The journey (so far) of Kendall Clawson
By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly
It’s a rare sunny spring Saturday morning, and Kendall Clawson sips coffee inside Albina Press, mere steps away from her former digs, Q Center. It’s a fitting frame for her, close to her roots, her home, and in the neighborhood she loves dearly. Even on this particular weekend morning, which should be a day off, one for relaxing, Kendall is high energy — almost antsy, the unique juxtaposition of moxie and ease that has become her trademark.
Any conversation about journeys must, of course, start with Q. For most of our recent history and memory, Kendall’s name was synonymous with the center, an integral part of the movement and vision that took an idea, briefly housed it on Water Avenue, and eventually parked it in its own building on Mississippi. When pressed to offer specifics about her proudest accomplishments there, she — naturally — defers to the bigger picture.
“For me, it’s just the fact that Q Center exists. It’s not about me,” she says. “I can’t say that enough. It was this great moment in time when a group of people came together to address a very specific need. I had a role — among many roles — in helping address that need. That part is the biggest takeaway for me. Yes, I gained professional skills and relationships, but I also learned what it means to work toward something that makes things better for everyone.
“We didn’t have a center, a home base, yet this extraordinary group of people came together and declared, ‘This is what we want, what we need.’ I got to be a part of that instead of just doing something solo. Q Center was something I needed — to be a part of something bigger than myself.”
While most think Kendall went right from Q Center to Salem — and, technically, she did — she had an alternate route in mind. (Hint: that plan wasn’t to become Governor John Kitzhaber’s director of executive appointments.)
“What most people didn’t realize is that I was already planning on leaving Q,” Kendall explains. “It wasn’t public knowledge yet, but I accepted a position with a national organization and I was figuring out how I was going to put that out there.”
Then fate and opportunity came knocking, in the form of a gentle nudging from a close friend and ally, Gwenn Baldwin, who surprised Kendall with one particular phone call.
“Gwenn was my first board chair at Q, and she’s really a mentor to me,” Kendall says. “In my leadership role, she was one of the few who could close the door and get real with me. She’s one of those trusted allies who gets me — who you hope and pray comes along in your life, a person whose instincts you trust until the end.
“At the time, she talked me up to the governor-elect’s transition team. Then she called me and said, ‘Some people are talking about you in the governor’s office.’” Kendall pauses, laughs, and admits her first instinct was to say, “Oh my, what did I do? Should I start by apologizing?”
And that’s part of the beauty of Kendall; few ever wonder what’s on her mind. She took that characteristic — one might call it a philosophy — to an interview with her new boss.
“I had this opportunity to sit with this man who’d done the job before, who was coming back for another round because he was in a different place. He’s really a visionary in terms of the way he looks at things, the way he describes them. It was all very exciting,” she recalls. “In addition to all this awe and excitement, intellectually I understood what he wanted to accomplish and I wanted to be a part of it.”
But, right then and there, Kendall did something surprising. She gave the then governor-elect the chance to not hire her.
“We were very frank and I said things people would probably think I was crazy to say to the next governor. I told him, ‘I’ve heard this before. If you’re real about it, I’m there. But I’m also in a position where I could stay where I am and be happy. I could take this other position and be happy. I have to know you’re really intending to do this.’”
The rest, of course, is history. “I had that moment similar to what I felt when I interviewed for Q Center,” Kendall remembers. “It wasn’t ‘I’d like to do this,’ it was ‘I need to do this.’”
Presently, Kendall serves not only as director of executive appointments (yes, she does get calls from people asking to make appointments with the governor), but also in a newer, secondary role as arts and culture policy advisor.
She traces her passion for politics back through college to her family’s dining room.
“My family is very political,” she says. “My dad would have us read the newspaper and we’d talk about politics at the dinner table.”
This, too, sticks with her today: “My parents raised me to believe you can do anything you want, you just have to remember who you are.”
Take the experience, passion, and background, add a dash of comfort — and you’ve got a recipe for something special. Kendall recognizes she’s lucky she’s in a position that comes naturally.
“I’m good at helping connect people, so it’s kind of fun,” she says. “Because I was in nonprofits for so long, I get that these organizations function because of their boards of directors. It’s the same way for the state [boards].”
In terms of the nuts and bolts of her job, the governor has 260 boards and commissions that, by law, he makes appointments to. In total, that involves about 2,300 people.
“It’s this incredible opportunity for citizen engagement, to have your hand on the wheel in terms of how the state is driven,” Kendall explains. And, she adds, the governor remains committed to citizen governance.
“The average citizen is helping make decisions about the way in which we’re running the state. My job — it’s like being a headhunter for finding great volunteers. If I could say it without getting sued, I’d say, ‘There’s a board for that.’” And from health care to education, business to the arts — there are myriad ways for people to participate.
Kendall also has the opportunity to marry the exceptional to the diverse. From people of color to LGBTQ folks, appointments — which include the first openly trans commissioner — have run the gamut.
“In that initial conversation I had with the governor-elect, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Kendall, I want you to work really hard to find people who don’t look like me.’”
“We need all kinds of perspectives,” Kendall clarifies, also noting diversity’s climb. “We started out with about 8 percent people of color and about 17 percent women. Our highest number was 32 percent people of color. Our goal remains — and the governor is committed to — gender parity. It’s helpful to have a target, of course, but what I want to make sure people understand is we’re not saying we don’t want anyone. We’re saying what we do want — anyone who has an interest and skill set.”
The awe of helping govern certainly hasn’t worn off. On what it’s like to pull back the curtain and see how everything works, Kendall says: “I hate to admit how giddy I still get, like the first day the senior staff got together in the governor’s conference room. We’re sitting around a giant table and he comes in through a secret back door. I had this moment where I thought, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s surreal — you’re in a room with people who are making decisions about our state’s future.”
As to her secondary role as arts and culture policy advisor, “Oregonians get the value of arts in our state. It isn’t just, ‘Oh, look at this pretty picture’– it’s how the arts affect our economy, create and sustain jobs, attract tourism, affect health care, and how they are absolutely integral to education. We’re lucky here.”
Kendall counts herself among the lucky ones, and briefly revisits her time with Q Center.
“The transition was hard. It’s like a relationship for me, only we’re not dating anymore and I don’t necessarily get to say what I think — not in the same way as before. But I still love her, and I want it [the center] to be amazing and I support everyone and everything around it.
“No matter where I go, I’ll never forget how this community embraced me and took me in. From the first moments — when I met about 40 people in LeAnn Locher’s kitchen, talking about the future. These are people who, when they embrace you, they embrace you for real. That’s what I’d ask of our community: embrace the people working ridiculous hours, who don’t see their families or loved ones, all so we can have safe places and strong organizations.”
For someone who’s given so much, that’s probably the least we can do.
For info on how you can get involved with Boards and Commissions, visit: http://governor.oregon.gov/