Freedom Riders, writers blaze a trail
Roosevelt project offers a look at history, a path to the future
It took a trip to Tuskegee, Ala., for Jovany Romero to realize his potential.
The Roosevelt High School senior recalls visiting the historically black Tuskegee University during a college tour last spring break, and seeing throngs of students of color around him.
Having no one in his extended family who'd gone on to college, Romero, who identifies as Hispanic, had never given college a second thought - until that moment.
'I used to feel like I can't go nowhere if I don't have good grades,' he says. '(At the university) they told us how many students were accepted with low GPA and not-so-good grades.'
He did his research, worked with school counselors, and is now headed to Michigan State University in the fall to study mechanical engineering and business.
To Romero and many of his peers at Roosevelt, accessing higher education is their generation's civil rights issue.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that students at the North Portland school - the only Portland school to receive $7.7 million in federal school improvement grants - have organized a citywide civil rights exhibit that celebrates local and historical heroes in literature, education and activism.
The 'Freedom Riders, Fighters and Writers Project' - which debuted Jan. 8 and travels to other locations in Portland throughout the month - is a collection of interviews, photographs and artifacts gathered by Roosevelt students with help from students at the University of Portland.
The exhibit takes its name from the national Freedom Riders movement of 1961, during which 400 black and white citizens endured beatings and imprisonment to fight segregation of the bus and train systems throughout the Deep South.
Two of those men, Eugene Uphoff and Max Pavesic, live in Portland and are among the 15 'Freedom Fighters' featured in the students' exhibit.
Jocelyn Loyd, a Roosevelt junior and aspiring writer who co-led the exhibit work along with Romero, helped capture their stories in prose and poetry.
Uphoff spent four months in jail after his peaceful protest on a bus in Memphis, and Pavesic was imprisoned for riding a train from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., in protest. Both men are white.
Courtesy of the Roosevelt Freedom Writers • Jovany Romero talks with Freedom Rider veteran Max Pavesic, who went to jail for his protest against racial segregation in the Deep South in 1961. Then a 21-year-old student at UCLA, he is now a retired college professor and lives in Portland, still troubled by the racial injustices.
Loyd, who calls herself a 'mutt' whose mother was a Filipino immigrant, says race doesn't matter when it comes to standing up for social justice.
'Anything can be done by anyone,' she says. 'This is the community we live in, so we all deal with it together.'
The pieces are posted on the project's website as well as in a booklet students are selling for $10 to support Roosevelt's new Writing and Publishing Center, which Loyd and Romero helped create last summer.
'This is not a one-shot wonder; it's something we're looking to sustain every year,' says Angela Nusom, manager of Roosevelt's college and career center, who is working to collect community sponsorship for the project.
Her goal is to raise enough money to support the writing center's activities over the long-term, since the federal grant lasts just three years.
Roosevelt is midway through its first year of grant funds; the writing center and support staff are just part of the improvements.
Honoring the heroes
More improvements are slated to come in a parallel event at Roosevelt: the national day of service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, on Jan. 16.
Roosevelt will be the lucky host site for the whopping 1,200 local college students who've signed up to perform service projects on that day - everything from weeding, painting and sprucing up the grounds to making the school library more reader-friendly, hanging college banners in the career center and sending care packages to recent Roosevelt graduates.
The writing center leaders have also invited another 20 community members to take part in a new round of Freedom Fighter interviews, conducted in the open for an audience of 30 college students to observe.
Courtesy of United Press International • Freedom Riders were attacked and their bus was burned by Ku Klux Klan members in Anniston, Alabama on May 14, 1961.
Interviews will be posted on the project website, and the observers will add their responses to the project as part of the living history.
Kate McPherson, the writing center's community engagement specialist, says it's all part of the school's major focus: supporting classroom work and assisting with the scholarship and college application process.
Trained Roosevelt students and University of Portland students staff the writing center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 4 p.m. on Fridays, offering personalization that many students need. A new creative writing club is also starting up on campus, meeting after school on Thursdays.
Romero, the first-generation college-goer, says he doesn't consider himself a writer but can't help but be inspired when he walks into the writing center.
Thanks to help from the local artist who goes by the name 'Mo,' the walls are covered in a giant mural depicting civil rights and literary heroes, from Rachel Carson and Abigail Duniway to Chief Seattle and Alice Walker.
As it winds around the room, the mural also depicts the writing process, from reflection to analyzing, refining and finally expression through publication.
A small strip of wall space near the ceiling has been left blank. The plan: Fill it in with 'Writers for freedom' in several languages.