Ashland panel discussion focuses on impact of racism in Southern Oregon

From left, Urban League of Portland President and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson, Ashland City Councilor Gina DuQuenne and Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett served as panelists for Tuesday's conversation. Screen grab from Urban League of Portland video
August 24, 2022

Consequences of Aidan Ellison killing central to conversation hosted by Urban League of Portland

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

The head of the Urban League of Portland reflected on the murder of 19-year-old Ashland teen Aidan Ellison nearly two years ago during a conversational panel hosted by the organization at Southern Oregon University on Tuesday evening.

The event was limited to 35 people attending in person, but drew more than 100 individuals from Oregon and around the country to watch live streams on Facebook and YouTube. Total views by late Tuesday topped 400. Panelists Ashland City Councilor Gina DuQuenne and Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett joined Urban League of Portland Chief Executive Officer and President Nkenge Harmon Johnson.

“As I sit here, I wouldn’t want to begin this conversation without thinking about Aidan Ellison, without talking about him,” Harmon Johnson said. “I know that this community has been very hard-hit by that murder and the aftermath conversations that have been taking place. I also know that many in the community want more conversations to be taking place about why, how, and what happens next. That’s really one of the reasons that we’re here.”

Aidan Ellison

Ellison, a 19-year-old Black teenager, was murdered outside the Stratford Inn on Nov. 23, 2020. Robert Paul Keegan, 47, faces at least 25 years if convicted in a trial now scheduled to begin in February 2023.

Both men were staying at the hotel following the Almeda Fire, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Phoenix and Talent in September 2020. Ellison was a worker at Ashland’s Burger King, which also burned. 

“They were both sort of fleeing trauma and harm but one of them survived it,” Harmon Johnson said. “And Aidan didn’t. He was playing loud music in the parking lot, Robert had a problem with that. 

“Folks say there was an argument between the two of them and Robert shot and killed Aidan as a result,” she added.

Harmon Johnson said the amount of hatred that must’ve been present to do such a thing — “It’s incomprehensible to me.”

“This is a story we’ve heard again and again, in community after community,” Harmon Johnson said. “Something that should have been nothing at all, perhaps a passing moment, turns into a deadly situation, and often it’s for a Black or brown person who is not empowered at that moment to save their own life. They are killed at the hand of someone who thinks they have the right to do it, perhaps very much because of the color of the skin of their victim.”

Harmon Johnson asked panelists about the impact of the slaying of Ellison and what has happened in the community in the aftermath of his murder.

From left, Urban League of Portland President and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson and Ashland City Councilor Gina DuQuenne during Tuesday’s conversation. Screen grab from Urban League of Portland video

“What I saw is, the initial impact was, ‘it doesn’t happen here,’” said DuQuenne. “‘It doesn’t happen in our town.’ Well it did, and as quickly as this young man’s life was taken, all of the idea and thought of Aidan was swept under the carpet and it wasn’t talked about.”

DuQuenne, who described herself as Ashland’s first elected Black and queer woman on the Ashland City Council, said she always takes the murder of a Black or Brown person personally. She lamented that there is currently no memorial for Ellison’s death at the Stratford Inn.

DuQuenne praised students from Ashland High School’s Truth to Power Club, which created a mural honoring Ellison’s memory outside the high school

“I was saddened and I was shocked (by the murder),” DuQuenne said. “The man who killed Aidan became the victim and Aidan’s name was silent and that will happen no more.”

“We will see more in memorial to Aidan,” DuQuenne said. 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Garrett joined in, commenting that, in her role at OSF, she brings a lot of individuals into Ashland from out of state. Garrett, who is the daughter of a man who recruited Freedom Riders in the 1960s, has heard concerns expressed by OSF staff about the safety of living in Ashland since the murder of Ellison.

“With the murder of Aidan Ellison, I got more questions about whether it was it safe for them to come, where people were really concerned about Oregon, with its history, both past history and more recent history, was a place for people of color, for trans people, for queer people, for disabled people,” she said. “And that’s just on that one murder.”

A memorial to Aiden Ellison in the parking lot of the Stratford Inn in Ashland, photographed in January. Drew Fleming photo

The week of the murder, Garrett told panelists and those watching, she was invited into the home of a neighbor who then began to ask how she was doing, something she said has been rare since living in Ashland.

“I said, ‘I’m having a tough time,’” Garrett recalled telling the neighbor. 

The neighbor was unaware or didn’t recall what had happened to Ellison or the impact to her, and Garrett said the scene points to a level of apathy she sees in Ashland surrounding the murder of Ellison.

“For the communities of color that live within the organization that I run, it’s a real thing, it’s a tangible thing,” Garrett said. “People ask about whether or not this is a safe place for them to come and do their work on our stages. And then you have this other community that’s like, ‘huh, what happened? We don’t know, we don’t remember.’ And that’s really a tough dichotomy to shoulder.”

Harmon Johnson emphasized that racism, white supremacy, and bias are “Chamber of Commerce” issues because they impact the economy by affecting who will attend local schools and work in local jobs that keep the economic engine running.

“Whether you own a business or you sell real estate or you run a school, you need customers,” Harmon Johnson said. “You need butts in seats at the theater, you need students in classrooms; these are economic activities, just like riding a bus in Selma, Alabama. It’s an economic activity. So are many of the things that take place in this community, and when you have world-class talent asking, ‘Well, is that safe to come and work there?’ — the folks who care about dollars and cents in your town really ought to be worried about that.”

Garrett said they do come to Ashland, sometimes just because she’s at OSF.

“They do come, but they live in fear, here in this town,” Garrett said.  

Harmon Johnson commented, “What a sadness that is.”

“It also means they’re not likely to come back just for fun, right? It probably means they’re not likely to tell their friends and family, ‘Hey, you know where you really ought to check out?’ What they might say is, ‘I wish you could go there but it doesn’t feel safe to be there.’”

“In the wake of Aidan Ellison’s murder, the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder, Ahmaud Arbery, because violent terrible things happen all around the country, often to Black and to brown people, many folks did, perhaps even your neighbors, woke up and said, ‘Oh, this is my country. It’s happening in my time. I don’t have to think about back in the day, what would I have done.’”

Harmon Johnson added, some may have asked themselves: “How would I have responded to that civil rights issue but that we live in a moment right now where people are able to say, ‘What can I do in this moment?’”

“What can I do to make something different?” Harmon Johnson said. “More people are saying that.

“We’re not going to have all the answers here tonight, but maybe a few.”

Vance Beach of Black Alliance & Social Empowerment (BASE) says a few words about his organization during Tuesday’s discussion. Screen grab from Urban League of Portland video

Panelists emphasized the importance of educating one’s self about Black history, writing to city councilors and federal leaders to emphasize, “We are not going to live in a racist community.”

It was also emphasized that everyone should be proactive in becoming anti-racist.

“Be mindful, teach yourself,” DuQuenne said.

She later added, “If Black folks could’ve ended racism, we would’ve done it years ago.”

Garrett said it is not up to Black individuals to end racism.

“My real answer I’m going to give you is, you tell me,” Garrett said. “This country is as many years old for my ancestors as it is for most of yours. So you tell me what to do.

I have been asked over and over, ‘how do you change it?’” she added.

“You actually have the answer inside of you and it has to do with accessing your empathy and your basic humanity,” she added. “What kind of world do you want to live in? What kind of world do you want to leave behind?”

Harmon Johnson said that as an 11- or 12-year-old kid, she thought racism would be over by the time she reached adulthood.

She organized with the NAACP and participated in Get Out the Vote and worked hard to “stamp this thing out.”

“I never intended to run a civil rights and social justice organization for a living because this wasn’t going to be a thing by the time I reached this age,” Harmon Johnson said.

“I didn’t know that old racists help make new racists. I didn’t know that it’s not just about people and individuals, it’s about systems.”

Harmon Johnson said it’s not enough to say that one is not a bigot; one must go further and take actions that tear down bigotry, in order to produce real change.

“So when I hear someone say, ‘Well, I wasn’t alive when X happened,’ I say, ‘That’s all right, you’re alive now. So what are you doing about it and we all have a part to play in it, it’s just a matter of whether we choose to pick it up.

“It’s not just going to happen passively,” Harmon Johnson added. “It’s going to take a little bit of discomfort to get there; maybe a lot of discomfort, but that’s OK, too.”

Harmon Johnson acknowledged some local organizations already hard at work in this area, including locally based nonprofit organization Black Alliance & Social Empowerment (BASE). She and Urban League of Portland staff had lunch with Black youth from around the Rogue Valley and met with BASE staff, including Vance Beach, prior to the panel discussion Tuesday.

“Being in Oregon is being in a place where people who look like us have been excluded in every aspect of community, and so our work is all around how we assist in building an inclusive community, one that is actually inclusive, where all groups have representation in all areas that make community, whether it’s economics, education, socially or politically,” Beach said.

“We want to see ourselves be better, do better, and have better here in this community,” he added.

Urban League serves all of Oregon, Southwest Washington

For Harmon Johnson, community conversations like the one held at SOU are important ways to keep tabs on how communities are doing throughout the state. 

“To hear from you directly, that’s important to us,” Harmon Johnson told attendees, including SOU President Rick Bailey. “We’ve got technology, we’ve got email, we’ve got Facebook. 

“There’s something special about being able to be here and spend time together face to face,” she added.

The Urban League of Portland is one of the few Urban League affiliates that serves individuals on a regional level, Harmon Johnson said. The organization serves individuals throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington from its North Portland office.

“This Urban League of Portland belongs to all of you,” Harmon Johnson said. 

“That means we’ve got a big job to do because we’re responsible to a lot of people.”

Harmon Johnson said Oregon doesn’t have a big population, but does have a lot of land.

“We have the opportunity to fix the opportunities we face in our communities because there’s not that many of us,” Harmon Johnson said.

“We have Oregon-size problems that in my mind are resolvable,” she added. 

“We have a responsibility to be out and about and letting folks know that we belong to you, we’re responsible to you.”

Harmon Johnson describes the Urban League of Portland somewhat like “seven nonprofits in one.”

“We do what our community needs,” Harmon Johnson said. “We don’t stick to one issue or one area of service provision. We do what it is that African-Americans require to thrive in this region.”

That includes service in the areas of workforce, jobs, entrepreneurship and housing, including both services for the houseless and keeping those who are housed, housed. The League also runs the only African-American culture-specific services for elders in the state.

“We also provide health services for members of our community,” Harmon Johnson said.

Youth services through the Urban League of Portland include summer camps, after-school programs, and awarding college scholarships totaling $30,000 this past year.

Black students living in Oregon are all eligible to apply for scholarships provided by the Urban League of Portland, she emphasized.

Reach Ashland.news Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.


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