At Schwabe, we are deeply committed to facing inequities and existing oppressive systems head-on. Though racial injustice has long woven its way into most corners of our society and communities, we have a reason for hope as we witness milestones towards a more equitable future—notably with Kamala Harris’s history-making position as Vice-President. We also recognize several local leaders who are knocking down racial and gender walls as quickly as they see them. It is in this spirit that we endeavor to continue the long battle while taking a short but important moment to celebrate the strides made by some of the talented trailblazers in the legal community.
In honor of Black History Month, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the Black women of the Pacific Northwest who inspire us daily.
Justice Adrienne Nelson is the first African American to sit on Oregon’s highest court and on any of its appellate courts. Long before she became the Honorable Justice Nelson, she was the first African American valedictorian of her high school—an achievement she was nearly denied based solely on the color of her skin. On top of honing excellent legal skills throughout her career, she has a long history of contributing to Oregon’s legal organizations, including the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association, Oregon Women Lawyers, Multnomah Bar Association, and Oregon State Bar. Additionally, Justice Nelson has an extensive list of involvement with countless Portland community organizations, including the Girl Scouts, Reed College Board of Trustees, Literary Arts Board, and Oregon Community Foundation’s Metropolitan Portland Leadership Council. Most recently, Justice Nelson has shared her name with a new high school in Happy Valley, a suburb of Portland. She is an auntie to many, and I am lucky to count her as a friend.
Representative Marilyn Strickland is the U.S. Representative for Washington’s 10th congressional district and previously served as the Mayor of Tacoma, Washington. Like the other standout women in this list, she is one with many firsts. She is the first member of the United States Congress who is of both Korean and African American heritage, and the first African American member elected from Washington. Representative Strickland was the first Asian-born elected mayor of Tacoma, as well as the first African American woman in that office. Following the end of her mayoral term, she served as President of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Prior to public service, Representative Strickland worked in the private sector for companies that include Northern Life Insurance and Starbucks. If Representative Strickland ever invites you to record a podcast with her, do yourself a favor and show up because it will undoubtedly be a blast of an experience.
Ms. Michelle Merriweather is the Chair of the Washington State Women’s Commission and serves on the Board of the Alliance for Education and the Community Development Round Table. Notably, Ms. Merriweather became the President and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle in 2018, after having volunteered with the National Urban League since 2006. She served as the first woman President of the Los Angeles Urban League Young Professionals in 2009. In 2011, she joined the Board of Directors for the Los Angeles Urban League. Before she transitioned to her current work advocating for African Americans and underserved communities, she was a sales and marketing professional with national organizations that include Starbucks, Heinz, and Coca-Cola. Last year, Ms. Merriweather founded the Black Future Co-Op, a fund designed to create and source unique Black solutions for the Black community (providing “a healthy dose of Blackness,” as she calls it). Puget Sound Business Journal named her as a 2020 Woman of Influence.
Representative Janelle Bynum is a member of the Oregon House of Representatives, representing the communities of East Portland, Gresham, Damascus, Boring, North Clackamas, and Happy Valley. She serves as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee and Vice-Chair of the Business and Labor Committee, and is a member of the Joint Ways and Means Public Safety Subcommittee. Additionally, she owns four restaurants in Portland. Prior to her legislative and restaurateur work, Representative Bynum worked as a Summer Associate at Boeing Defense and Space Systems in Seattle, Washington, as well as a Steering Systems Engineer at General Motors in Saginaw, Michigan.
Ms. Regina Malveaux is the Executive Director of the Washington State Women’s Commission, a position appointed by Governor Inslee. The Commission seeks to improve the lives of every woman in the state of Washington by ensuring equitable opportunities and removing systemic barriers of any kind. Prior to her position as Director, Ms. Malveaux had 20 years of leadership experience guiding nonprofits, including the YWCA of Spokane, through strategic board recruitment, staff empowerment, donor development, and key community partnerships. She is a tenacious and unapologetic advocate for women, youth, and children. She has worked to train a new generation of advocates as an Adjunct Professor in Political, Women’s, and African American studies at the inimitable San Diego State University.
Senator T’wina Nobles is a Washington State Senator representing Pierce County’s 28th Legislative District, and is the Senate’s only Black member—the first to serve in a decade. Senator Nobles has served as CEO of the Tacoma Urban League and has overseen a range of community programs that offer services including mentoring for Black youth, assisting first-time home buyers, and providing doula services for pregnant women. Prior to her election as a Washington Senator, Senator Nobles worked as an educator at Tacoma’s Lincoln and Stadium High Schools, founded a program focused on building girls’ self-esteem, and served on the University Place School Board.
No list of notable Black women leaders in the legal community would be complete without a mention of one of Schwabe’s alumna, attorney Jamila Johnson. Though Ms. Johnson left us in 2017 and moved on from the lush landscape of the Pacific Northwest, Schwabe still claims her as one of our own. After a decade litigating disputes with governments in the Pacific Northwest and serving as the Vice-President of the ACLU of Washington, Ms. Johnson became the Senior Supervising Attorney for criminal justice reform at Southern Poverty Law Center in Louisiana, where she led both litigation and legislative efforts to end mass incarceration, working to eliminate the structural racism entrenched in the policing, sentencing, imprisonment, and post-conviction practices in Louisiana. She is now the Managing Attorney for the Promise of Justice Initiative’s Unanimous Jury Project, after having served on the Steering Committee for the Unanimous Jury Coalition in 2018. Ms. Johnson’s work helped overturn a 138-year-old Jim Crow era law that allowed Louisiana to convict people for crimes without unanimous jury verdicts, and she now helps those affected heal through litigation, policy, and public education. Ms. Johnson also serves in leadership for Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, a diverse statewide coalition committed to reducing Louisiana’s imprisonment rate—one of the highest in the world.
One month is not enough and one article is not sufficient to articulate the extensive contributions Black women make to our community. Our appreciation and acknowledgment span far beyond this list to community leaders, social justice advocates, educators, and trailblazers forging their own paths and inspiring us to be the change we seek to see.