Truth to Power Club created a mural at Ashland High School (Part 3 of 3)
By Peter Finkle for Ashland News
When you drive by the mural on the South Mountain Avenue side of Ashland High School, you might glance at the portraits, recognize one or two of the faces, then wonder who the rest of those people are. If you would like to learn a little about each of them, please keep reading.
Ashland High’s Truth to Power club chose the seven people featured in the mural. They accompany a memorial portrait of Aidan Ellison, a Black teen killed in Ashland in November 2020. Each person has an Ashland connection. Club members envision the mural as an important part of their long-term goal to educate both high school students and community members about the need to reduce racism and increase tolerance locally and nationally.
Here is an introduction to the life and work of each person portrayed in the mural from left to right.
Winona’s mother is longtime Ashland artist Betty LaDuke. Her father was Native American activist and spiritual leader Vincent LaDuke (Anishinaabe tribe), also known as Sun Bear. After moving with her mother to Ashland in 1964, Winona attended Ashland schools from kindergarten through high school.
I interviewed Winona during May 2022. As we talked on the phone, Winona described Ashland High School as “a very significant time in my life. John Tredway (Ashland High School’s former speech and debate teacher) is the single most influential person in my academic career. He was very influential in developing my skills and my knowledge, and encouraging me.”
LaDuke’s life is dedicated to working for clean water and environmental justice for Native Americans and for all of us. In 1982, she moved to the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She co-founded Honor the Earth in 1993 with Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls musical group.
Walidah Imarisha is a dynamic Black professor, writer, speaker and community educator. She has spoken about Black history in Oregon more than 100 times all across the state, including in Ashland, Medford and Jacksonville.
I talked with Walidah on a Zoom video call March 2022. I asked what she would like to say to people who view the mural. She replied, “I would want to redirect people to the students’ purpose for the mural. It is a beautiful and powerful one, rooted not only in honoring their classmate, but also putting that in a larger context of work and struggle for justice. I hope that serves as an inspiration for everyone who sees it to honor those that we’ve lost and to connect them with the larger work of changing this world for the better.”
She suggested a 15-minute video for me to learn more about her educational focus. I recommend this excellent short video, which summarizes her hour-long talk called, “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History.”
Tehlor Kay Mejia
Raised in Ashland, Tehlor Kay Mejia is a first-generation Mexican American author who lives in Southern Oregon. Her website describes her as “a bestselling and award winning author of young adult and middle grade fiction.” Her books have an interesting mix of themes, including her Mexican American family background, same-sex friendship and romance, and speculative fiction. She wants to make other Mexican American youth feel more represented in books.
By “representation,” she means teens seeing people like themselves in the books they read. Equally important is learning through books that people who are different from us are real, complex people, not stereotypes. In an interview, she elaborated on this idea. “Not to be dramatic, but I feel like representation can literally be life or death. When we don’t have representation, it is so much easier to dehumanize people who are different from us because we don’t see them as real, complex, nuanced people.”
Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Grandma Aggie)
I believe Tish McFadden captured the essence of Grandma Aggie’s teachings in these words of tribute written soon after Aggie’s death in 2019: “In her 95 remarkable years, Grandma Aggie demonstrated her reverence for all living things through music, teaching, environmental activism, and ultimately, serving as the spiritual elder of her Takelma tribe. She believed in the power of kindness and reciprocity, and she recognized the biological interconnectedness of all living things.
“Whether addressing a small child or speaking with the Dalai Lama, Grandma Aggie treated everyone she met with respect. She was adept in knowing how to listen to the needs of others – including wild rivers, salmon and trees.”
Grandma Aggie was an Indigenous spiritual leader descended from generations of Takelma tribal leaders. Among many impacts locally, she reestablished the Takelma tribe’s ancient spring Salmon Ceremony at Ti’lomikh Falls on the Rogue River, near Gold Hill.
Here is an excerpt from the explanatory plaque recently installed by the Truth to Power club next to Michelle Alexander’s portrait on the mural. “Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, legal scholar, and author of ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ — the bestselling book that helped to transform the national debate on racial and criminal justice in the United States. ‘The New Jim Crow’ has inspired a generation of racial justice activists motivated by Alexander’s unforgettable argument that ‘we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.’ Another alumna of AHS, Alexander has taught at a number of universities, including Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor of law and directed the Civil Rights Clinic.”
If you are interested in learning more about this aspect of legalized discrimination in our country, I encourage you to read her book, which is available at the Ashland Public Library.
Gina DuQuenne told me in January 2022, “It’s an honor and it’s humbling to be on that mural, when I think about where I come from. I am the third generation removed from slavery. I think about my ancestors. I think about my great-grandma, who will always be my shero. When I think about the humble beginnings that I came from, the humility just wells up in my heart.”
DuQuenne added, “One of the things that I feel very strongly in my life is that part of my purpose for being here is to be of service.” She was elected to the Ashland City Council in 2020. She is proud to have served on many nonprofit boards, such as The Children’s Advocacy Center, Addiction Recovery Center, Ashland Rotary, and the Martin Luther King committee. Gina also founded the education and advocacy group Southern Oregon Pride.
Lawson Inada is a third-generation Japanese American, born in Fresno, California in 1938. The entire family was sent to internment camps in 1942, when Japanese-Americans were locked up during World War II. Inada was only 4 years old. Inada has listed the internment camp experience and jazz music as two major influences on his poetry.
He was a professor of English at Southern Oregon College (now SOU) from 1966 to 2002. When I interviewed Inada, he described being the only minority faculty member at the college during the late 1960s, and one of only three or four Asian Americans in Ashland. He developed SOU’s first class in multi-cultural literature. After retirement from SOU, Inada served as Oregon’s poet laureate from 2006 to 2010.
Aidan’s mother Andrea Wofford wrote this moving poem, which she shared with the Truth to Power club and for me to share. The theme of Aidan as lion carries through both the mural portrait and the poem.
Aidan loved to laugh, his smile had such a gleam
Another senseless black death,
he was only nineteen
He often was the center
to everyone he knew
and tried to be their mentor
no Black man to live up to
Pork chops and applesauce was his favorite dish
Whatever he had, was yours
he wasn’t selfish
His eyes engaging would put you in a trance
Only his music understood him
would express it when he danced, what else to do for fun?
Such a talented lyricist, always had a pun
So limber, so great at parkour
much rather have his freedom
His heart big as all outdoors
Surrounded by so many, yet always felt alone
Searching in this city
where his kind doesn’t belong
If you were the underdog,
Aidan was your protector
Irony of this, being a conscientious objector
Aidan was strong, courageous,
golden skin, and hair of a lion’s mane
Leo was his SunSign
True to himself was his
—Love my Pride,
I would like to conclude with club member Simone Starbird’s closing remarks at the mural dedication on November 23, 2021. “In honor of Aidan Ellison’s life, we dedicate this mural to champions of justice for people and the planet throughout Oregon and the world. We celebrate the passion, resilience and creativity embodied by the mural’s subjects and the countless other Black, Indigenous and People of Color who shape our communities for the better. We affirm our commitment to anti-racism, both in words and actions. This mural is a reminder, a gathering place, and a promise.”
Peter Finkle gives Ashland history and art walking tours. See WalkAshland.com for walking tour information, or to request a custom tour.
Previous two parts of this series about how the Truth to Power Club created a mural celebrating BIPOC: