February 23, 2022

Meyer’s New Mission: Grounded in Justice, Inspired by Community

Michelle J. DePass at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Meyer Memorial Trust building in 2019. Credit: Fred Joe

Four years ago, I came to Meyer Memorial Trust to deliver on the mission of a flourishing and equitable Oregon. I leave it now knowing Meyer has a dedicated team ready and excited to deliver on a renewed sense of purpose and a mission worthy of these times. The new mission better reflects what Oregon needs this organization to focus on now: Meyer accelerates racial, social and economic justice for the collective well-being of Oregon’s lands and peoples.

This didn’t happen overnight and I didn’t do it alone. Every step of the way, I was joined, guided and inspired by a deeply committed board and fiercely sharp and passionate staff willing to see the world clearly, reckon with a troubling past, dream of a better future and have the discipline to ask ourselves over and over again: Do our decisions remove barriers or reinforce them? While we looked inward to better live our values, we looked outward to our Oregon communities to show us the way.

A Shift Towards Justice

I entered an organization focused on equity. I leave it focused on justice. This shift is essential. We don’t have to wallow in the past but we ignore it at our peril. We must know and acknowledge our Native histories. We must understand the legacy of white supremacy, colonization and racial exclusion. We must learn from our shared past in order to know what we need to correct from the long-lasting harms and injustices that live on today. We must know on what false promises and faulty premises our systems were built so we can dismantle them and create new ones that deliver on our mission, not make it impossible to achieve.

My life as a Black woman and my experience in academia, government, civil rights and environmental justice advocacy have taught me that power and money are tools. And how they are wielded means everything. When we looked at who we gave grants to and saw that there were few leaders of color on our roster, we knew that meant we were not doing our part to serve all the peoples of Oregon. When we looked and saw that we had no partnerships with tribes whose ancestral lands make up Oregon, we knew that we were not in relationships with the people who we could learn from the most.

Driven by Community, A Sharper Focus on Native-led Efforts

So I committed to making those connections myself, in person. My conversations with tribal communities in all corners of the state helped to lay the groundwork for tangible commitments like adding a dedicated budget line for Native communities in our grantmaking as we continued to infuse funding for Native-focused efforts across all of our programs. But perhaps most critically and among the shared achievements I am most proud of, is the ongoing transformation of Meyer’s culture to reflect a fuller understanding of the interconnected nature of our relationship to Oregon’s land and peoples.

In long-term efforts like the Willamette River Initiative, now Nesika Wilamut, we’ve helped provide the stable infrastructure to shift towards that more evolved mindset. Nesika Wilamut describes itself as a “community-driven network that weaves together people and communities who care about human and ecological well-being in the Willamette River Basin.” I believe passionately in Meyer’s ability to continue iterating, listening and evolving to more fully realize that bolder and more expansive vision of collective well-being that our staff and board now share.

With this wider aperture, and our experience working in and with communities through times of inspiring mobilization and local power-building amid a pandemic, an uprising and a forest on fire, we are now better prepared to see connections across issues, to use our voice to speak to systems of opportunity alongside those of oppression. Meyer is poised to have the impact I imagine Fred Meyer wanted us to have. And we are set up to succeed.

Living our Mission

Words can be powerful, but they’re nothing if not backed up with action. A mission alone is a signal. But a committed staff and board behind a mission are a true force. At Meyer, we take the word “accelerate” seriously. Movement toward supporting community-led and trust-based grantmaking needs to happen faster. And then there’s that word justice. Justice goes beyond building a flourishing and equitable Oregon. It is a commitment to correction. Our commitment to repair and restore.

Meyer is already living our new mission and desire to have deep structural impact. Even before we finalized our future direction, we established Justice Oregon for Black Lives, Meyer’s largest single initiative in our 40-year history. Justice Oregon invests in Black organizations, communities, leadership, families, wisdom and opportunity. We are engaging Oregon’s Black community as the experts on how best to strategically invest in Black success as a way to not only support Black life, but also end a culture of racism that has systemically harmed our lands and peoples since our state’s founding.

By following the lead of communities, Meyer is eager to help cultivate a future where Oregonians root for each other rather than fear each other. “Without community, there is no liberation,” Audre Lorde once wrote, “but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

Our Collective Promise

We need to embrace that Oregon is made up of neighbors. From building our headquarters in a historically Black neighborhood, to advancing economic justice with Latino farmworkers who have long been stewards of our agriculture, to learning from the vast knowledge of our tribal neighbors, we are rich in generational wisdom here in Oregon. Tapping it for our future, learning to live well — not only with each other, but for each other — improves everyone’s well-being.

I am leaving Meyer, but will forever remain committed to its new mission. This is my life’s work. They say it is a privilege to plant a seed for a tree whose shade you won’t enjoy, but I believe this seed is sprouting fast and growing strong. I believe Meyer’s justice-focused, community-centered philanthropy will be a beacon for all who want to live in a more just world. It has been an honor to contribute to it and Oregon’s bright future.

—Michelle