Oregon Leaders You Should Know: Michelle Yemaya Benton

"It has been a long and winding road to get to where I am today." Atlas Mountains, Morocco.

Michelle Yemaya Benton is the executive director of Black Community of Portland, a Justice Oregon for Black Lives grantee partner. We caught up with her to talk about her new scope of work, how community organizing is in her DNA and what it means to be a revolutionary.

What’s one thing you did recently that brought you joy?

I just came back from my trip to Morocco. It was my first time leaving the country and traveling to Africa was a spiritual experience. The hospitality, the people, the culture, the sunsets — it was really beautiful. I felt like I had to battle my ancestors to come back.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life?

I have two: the matriarch of my family, my great-grandmother Jonnie B. Clarkston and the Black women in Portland. My great-grandmother was my example of generational wealth, what it means to take care of your family and what it means to take care of your community.

It's hard for me to pinpoint one Black woman because there's so many Black women that really influenced my life. My friend Mikinya Jackson, a co-founder of the Melanated Sisterhood of Portland, is a big revolutionary influence; Joy Alise Davis at Imagine Black inspires how I go about my work; Laquida Lanford, the founder of Afro Village, uplifts and empowers me; Noni Causey who runs B.E.A.M is one of my mentors and I can call on her for anything. We support the missions, the movement and each other.

What are some words of wisdom you’d give your younger self?

When I was in high school, I wanted to go to a HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and be an attorney. I didn’t have the grades and I didn’t have the support, but I was organizing even then. I did soulful cookouts, helped start the step team, organized fundraisers — but the school-to-prison pipeline is real and even just having the stigma in your bloodline can affect some roads we walk and it can be intense. So I would tell my younger self, ‘If you want to study law and become an attorney, you need to do the things to get there. Find programs, find outside support. If that’s what you want to do, do it.’

How did you become the executive director of Black Community of Portland?

It was a prayer for purpose. One of my good friends, Mikinya, invited me to a community dinner at The Horn of Africa. There was a long table and lots of Black folks all wanting to empower and uplift the Black community. I sat down and never left. That day, I submitted my application to join the Black Riders Liberation Party, the new generation of Black Panthers for Portland chapter.

Part of our mission is leveling up our community: empowering our people, protecting our people by educating our people. I thought of my younger cousins and how much I needed advocacy growing up. My family is no stranger to the 'war on drugs,' or the New Jim Crow era. The buck stops here. I put that first and that’s how I got into this work.

What new venture is your organization embarking on?

We’re coming together with Imagine Black Futures and The Rosewood Initiative to create what we’re calling the Oregon Black Worker Center. Working while Black in Oregon is a topic not taken seriously or spoken on enough. This center is going to be a space of empowerment, a space for learning and sharing information, opportunities and resources. Our goal is to create a supportive community where Black workers receive fair treatment and respect in the workplace.

We’re all coming together to build a bigger movement of advocacy and accountability. Community voice is crucial. Right now, we’re reaching out to community members to better understand their needs for this space.

As a revolutionary, what does revolution look like to you and what does it look like in Oregon?

For me, revolution is the sheer audacity and ability to do what you will with your life and not allow the limiting beliefs of others to prevent you from moving forward. It’s being able to empower people. The revolution starts at home. It starts with you.

Revolution in Oregon is giving people the power and authority to live their lives how they see fit. It’s divestment — not just of the police — but of a budget that doesn’t represent the people who live in this state; it’s reparations for Black folks whose families have lived here for generations; it’s removing racist language from our constitution to restructure our policies.

What’s on your bucket list?

Seeing every single country in Africa, touching every single continent in the world and expanding my nonprofit to be a national organization.