By Jake Thomas, Staff Writer
On Dec. 10, Kathleen Saadat accepted the Lifetime Achievement from the Portland Human Rights Commission. The award comes as Saadat, 72, prepares to retire from her position as diversity development/affirmative action manager for the city of Portland.
Saadat has long been a presence in Oregon working to advance equality and social justice. Originally born in St. Louis, Saadat passed through Oregon on a trip to Anchorage, Alaska, in the late 1960s to visit her brother who was stationed there in the military. She fell in love with the beauty of the area and moved to Portland in 1970.
She has occupied a litany of positions during her career. She has worked at the Cascade AIDS Project, served as the state director of affirmative action, was an assistant to Portland City Commissioner Gretchen Kafoury and strategic plan coordinator for Multnomah County’s Department of Community and Family Services. She has also served on Portland’s Human Rights Commission, and has sat on a range of boards and committees.
Saadat also helped organize Portland’s first gay rights march and was active in opposing Measure 9, an anti-gay ballot initiative that was voted down in 1992.
Jake Thomas: You’ve worked with Cascade Aids Project. You’ve been working on the issue of AIDS for a long time. What are we getting right and what still needs improving?
Kathleen Saadat: The thing that needs to happen, from my perspective, to more effectively address AIDS is to give better sex education starting with children. It isn’t just about AIDS. AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, but we don’t protect our children by letting them know about sex, sexuality, sexual behavior, the consequences of their sexual behavior and the politics of their sexual behavior. So we need to start there. We need to remove the stigma. That means more of us need to be talking about it with our friends about what we think we could do. People need to get tested, too.
J.T.: What did you mean by the politics of sexual behavior?
K.S.: Well, sex is a big political issue in this country. I mean just look at the past election and all this stuff around women and whether or not we should have trans-vaginal ultrasounds. Gender and sex are all through everything, and it’s a struggle when you are laboring under stereotypes about your sexual behavior, and then something touches you like AIDS or HIV and the stereotype is exploited to your disadvantage. So if you’re seen as promiscuous, as gay men are, period, then that stereotype comes to haunt you when you begin to talk about remedies for HIV and AIDS. If you’re seen as oversexed, as many African American men are, then that stereotype begins to haunt you when you begin to talk about education and preventative measures in the African American community.
J.T.: Portland’s demographics have changed considerably over the last two decades. Do you think Portland, as a city and culture, has a good grasp on how to celebrate or even engage that diversity?
K.S.: No. But I don’t think they’re the worst on the block. I think Portland works hard at trying to celebrate, embrace and live with diversity. Portland is certainly ahead of a lot of places, in that we have lots of conversations going on here about diversity and the impact of racism and the impact of sexism. There’s lots going on here, which means there’s an opportunity for dialogue. You can go to McMenamins once a month and listen to Race Talks, which is the program that McMenamins support. You can go almost anywhere in this city and find somebody talking about lesbian and gay issues or women’s issues or older people’s issues.
The problem is not the dialogue. The dialogue is good. The dialogue frequently does not point toward some action that will remedy the situation. That is one of the problems. The other problem is people tend to think that these issues are simplistic: that all one has to do is raise your hand shout, let it be done, and it’s done. It’s not true.
These are deeply rooted emotional and psychological [pause] infections that have us look at the world in certain ways. To rid ourselves of these we need to talk. We need to think, and we need to do high levels of introspection. So I think we are ahead of the game in some things, but we still haven’t learned yet what to do about application of the theory we hold.
J.T.: You said that the dialogue does not direct itself to solutions. What kind of solutions do we need and what kind of problems would they address?
K.S.: [Sighs] Solutions have to do with changing the systems in which we operate. So that means you need to look at those systems on several levels. Look at the history, look at the policies, look at the procedures, look at the people. If you can find within those things barriers to equity, barriers to equal treatment, then that’s where you focus your efforts to change.
You can move a policy. You can rewrite a policy. You can say it blocks, for instance, people from disabilities from getting through your hallways, then you change it.
But there’s a piece that we don’t touch very well, and that’s the personal piece. That’s the piece that requires me to do introspection. That’s the piece that requires that I do some sort of acceptance of the reality of the history of this country as it has treated people of color and women as it has treated the mentally ill and the physically disabled. There is a history there that we refuse to acknowledge because we absolve ourselves of any responsibility. Now I’m not saying that people are responsible for the past, but they benefit from it or they suffer from it. And that’s a conversation that we don’t have very well, the one that requires us to look at ourselves and see what our role is in all this.
J.T.: You served on the city’s Human Relations Committee. In retrospect, do you think it helped?
K.S.: Yes. Yes. It was a place that was willing, where the people were courageous enough to say, let’s look at immigration, or, let’s have a hard look at how our local government is interacting with the federal government with these immigration cases. It was courageous; it was public. It would say, let’s have a look at what’s going on with the police here in Portland. So, yes, I think they’re an incredibly important as a voice that reminds us of the direction we say we want to go and that holds us accountable by ensuring that people who ordinarily wouldn’t be heard are heard.
J.T.: Affirmative action has become a loaded term over the years. What does it mean to you?
K.S.: Affirmative action is a tool. It’s a tool that was introduced as a remedy to past discrimination and the impact of past discrimination. The people who have been resistant to equalize things have often made it sound like a program where all you had to do was be a person of color and you’d get a job. And I would challenge them and say, well why aren’t all of us working? Why is the unemployment rate among blacks and Latinos so high if it’s that way?
Also, people have used affirmative action to say that it’s a special right given to people. People who say that are people who have so little understanding of history, so little knowledge of history that they don’t know that Thomas Jefferson, while an advocate for freedom, also had a slave as his mistress and had several children by her and never set her free. This advocate for freedom owned people. They don’t know that the government had a policy of non-integrated neighborhoods, so when the men came back from World War II and wanted to get loans for housing, the government policy was that they wouldn’t grant those loans in places where there would be integrated living. When you don’t know that, it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to something like affirmative action.
Again, it’s a tool. It’s a tool by which you measure the extent to which the institution or the agency has been able to try and equalize its workforce, not only in terms of people of color and women. It’s never been people of color who have been the biggest beneficiaries, it’s always been white women, not black women. So when you look at where those people are placed in the hierarchy of any place, you should be able to see some sort of reasonable disbursement of color and gender or ethnicity in the dimensions of that organization. You use it as a tool.
J.T.: So affirmative action is a measuring tool?
K.S.: It’s a monitoring tool.
J.T.: What sort of standard should it be used to meet?
K.S.: That’s a really complicated issue and that’s another place where people don’t know very much. The standard has to do with the availability of people in a particular field. Let’s see if you can follow this. If the city wants to hire engineers, and we find that we don’t have any American Indian engineers we need to find out how many are available to us. What if there aren’t any coming out of engineering school? But when we do find out that there is an American Indian engineering society we can find out how many are available to us, and we can go to universities and go all around and find out how many are coming on the marketplace and make some focused efforts to recruit. The standards are what is available in the area. It could be the local area. It could be the region, the state, the country. It could be international. What are the standards has to do with what’s available.
J.T.: Because affirmative action has become such a loaded term, should we use different language?
K.S.: No. We can’t keep changing the language and think that will solve the problem. It just means you’ll have a new set of words with a negative load. We don’t need to change the language. Let’s get educated about what it really means.
J.T.: So how is the city doing?
K.S.: The city’s doing pretty good. We still have some places we need to look and work harder, but we have internal discussions and we have an affirmative action plan. We have an Office of Equity that will look at those plans and look at those agencies and look at their internal processes and procedures to see if they can be either support or obstacles for equity in the work place.
J.T.: What could it be doing better?
K.S.: [Pause] It could be doing a better job of promoting itself as an employer interested in issues of equity and equal opportunity. It could have signs on the sides of buses saying, your city: the place to work.
J.T.: I was hoping we could reminisce a little bit. You say a lot of people are ignorant of history. Portland is regarded as a relatively friendly place for gay rights, but long ago it wasn’t. You were involved with the campaign against Measure 9 and helped organize Portland’s first gay rights march. What was that like?
K.S.: Scary. The march was less than 200 people, and we marched in downtown Portland and we were scared to death. The religious right was there with a big sign saying, turn or burn. And they came and they stood in the midst of the group celebrating gay rights.
While it’s been, in some ways, a haven for gay and lesbian people, it hasn’t been all sweetness. Ballot Measure 9 and before it Ballot Measure 8 rescinded then Governor Neil Goldschmidt’s executive order for nondiscrimination in state government. Ballot Measure 9 was an amazing piece of work to be presented to the people in this state about what people’s rights are. It said that you couldn’t even be friends with or support someone who was gay. That’s pretty awful.
I believe that the people who do this are as adamant about their beliefs as I am about mine. But I believe, ultimately, the problem is that each of us in a marginalized group has to fight our way into the human race via the courts, etc. That should not be. There should be no vote on whether or not I get to have equal rights. All that does is allow people to vote their existing prejudices. If I am a citizen here and I pay my taxes and vote, and I do vote, what is the issue? Who gets to say that I don’t get to have what other people have? How does that happen?
Well go back to the Constitution. Have a look. The constitution of South Africa protects me as a black person, as a lesbian person, as a woman. How come that isn’t true in the U.S.?
J.T.: How come?
K.S.: Go back to the Constitution. It was written biased. Derrick Bell, who is now dead, who was the dean of the University of Oregon law school, raised that issue. Our Constitution was written for straight, white, land-owning men. It wasn’t written for even poor white men. But everybody who has wanted full participation in our country has had to fight their way into legitimacy because we were not included in the first place. That’s why.
Why would this ridiculous conversation with women getting raped, and legitimate rape happen? How the hell did that happen? And it’s not the women talking about it, it’s the men deciding. And it’s the men deciding about what men do to women. It’s insane. It should make everybody in this country crazy. Why the hell do we have to vote on whether or not women get to have an abortion? That’s not anyone’s business but hers.
J.T.: What are you going to do in retirement?
K.S.: Raise hell.