JoAnn Hardesty, the first black woman to serve as a Portland City Commissioner, Baltimore grown, and one of ten children, is an advocate for many noble causes, a trusted voice within our community, and a veteran.
At a very young age, Hardesty knew that she wanted something more than what she had, to travel and learn beyond the level that the books in her library could take her. So at the end of her high school career, Hardesty enrolled in the U.S. Navy. “I loved being in the Navy because I got to travel to so many locations at such a young age,” says Hardesty. She was first stationed in the Philippines working in the Personnel office, but soon she was given the opportunity to board a ship. “One of my best duty stations was being on the USS Samuel Gompers, and one of the most memorable ports that we pulled into was in Mombasa, Kenya. This was the very first time a military ship had women on board, and so people came from miles and miles around. The ship pulls in and I look over the bow, and it’s nothing but black people. I had never seen that. I had never seen that many black people at one time. I got off the ship and a gentleman walked up to me and said, ‘Welcome home, sister. You’ve been gone 200 years.’ And I just started crying.”
Experiences like those from Kenya, formed one of Hardesty’s principal beliefs: people are naturally good. “I had the opportunity to meet so many people from so many different cultures. And as I traveled around the world, I realized that people are good and want to help you. People around the world are basically cool. Most people are decent people. They want to treat you well. So many strangers helped me along the way,” said Hardesty. And it was not only this generosity, but the willingness to share culture and community that moved Hardesty. “No matter where in the world I went [from Hong Kong to Kenya and everywhere in between] I would find people who were very good, very helpful, especially to a young woman who thought she knew everything.”
Firstly, Hardesty migrated to the Bay Area, but ultimately decided it was not her permanent home. She settled for Oregon, entranced by its proximity to the water and the mountains, and as a place where she felt she could make a difference. Hardesty’s “first job in Oregon was with the Black United Fund and it gave me great perspective on the state and Portland proper.” Working with the BUF gave Hardesty a chance to travel all over the state working with “little nonprofits who were doing wonderful work. They inspired me with their can-do spirit and that influences how I work today.” Hardesty was excited by the efforts of people who were not professionally trained. She admired that these people “saw an ill that was taking place or something that needed to be changed, and they were willing to come together to improve it.” Her position at the Black United Fund gave Hardesty a place where she could be with people who were committed to making things better. “Not just for their family, but for everybody’s family. Those are lessons and roadmaps that stay with me today in my work in the community and as a Portland City Commissioner,” said Hardesty.
While working for the Black United Fund, Hardesty came into contact with tons of nonprofit organizations. Unwilling to choose a favorite between the groups, she settled with those of many whose values she has come to enjoy and support. “Unite Oregon is an organization that I enjoy working very closely with on initiatives.” They are a social justice organization that fits into Hardesty’s view of One Portland where “everyone has a voice and a place at the table.” Hardesty also spent time as the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Portland Branch. “[NAACP] is a historic organization that has done so much for black people in this country.” She has also worked with some more local organizations like the Albina Ministerial Alliance, “[which] helps bring black people in Portland to the table in the halls of power.” Another is Right to Survive, which is “an organization dedicated to teaching about and defending the human, civil and constitutional rights of people experiencing homelessness and they show that if traditionally disenfranchised people stick together and organize, they can have power and make change,” said Hardesty.
Following her work with the Black United Fund, Hardesty came into contact with Bev Stein, a Multnomah County Commissioner. “Before Bev, I did not like politicians. I was so fortunate to work for an elected official like her because she was true and consistent to what she said she would do,” said Hardesty. She admired how much Stein cared for the people she came into contact with. “No matter what part of town she was in or who she was talking to, she cared deeply about what they had to say. She is still the only person that I know who, when they bring a group of people together, they’re intentionally of diverse backgrounds and experiences because she wants to hear from everyone.” Hardesty came to learn that it is okay for politicians to not know everything, but they must listen “to good people who were interested in making the city better for everyone and use that to make public policy.” Hardesty’s time spent working with Stein directly relates to her time served in the Oregon House of Representatives and her path to becoming the first black female City Commissioner.
When Hardesty ran for Portland City Council, the police contract was being negotiated. “I testified at the hearing but was very aware that outside of City Hall, we were surrounded by law enforcement from nearly every branch possible keeping the voices of so many Portlanders outside. I started thinking that the wrong people were in City Hall if the new normal was completely removing discourse other than what the council wanted to hear. I’ve been an advocate for years now and have felt so many times Iike I’m just banging my head against the doors of City Hall, hoping that somehow things will change.” Hardesty ran because she believes every Portlander should feel heard by City Hall. She believes that voices from every walk of life should be taken into account. She believes in finding a commonality. “There’s an opportunity to not be divided by where one lives in the city, by economics, gender, race, sexual orientation or any other way that we can find division, but to be one Portland. That time is now.”