“Throw Yourself into One or More Causes”: Alissa Keny-Guyer

Alissa Keny-Guyer
Alissa Keny-Guyer

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Since 2011, Alissa Keny-Guyer has represented constituents in Oregon House District 46, an area including Mt. Tabor, Laurelhurst, Montavilla and Foster-Powell. As a legislator, she’s advocated on behalf of children and pursued health care gains for all—concerns that have animated her entire career.

In the early ’80s, after graduating from Stanford, Keny-Guyer taught in Indonesia, and returned there as a Community Development Officer with Oxfam. She earned a Masters in Public Health for the University of Hawaii, and later moved to Portland when her husband, Neal, became the head of Mercy Corps. From 2003 to 2009, Keny-Guyer served on the Multnomah County Children and Families Commission.

In the Oregon House, Keny-Guyer sits on the Human Services and Housing committee, and is Vice-Chair of the Health Care committee. In May 2013, she co-sponsored The Natural Hair Act, which allowed African-American hair stylists to practice natural hair styling—a part of African-American cultural tradition—without a cosmetology license, but with a natural styling license instead. This was just one example on Keny-Guyer’s commitment to serving all the communities around her.

PQ Monthly: You served many communities, from Indonesia where you taught and worked in community development, to Portland, which you represent in the state legislature. What does being part of, and contributing to, a community mean to you?
Alissa Keny-Guyer: As the third of six children, being “amidst” and contributing to community has been a part of my DNA for as long as I can remember. I am energized every day when I can work with others who are inspired to give back to their community. I feel rewarded when I see progress in economic development, social justice, and community pride as a result of collaborative efforts. The issues are often similar in communities overseas as well as at home… everyone wants to see their families and communities thrive.

PQ: You recently worked with Conscious Coils to pass the Natural Hair Act in Oregon. You’ve also advocated for midwives and survivors of domestic violence. What does activism mean for you in your life?
AK-G: My focus has been on the health and well being of women and children most of my career. Well being is based on physical and social factors, including a strong social fabric and access to resources: education, business capital, housing, healthy foods, nurturing relationships, and a clean environment. Activism means working with others to ensure that everyone has access to these physical and social determinants of health.

PQ: You’ve accomplished many things in your life, including graduating from Stanford, being an elected representative and serving on the boards of Impact NW and the Portland Children’s Levy. What’s inspired you in your achievements?
AK-G: My parents were my original inspiration. My father focused on international development, from his early career with the United Nations in Pakistan, India and New York, and later with Save The Children. My mom focused on domestic issues, from civil rights and poverty to nuclear disarmament. Despite all they did for others, they personally suffered from societal prejudices. My dad felt compelled to hide his homosexuality and later died of AIDS; my mom died of complications from Hepatitis C.
As an adult, my list of mentors and heroes has grown to include the thousands of people I have witnessed working tirelessly for social change, from Jeana Frazzini on LGBTQ issues, to Marian Wright Edelman on children’s issues, to Alberto Moreno on immigrant rights, to Nichole Maher on native rights, to my legislative colleague Rep. Lew Frederick working to end racial profiling. There are countless others who have suffered beatings and death when standing up to injustice. Every time I feel tired or anxious about taking an unpopular political stand, I think about those who have risked so much more than I ever have.

PQ: You’ve been an elected official since 2011. Do you envision continuing in that role? What goals do you have for your future?
AK-G: I hope to continue serving in this role as long as I can have an impact on promoting social justice through the political system. While there is so much gridlock in Washington DC, we have made a lot of progress at the state level to support women, children, the LBGTQ community, immigrants, seniors, and people with disabilities. Yet we also have a long way to go in all those areas! If I ever feel that my ability to impact change through the political system is severely restricted, perhaps by my party losing the “majority” or by my making too many enemies (!), I will probably return to the nonprofit sector, where I spent all of my career prior to politics.

PQ: As a member of the inaugural Brilliant List, do you have any thoughts to pass on to young activists or leaders who might just be starting off on their paths?
AK-G: I recommend throwing yourself whole-heartedly into one or more causes, and see it through until you have a victory. It is so rewarding to know you have made a difference in collaboration with others, and it will make you want to repeat that experience over and over! Find mentors and learn as much as you can from them, and then be ready to share your experiences and lessons with those who come after you. Learn from your mistakes… we all have MANY of them, so go easy on yourself and those around you.