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Retiring Jefferson Excessive trainer watched three a long time of change in his Portland college, neighborhood

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Within the early ’90s, a number of years after Lennie Edwards first began instructing video manufacturing at Jefferson Excessive Faculty, he started to understand: It felt like he was working at two colleges.

Jefferson had, for the reason that ’70s, run a performing arts magnet program with courses in dance, theatre and music — and which aimed to draw extra college students from outdoors the native neighborhood and fight de facto segregation there. The magnet program was one “college,” Edwards mentioned.

After which there was the remainder of Jefferson, with college students from the encompassing neighborhood.

Edwards discovered himself within the center. As an African American trainer in a largely Black highschool, dwelling close by in one among Portland’s traditionally Black communities, he taught a video manufacturing class that was as soon as a part of the magnet program.

A beloved trainer who had excessive expectations for his college students, Edwards retired this June, ending a 33-year tenure. At Jefferson, current protests have reinvigorated long-standing calls to rename the varsity, and a petition with greater than 1,300 signatures desires to call it for Edwards.

He’s lived for nearly as lengthy in Humboldt, a neighborhood within the traditionally Black district of Albina that has, over the previous few a long time, gone from majority Black to majority white.

“My time at Jefferson Excessive Faculty has been one of many absolute highlights of my life,” Edwards mentioned.

The magnet performing arts program housed a weekly 30-minute tv program on the varsity’s closed-circuit system.

There have been completely different units of expectations between these college students, Edwards mentioned. College students within the magnet program, which now not exists, needed to comply with maintain good grades to proceed learning within the performing arts courses, whereas different college students didn’t have such a requirement.

“I kind of perceive philosophically what the concept was,” Edwards mentioned, “however I believe that it had unintended penalties.”

Jefferson is one among Portland’s few public excessive colleges the place Black college students make up the biggest racial group — barely. Round 33% of Jefferson college students are Black, based on 2018-19 enrollment knowledge, whereas about 30% are white. Throughout the district, this 12 months’s knowledge reveals that fewer than one out of 10 college students within the district is Black, whereas the vast majority of college students are white.

Edwards mentioned he felt an added sense of accountability to be a mannequin for his Black college students. He’d roam the halls waiting for stray college students to ship again to class.

Edwards launched generations of scholars to tv manufacturing, and he took it critically.

“I all the time confused that you just’re not simply children taking part in round, pretending to make tv,” he mentioned. “You’re making tv, and there are specific requirements that one should adhere to.”

Edwards proudly names a handful of his college students: One was an government at Paramount, one other joined the Administrators Guild of America, and a number of other others produce movies of their very own and have gained awards.

Former college students mentioned Edwards had excessive expectations. Ime Etuk, who graduated from Jefferson in 1993, remembers how Edwards would ask his college students to return to campus at 6 a.m. to arrange the set for Friday broadcasts.

If college students couldn’t make it to campus — their mother and father couldn’t drive them, or they couldn’t catch buses that early within the morning — Edwards would drive to their properties to select them up, Etuk mentioned.

“He was going to do no matter it took on that day,” mentioned Etuk, now a movie director who based the Portland video manufacturing firm Giggle Cry Love Leisure. “There have been no excuses.”

Etuk remembers Edwards for a way he’d “speak to,” slightly than “speak at,” his college students.

“He would name us on our B.S.,” Etuk mentioned. “Once you’re in highschool, you’re not used to that from an grownup.”

Andy Kulak, a language arts trainer at Jefferson, works within the classroom throughout from Edwards and has identified him for 20 years. Each time Kulak spends time with Edwards, contained in the classroom or in any other case, he learns one thing new.

“As a trainer, I deeply respect that,” mentioned Kulak, who added {that a} good friend had described Edwards as somebody who “brings you into the information collectively” and “by no means makes you’re feeling small.”

From TV to instructing

Earlier than Edwards started instructing at 33 years previous, he labored in tv manufacturing. Within the early ’80s, after Edwards had graduated from the College of California, San Diego, he traveled to Portland on the behest of a good friend who had advised him a few potential internship at his office for minorities in tv.

Edwards didn’t, and nonetheless doesn’t, like to observe tv. (“I make tv. I don’t watch it,” he mentioned.) However what intrigued him concerning the medium was its place among the many strongest and influential sectors of the financial system.

“Most of what folks know — or suppose they know — comes from both motion pictures or TV,” Edwards mentioned. “So it was vital to me that my college students may avail themselves of that energy and inform their very own tales versus these different folks telling their tales for them.”

Although he didn’t get the internship — Edwards despatched in a 90-minute documentary on Malcolm X for his utility, which he mentioned might need scared the company off — he began working at a Black neighborhood tv channel the place he hosted a weekly speak present.

He had moved to Northeast Portland, the place he nonetheless lives, within the Humboldt neighborhood. Humboldt is simply off Interstate 5 and contains the world between North Ainsworth and Skidmore streets.

Edwards remembers Humboldt within the ’80s as a vibrant neighborhood the place his neighbors seemed like him and performed the identical sorts of music he listened to. He additionally recalled streets with boarded-up and deserted companies.

In 1980 and 1990, Humboldt’s Black residents made up 69% of the inhabitants, wrote Karen Gibson, a now-retired city research professor at Portland State College, in an article on gentrification and disinvestment in Albina. However by 2000, that determine had dropped to 52%. By 2010, it had dropped once more, by greater than half, to 25%.

This precipitous decline within the Black inhabitants got here from a mixture of elements. Rising charges in crime throughout the ’80s pushed out Black residents who may afford to maneuver to safer neighborhoods, for instance. These new traits compounded on a long time of historical past, together with racist mortgage lending insurance policies within the ’70s and ’80s that displaced Black residents.

Discriminatory lenders refused to lend to Black residents, main some residents to maneuver elsewhere to search out properties to buy. Speculators purchased properties at low-cost costs however didn’t spend money on them, Gibson wrote, main “to housing abandonment at a serious scale.”

A combination of low property values and the town’s efforts to reinvest within the space — making modifications neighborhood residents had been asking of the town for many years — started to draw white residents to Albina within the 1990s, Gibson mentioned.

Nonprofit housing organizations developed new properties to enhance Albina’s neighborhoods. Constructing codes have been extra aggressively enforced, and the creation of a brand new city renewal district and light-rail undertaking on Interstate Avenue helped prime the world for reinvestment, Gibson wrote.

By 1999, after the revitalization effort by the town, Black Portlanders owned 36% fewer properties than a decade earlier. White Portlanders owned 43% extra. It wasn’t that Black households couldn’t afford properties, Gibson mentioned. They might. “It simply was not permitted or promoted,” she wrote. Banks refused to lend out cash to Black folks trying to purchase properties, citing racist fears of shedding enterprise by promoting to non-white households.

Because the neighborhood has modified, Edwards mentioned he’s felt unwelcome at instances.

The place Edwards lives, he sees yard indicators that say “Black Lives Matter.” However when he walks by means of his neighborhood, he mentioned, he will get appears to be like from others that appear to ask, “What are you doing right here?”

“To me, that doesn’t display that Black lives matter,” Edwards mentioned.

At the highschool that sits within the coronary heart of Albina, college students and academics have all the time mentioned race. As a principally Black public highschool, it was pure, Edwards mentioned, even earlier than protests started in Portland following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in Could.

Throughout a protest in June, protesters pulled down the varsity’s statue of its namesake, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of america, who enslaved greater than 600 folks. Individuals at Jefferson have lengthy identified concerning the president’s historical past of enslavement, Edwards mentioned.

“For most individuals, him being a slave proprietor is the first facet,” he mentioned. “So right here you could have a college filled with African American kids, and its namesake is a slave proprietor. Now that extra folks know that, not solely was he a slave proprietor, however that he fathered kids that he saved enslaved, I believe that’s actually just about all of the dialogue there must be.”

A petition to rename the varsity after Edwards has greater than 1,300 signatures. However Edwards doesn’t need the varsity to be renamed after him. He prefers an alternative choice, one which his college students got here up with: Michelle and Barack Obama Center School.

“Jefferson was an individual who, by means of oppression, produced kids of twin ethnicities,” Edwards mentioned. “Barack Obama is an individual of twin ethnicities, the place that got here out of alternative.” He added that Obama’s Democratic politics would keep on the third president’s loftier beliefs, whereas renaming the varsity would acknowledge Jefferson’s shortcomings.

“Now you’ll have a college which, for half a century, was primarily African American, named after African People,” Edwards mentioned.

— Ryan Nguyen; rnguyen@oregonian.com; @ryanjjnguyen

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