When Oregon entered the Union as a territory in 1844, legislation was passed banning slavery, but white settlers made clear their intentions to construct a white state. The provisional government passed a law that required all black people in Oregon to leave the territory and permitted the systematic public flogging of any who remained. In 1920, Oregon had only 2,000 African Americans in the state. Oregon did not formally ratify the 15th amendment (which granted black men the right to vote) until 1959. It also didn’t officially ratify the 14th amendment until 1973.
In 2018 — nearly 175 years after the establishment of Oregon — the state named Justice Adrienne Nelson to the state’s Supreme Court, making her the first African American woman to earn that appointment.
At the January 2020 Portland Business Journal Power Breakfast, sponsored by The Portland State School of Business, Nelson shared lessons from her personal and professional experiences and offered insight into how businesses can thoughtfully promote diversity, inclusion and equity moving forward.
“Push yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Nelson repeatedly spoke to the importance of education to her success. Growing up in a small Arkansas town, Nelson described how education exposed her to new ideas and beliefs. “Education was the window to the world,” she said. “It was the key.” Nelson explained that learning often requires discomfort, and so she challenged the audience to “push yourself out of your comfort zone.”
“The law gives people a voice.”
Nelson conceded that the U.S. legal system remains imperfect, but according to her, is still “one of the best” in the world.
When asked why she pursued a legal career, Nelson contended that the law has the power to protect the disenfranchised. To be sure, legal systems can perpetuate inequality, but to Nelson, “The law gave me a voice when I needed it.”
As a senior in high school, Nelson was initially passed over for valedictorian because of her race. Only through the protection that the law afforded her was she able to mount a defense and receive the recognition that she earned. Nelson believes that the U.S. needs more “lawyers who show up for people.”
“Do more than feel bad.”
While Nelson acknowledged that people in the U.S. live in a challenging time, she was quick to remind the audience that the country has experienced worse. She stated plainly that people need to “do more than feel bad,” by becoming involved in their communities.
When asked what recommendations she had for businesses aiming to promote diversity, inclusion and equity, Nelson suggested leaders build teams with diverse values: “If you’re missing voices at your firm, bring them in,” she urged.
Nelson also cautioned leaders from compartmentalizing employees and thinking of diversity as a short-term initiative. She reminded the audience that she, herself, is not a “sliver.” “I’m not just a black woman,” she explained, and putting people in boxes undermines the very diversity, inclusion and equity efforts that firms set out to support.
If you’d like to learn more about Justice Nelson, you can visit justiceadriennenelson.com.