“We Changed the Face of Oregon”: Kendall Clawson

Photo of Kendall Clawson by Eric Sellers.
Photo of Kendall Clawson by Eric Sellers.

By Matt Pizzuti, PQ Monthly

Kendall Clawson, formerly Executive Director at Portland’s Q Center, led the effort to move Q Center to a new and larger site—from its modest spot on Water Avenue to its now-iconic perch atop Mississippi. In 2011, she left Q Center for a role in Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office—Director of Executive Appointments—with a goal of finding more women, people of color, and LGBT folk to serve our state in a variety of capacities. Soon Deputy Chief of Staff was added to Clawson’s resume. Since the recent transition to Gov. Kate Brown’s administration, she continues to serve in the governor’s office as Deputy Chief of Staff.

PQ Monthly: Tell me a little bit about your background.
Kendall Clawson: My dad was in the military, and so I grew up in Cuba and Puerto Rico and came back to the U.S. when I was getting ready to go to high school. I had this completely different reality where particularly race and class weren’t as obvious because in the military we were first and foremost American. I (went) to college at UC Santa Cruz, and started to notice the difference in the way that people are treated. I had this interest in community, in issues related to race and class.

PQ: What sparked your interest in community work?
KC: I always expected to go to law school, but one of my greatest mentors—the associate dean of admissions, African American and gay, someone I knew I could relate to, taught me about trusting myself and accepting myself and looking at ways that leadership would work for me as a woman of color. This is back in the 1980s. He called me one day and said he felt really sick, went to the hospital and he found out he had AIDS. I was interested in what was happening to him as an African-American gay man experiencing that discrimination and disenfranchisement, and back then there weren’t a lot of programs that were culturally competent.
There was an organization called the Black Coalition on AIDS, and I went and started volunteering and ended up working there. I decided not to go to law school, because I felt my calling was around community development and organizing.

PQ: What brought you to Portland?
KC: I was living in Massachusetts, working for United Way and it was a winter that it just snowed relentlessly, and I was ready to get out of there and do something different. My wife Michelle and I—we had a conversation about “we’re not gonna do this cold winter stuff anymore”—and we always loved Oregon. We decided to roll the dice and move. I saw the job posting for the Q Center and—ended up getting the job, and it was this really amazing opportunity to build something from the ground up.
This is the piece that I love about Portland and about Oregon in general is that when people believe in something, they really come together around it. I was really lucky. I didn’t know a soul, I literally had zero friends here, and yet I walked in on my first day surrounded by people who were ready to help me be successful and help me build the center.

PQ: From there, you started working in the governor’s office.
KC: My former board chair Gwen Baldwin called me one day and said, “Some people in Salem are talking to you; the governor wants to talk to you about a job.” I was like, “What, are you kidding me?” I get this phone call an hour or so later from his transition team. I had a conversation with Governor Kitzhaber and he said he wanted to focus on connecting people who don’t have access, and create opportunities for women, people of color, LGBT people, to get onto these boards and commissions where all the decisions for the state were being made.
I said, “Can I be frank with you?” and he said, “Of course.” I said, “I’ve heard this song and dance from dudes like you before, where you come in and tell me all these amazing things you want to do, and this is what I would imagine could happen. I go down to Salem…and start to put people of color and women and gay people into these spots, and the people who are used to having them start getting upset, and they can’t be upset with you so you send them back to me, and when I say no, you put the handcuffs on me…and we’re not doing what you said we’re going to do. So if that is something you think is a possibility, don’t pick me. But if you are serious about this, and you want to change the face of Oregon, I will chase this like a dog and you can ask anybody who knows me that when I say I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna do it ten thousand percent.” So he calls me the next day and offers me the job.

PQ: How has the transition to Gov. Kate Brown’s administration gone for you?
KC: She’s wonderful, and that’s the great part of it, that Gov. Brown is an amazing woman and she’s been a great role model and great leader. I’m not gonna say that any of that was easy, it wasn’t. But Oregon is in really good hands.

PQ: Do you think the state has taken a step closer to the LGBTQ community in any way?
KC: Well heck yeah, she’s talked more about it in the last two months than anybody else has ever. We just in fact had a conversation a couple days ago about making sure we use trans-inclusive language in all of our applications. That’s not something that anybody’s ever pushed for before. It’s certainly helpful, I think, for us to have somebody that has not only an understanding but a direct relationship and advocates on a regular basis.

PQ: What are you the most proud of?
KC: Well it’s two things, actually. If I had pride in anything, it’s knowing my role in Q Center and its origins. I feel very fortunate and if I were going to say anything in a super public way, it’s that I recognize I am where I am right now because I arrived in Oregon and was embraced by the LGBTQ community, who supported me and who loved me up on a regular basis.
But in terms of the broader work that I’ve done statewide, it’s really this leadership pipeline that I have generated in the governor’s office. We actively went out and sought people of color for leadership, and really took on a recruitment strategy where we went to people’s events and sat down 1 on 1—dozens and dozens of coffees with people to find out what are their interests, what are their skills, what is the best placement for them. We changed the face of Oregon.