Charles McGee III and I sit outside a coffee shop one late afternoon, but we are far from alone. We are interrupted multiple times by passersby who know him and can’t help but say hello. He greets each one like an old friend.
“And how’s your mother doing?” he asks in conversation with a woman, walking her dog. He is curious to know about others, and others are curious about him. Even in his office, his phone buzzes constantly with messages and alerts from the mass of people trying to get a hold of him.
Though it seems throughout his life he’s always had many plates spinning at once, these days most of his time and attention are taken up being a husband and father of two young children and the president of the Black Parent Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering parents to help their black children succeed in school. On one side of McGee’s office is a bookshelf filled with history and educational theory books from which he quotes often when talking about BPI and his hopes for Portland’s future. On the other side of the room stands a table supporting photos of his loved ones, family and friends, his wife and 4-year-old son, not yet one of his daughter born only a few weeks prior. He points one out in particular, McGee with a black couple smiling in matching outfits.
“That’s a picture of my amazing parents,” McGee says. “They do it all the time,” he says, referring to their matching yellow ensembles. “It’s kind of excessive,” he jokes.
His parents, he says, are the ones responsible for both the strong cultural pride and humanistic curiosity that informs all he does. Today, McGee wears many hats — activist, community organizer, president and CEO — all with the mission of helping parents be the best they can be for their children. With all of the positive energy McGee embodies today, it is hard to imagine that nearly three decades ago he was a young child witnessing the outbreak of one of Africa’s deadliest civil wars.
Like many great Portlanders, McGee was not born in Portland or even Oregon. Rather, he hails from nearly 7,000 miles away in Liberia the youngest of five children of Cecilia and Charles II, a high-ranking official in the Liberian government.
To understand Charles is to understand the long complicated history of Liberia, a tiny West African nation founded in 1874 as a homeland for formerly enslaved African-Americans looking for a place where they could experience true equality.
“I am a direct descendent of those freed enslaved people who went back (to Liberia),” says McGee. “My grandmother’s grandfather was one of the founding fathers of Liberia.”
Instead of equality, however, Americo-Liberians, as the settlers were called, established supremacy. Over time, the hostile relationship between the Americo-Liberian elite and the native African majority finally broke out into civil war in 1989 when McGee was only a baby. As the conflict grew more and more bloody, the McGees knew it was time to leave.
They killed (my father’s) boss.” McGee says. “He was next in line. The war in Liberia essentially was about its indigenous people gaining power and so people like us had to leave.”
McGee and his family came to the United States in 1993 with the aid of then-senator Mark O. Hatfield, and settled in Northeast Portland. Charles was only 5 years old.
As an Americo-Liberian in Africa, McGee was part of a minority, and in Portland his circumstances were no different. Except that, once in Portland, it was his skin color that marked him as one of few. But his parents never allowed an inferiority complex to take hold of him. “My parents raised us to be able to navigate life to know that you’re black, to be proud of your blackness and your black skin and what it means, but to also understand that we live in a world where everyone’s different and to embrace it,” McGee says.
Coming from Liberia, McGee grew up personally knowing black role models in positions of power, including in his own family, and race was not a conversational taboo. “I’ll never ever forget growing up in my parents’ household and having conversations about blackness and about how great it is to be black and they didn’t put limits on it.”
For Charles, this room to explore and affirm his cultural identity translated into a career of activism and community organizing that started as soon as he entered high school. That penchant to verbalize pride in their identity heavily influences the organizational principles of the Black Parent Initiative, which operates on the principle that cultural specificity is a critical tool in empowering parents. “That story is a story and that complicated story is a story that every single day I think of,” says McGee of his own cultural history. “And every single day inspires me to do the work that I do and to believe what I believe in, because it is both that complicated history that I believe that black people need to recognize and own as part of the fabric that makes us the beings that we are, but also inspires us to be greater.”
McGee’s passion and ambition runs in his family. His older sister Charlene was elected the president of the NAACP’s Portland chapter in 2007 when she was only 24. She now travels back and forth between Portland and Liberia, raising funds and awareness for victims of the Ebola epidemic.
Though BPI and its founder are both quite young — McGee started the organization at age 19 — he came to the project with six years of community activism and organizing under his belt. By the time McGee graduated from Franklin High School in 2004, he had already built an impressive extracurricular resume that included spurring a system-wide conversation on race when, during his sophomore year, he presented to the school board a petition of more than 200 signatures calling for race sensitivity training for Portland Public School teachers. In 2005, McGee was still navigating his freshman year at Portland State University when he ran for the Zone 4 School Board seat on the platform of increased student involvement in district decision-making. Even though he didn’t win, he channeled his drive to create change for Portland’s underrepresented students into starting BPI with his friend and fellow activist Johnell Bell.
In many ways, BPI is McGee’s way of imparting the gifts he had in youth with other black kids in Portland, giving them the cultural knowledge and pride that he believes, will be the vehicle for beginning to heal generations of trauma endured by Portland’s black population and getting black Portlanders to engage differently and more fully in their home, school and work communities.
Now, married with two young children, McGee has the same passion and drive that first inspired him not that long ago. “Being a parent has made me a better person,” says McGee. “It has made me more reflective. It’s made me a bit more humble, I think. Parenting has made me walk slower.”
Click here to learn more about the Black Parent Initiative.