JPPA) in The Dalles and then out of the Multnomah County office. In about 2009, he became a youth services coordinator for what was then the Office of Multicultural Services, the precursor to today’s Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations. He served on the OIIR team until his retirement.

Q: What is your approach to working with OYA youth?

“Be truthful. I always felt that these kids are already getting a bad situation as it is, so why make their situation worse by not telling them the truth? But it took me a while to get to that point. Initially I worked with kids because I am an African American man and I grew up in the ghettos of Los Angeles, so I knew the situation a lot of them were in. I was trying to spread some truth to the guys about what they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. I never changed that approach, but I also became more hands-on with more one-on-one interactions when I was working with kids out in the community.”

Q: What is something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“Overall, I would have to say being able to go to the different facilities to do cultural events, and especially doing the good majority of the cultural events at the North Coast and Tillamook facilities. At those facilities, during the time North Coast was open, the staff wasn’t as diverse, so I’m proud of getting to bring those cultural events to the staff and youth.”

Q: Who is one of your favorite Black historical figures and why? “My mama. She came from South Carolina to California, and she didn’t have a lot of education. She was a single parent, raising me in south central L.A., and our situation wasn’t the best but she never complained. My mom survived and wanted to make sure I survived, and her lessons were, ‘You get your education, you get a job, and you can be whatever you want to be.’”

Veronika Evans, acting case coordinator

Jasper Unit, MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility

Young African American woman with long braids and wearing a black v-neck shirt

Veronika Evans joined OYA in May 2019 as a group life coordinator 2 at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. She had previously worked with youth at the Youth Progress residential program in Portland.

Currently, Evans is on a rotation as the case coordinator for Jasper Unit. She became interested in working with marginalized youth partly due to her own childhood in southern California, where she saw many people joining gangs, doing drugs, or dying young. Her father was also in the military and was a police chief, which got her interested in working with young people in the justice system.

Q: What is your approach to working with OYA youth?

“Mutual respect is a big one, and accountability. If I’m talking to you respectfully, I expect you to talk to me respectfully. The guys know that if they can’t do that, then the conversation with me is ended until they can be respectful. It gives them time to stop, think, and take accountability for what their actions were before we interact again.” 

Q: What is something you’ve done at OYA that you’re proud of?

“Putting myself out there to facilitate Street Smarts groups across campus. I’m getting out there to know the youth on a different level. I can actually see how their lifestyle has gotten them here, but also see that it’s a part of them. It helps build trust when I hear their background and they hear my background, and then they feel more like they can come and talk to me.” 

Q: Who is one of your favorite Black historical figures and why?Maya Angelou. I was introduced to her by my grandma growing up. My grandma’s favorite poem was ‘Still I Rise.’ I have a tattoo of it that I got in memory of my grandma. No matter what you do, you still have that obligation to rise up, no matter how far down you feel like you are.”

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