Diversity still a dream in Ashland

As Americans across the nation celebrate the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, Ashland joins the festivities with local tributes. But for those who look closely at Ashland's small African American population, the celebrations strike a slightly discordant tone. For a city that prides itself on philosophies of inclusion and diversity, many African Americans here have yet to feel comfortable calling the city home. African Americans still represent less than one percent of Ashland's population.

Many interviewed said that, other than beautiful scenery, friendly people and ample outdoor opportunities Ashland doesn't have much else to offer African Americans. Missing from the list of local attractions are well paying jobs, career opportunities, affordable housing and even basic cultural services.

Case in Point

Mike Diaz's barber shop, The Flat Top, located at 1660 Siskiyou Blvd., is the only place in the Rogue Valley where African American men can get a good haircut.

"I get customers as far away as Klamath Falls and Grants Pass," Diaz said, adding that most African Americans are both grateful and shocked to be able to get a good haircut in Southern Oregon.

But Diaz said he doesn't know of anywhere in the Rogue Valley that an African American woman can get her hair done.

"I get calls all the time asking me where they can go. I feel real bad for the ladies," Diaz said.

It's just one of many subtle reminders of the challenges that await that one percent of African Americans here.

Critical Mass

The "if you build it, they will come" philosophy comes into play when trying to attract African Americans to Ashland.

Marvin Woodard, coordinator of Southern Oregon University's Multicultural Resource Center and an African American, said Ashland has a reasonably successful Latino network.

"But when you start looking for pockets of where black families or students can go to network and feel connected, you're not going to find much," he said. "You have to have an active black community to attract them."

In 1968, SOU had a total of 16 African American students. Approximately less than half of one percent of its student population. In fact, the numbers were so low; many of the Black Student Union members were white, according to Marjorie O'Harra's book Ashland: The First 130 Years.

An April 2007 SOU report shows that of its 5,000 students, 69 are black &

just over one percent. Mark Bottorff, SOU's director of admissions, says that hardly qualifies as a "critical mass," adding that large student populations of ethnic groups are crucial to recruiting and retaining these students.

"It takes students to recruit students," he said. "Without a critical mass, it's tough."

Jonathan Eldridge, vice president of SOU student affairs, says having larger numbers of African Americans in the community is the only way to push student numbers higher. "Some students find the area very isolating. We won't see a shift until there's a critical mass of a group."

Subtle Discrimination

Diaz said that black men who sit in his barber chair typically describe Ashland as a friendly and welcoming place.

"They're amazed at how everyone is smiling and saying hello to them."

But there is an undercurrent of assumptions being made about groups to which Ashland Caucasians are rarely exposed. Diaz, a Mexican American, told a story about a woman who asked what he did for a living. He told her he owned a business and she asked, "Oh, what restaurant?"

"People look at me and think I'm a migrant worker or work in a restaurant," Diaz said. "My family has been in this country for generations and we've never been involved in agriculture."

Diaz said he used to keep quiet when people stereotyped him. Now, he treats it as an educational opportunity.

Woodard said he, too, had experienced subtle forms of discrimination in Ashland, like the time when he and two other black men were walking at night.

"We heard the unmistakable click of people locking their car doors," he said.

He said when Ashland starts seeing more people of color at banks, owning businesses, on committees, in the schools, that's when relationships and trust can start to develop.

"Right now there are not enough opportunities for that kind of interaction," Woodard said. "For the most part, Ashland's heart is in the right place, but it still has work to do."

Graham Lewis, who is white, helped start the Ashland Cultural Diversity Alliance in 2004.

"We really wanted people in Ashland to understand the need for a more diverse community," he said. "We also wanted to educate them about the subtle forms of discrimination that were taking place in this town."

He gave an example of a white and black person walking up to a retail clerk at the exact same time, and the clerk waiting on the white person first. He also said he still hears ethnic jokes in Ashland, including redneck jokes.

Lewis, originally from Mississippi, said, "People hear my southern voice and immediately think I'm a racist. So people &

all people &

stereotype. And there will always be work to be done on diversity."

Few Jobs, High Housing Costs

Local leaders listed Ashland's high housing costs and lack of professional job opportunities as two reasons the town isn't seeing more professionals and young families moving into the area &

regardless of color.

"Let's face it," said Woodard. "Ashland's hardly a Mecca for finding living-wage jobs. When our students graduate, they have two choices &

work at Oregon Shakespeare Festival or go to graduate school."

But when professional jobs open up with Ashland's largest employers &

SOU, City of Ashland, OSF or Ashland Community Hospital &

even the professionals balk at local housing price tags.

Mark Marchetti, chief executive officer for ACH, said he has trouble recruiting doctors to the area.

"They get sticker shock when they see our housing costs."

City Administrator Martha Bennett said many lawyers who applied for the recent city attorney position pulled out once they saw the inflated housing market.

The city recognizes the ongoing problem and Tina Gray, director for human resources for the City of Ashland, said the Council is trying to work on an affordable housing initiative.

"It may help to pay for housing incentives or assistance."

Recruitment Lacking

Area professionals say they are taking what steps they can to attract minorities.

Gray said the city advertised in publications that targeted African American and Hispanic audiences. "But when we surveyed the applicants, none of them had seen the ads, so we stopped because of the high cost," she said.

The city has utilized outside recruiters, and Gray said the city always specifies that they want the recruiters to focus on women and minorities, but the results haven't been impressive.

"We have a pretty good record with the police department," she said. "We just hired an African American lieutenant who's coming in March. And we have two other African Americans in the department."

In contrast to the efforts made by the city to find qualified minority applicants, Ashland Community Hospital has no proactive efforts to recruit minorities.

Few of the 435 hospital staff members are African Americans. Karen Herwig said the hospital advertises vacancies through newspapers, on its Web site and with job lines, "But we really haven't done things like advertising with places dedicated to minority hiring."

The hospital has nearly 150 physicians affiliated with it. Of that number, none are African American.

Marchetti said the hospital hires a firm to help them recruit doctors to Ashland.

"I don't know if they look at minorities," he said.

When asked why the hospital wasn't requiring the recruiters to focus on minorities, he said, "I don't know. I guess I haven't really thought about that."

Right Direction

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's recruiting efforts leave others in the dust.

Libby Appel, who became OSF's artistic director 12 years ago, made it a top priority to increase the number of people of color in the company.

"We are American theater, and therefore, we need to represent the face of America," she said, adding that the art itself is made better when a different face plays a part traditionally cast to a white person.

Today, 45 percent of the 77 actors and professional understudies cast for the 2008 season are African Americans.

Appel said OSF was successful in their recruiting efforts because it cares deeply about the issue.

"We put effort, commitment and energy into it," she said. "And the new director, Bill Rauch, in just a short time, has increased the numbers even more."

However, when Appel retired, long-time director Timothy Bond, an African American, was let go when Rauch was hired, showing just one example of how difficult it may be for blacks to gain top-level wage jobs in the area. Of all the major local businesses and organizations, none of the top executive directors or CEOs are African American.

Though not quite as successful as OSF, Southern Oregon University is stepping up its efforts to increase the diversity of its students and professional staff.

Greg Bell, an African American diversity consultant and inspirational speaker out of Portland, is visiting the campus this week to meet with key personnel. He's helping SOU develop a diversity and inclusion strategy that officials hope will be ready by the end of March.

Bell said the very first challenge is to understand why diversity is important. He said if people don't have a good grasp on why they are working for more diversity, they get discouraged and it tends to take a backseat to all the other challenges an organization is facing.

"Saying it's a priority is one thing, doing it is another," he said. "Increasing diversity takes time, energy and money &

and unwavering courage."

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x226 or .

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