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Video: PLACE students impress at City Hall, Oregonian newspaper takes notice

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Students from Catlin Gabel's PLACE civic leadership program presented their plans in July 2014 to Portland's mayor and city council for improvements to SE Powell Blvd., a major Portland artery. Their plan was exceptionally well received! A reporter from the Oregonian newspaper took note and wrote this article about their presentation (pdf here and downloadable below).

PLACE program announces new public-private partnership

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Catlin Gabel's civic engagement program getting storefront space in North Portland

Catlin Gabel’s PLACE (Planning and Leadership Across City Environments) urban civic leadership program and One North, a Portland development and neighborhood project, have created an innovative new partnership. This partnership gives PLACE a storefront space in North Portland to continue operations and expand its mission of student and community engagement. The new location is set to open in the winter of 2015.

“Catlin Gabel is an integral part of this public-private endeavor,” said Catlin Gabel head Tim Bazemore. “Being part of this pilot project will create more experiential learning opportunities for our students, and PLACE will be a catalyst for local youth to engage and lead.”

The development group behind One North, Eric Lemelson and Ben Kaiser, generously donated storefront space to PLACE for five years. “Catlin Gabel aligns with One North’s commitment to community involvement, sustainability, and sharing resources. We are excited to create authentic partnerships in the neighborhood, and have a public purpose impact,” said development team member Owen Gabbert ’02.

This month, the unique nature of this public-private development was recognized by Metro, the regional governing body, which granted the project $420,000. The grant will support the development of the project’s outdoor courtyard, which will become an asset available for use by the community.

ABOUT PLACE
PLACE uses urban planning as a tool to teach students from Catlin Gabel and other schools in the region how to become active and engaged citizens working toward positive change in their communities and the world. For example, students have completed projects for clients such as Zenger Farm in outer southeast Portland and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in north Portland. For Zenger Farm, students surveyed nearly 900 youth in the David Douglas school district about food insecurity. Not only did Zenger Farm implement some of the PLACE student design recommendations, but its board of directors still uses that survey data to make organizational decisions.

Since its inception in 2008, PLACE has grown into a three-part program with an international following.

• PLACE courses are offered to Upper School students at Catlin Gabel and worldwide through the Global Online Academy during the school year.
• The PLACE summer program has enrolled students from 15 high schools in the Portland area. About 50 percent of summer students receive financial aid.
• In keeping with Catlin Gabel’s mission to model for others, the PLACE curriculum is offered for free to other schools, and is replicated by educators in 40 cities around the world.

PLACE director George Zaninovich shared his excitement about the increased opportunities provided through this public-private-educational partnership: “Expanding the PLACE program into a permanent home in the community provides more opportunities to use the city as a classroom. This will allow our students to develop closer working relationships with people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds. This permanent home and authentic community partnerships in a vibrant urban and multicultural environment will better prepare PLACE students for collaborating in an increasingly global world.”

During the 2014-15 school year, George will continue teaching in the Upper School while also taking the lead on planning for the PLACE program’s expansion. He will work in consultation with two advisory committees—one made up of community stakeholders, civic leaders, and North/Northeast neighborhood advocates, and one composed of youth from North/Northeast Portland, PLACE, and Catlin Gabel.

ABOUT ONE NORTH
One North consists of three office/retail buildings opening up to a large courtyard that will serve as a place for sustainability education and for neighbors to meet formally and informally. The project developers are working to realize a vision focused on maximizing energy efficiency, reducing waste and consumption, and sharing resources with the community. Tenants include Instrument, a digital creative agency, and the Kartini Clinic for Children & Families. 



PLACE urban studies students presenting at City Hall

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You're invited!

PLACE students will present their recommendations for improving SE Powell Blvd. to the Portland City Council on Wednesday, July 16, at 9:30 a.m.

Come to City Hall to hear the presentation.

City Council Chambers
1221 SW 4th Ave
Portland, OR 97204

Link to Google Map


They are making the same presentation at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability on Thursday, Juy 17, at noon.

Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability
1900 SW 4th Ave
Portland, OR 97201

Link to Google Map


About the PLACE recommendations

PLACE students have created design concepts for the Oregon Department of Transportation parcels on Powell Boulevard between 50th and 82nd to assist with the implementation of high-capacity transit. Specifically, they hope to improve the aesthetics and functionality of the ODOT parcels on Powell, while prioritizing the needs and desires of the community.

Check out the PLACE blog for more information

Senior Alex Lam wins two bronze medals at the 2014 Fencing Summer Nationals

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We salute you!

Alex was 3rd out of 67 in the Division 1A Men's Saber and 3rd out of 262 in the Junior Men's Saber (U19) events in Columbus, Ohio.

His national ranking in the Junior Men's Saber (U19) category moved from 34th to 22nd in the country. He is currently in the top 10 of U19 high school fencers.

Alex was also named to the first team of the 2014 USA Fencing All-Academic Team.

Commencement 2014 photo gallery

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Congratulations to the newest members of the Alumni Association!

 

Catlin Gabel News, Spring 2014

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From the Spring 2014 Caller

NEWS FROM HONEY HOLLOW

Lark Palma was celebrated with the “Ovation for Lark,” a performance of the music and dance that she loves. “The talent and heart that came together warmed my soul,” she said. . . . Middle School head Barbara Ostos has been accepted to the National Association of Independent School’s Fellowship for Aspiring School Heads. . . . A Caller article by Lower School head Vicki Roscoe, “Grades Get a D–,” was reprinted in Independent School magazine. . . . Upper School history teacher Dave Whitson is the new director of the Palma Scholars Program. . . . Julia Cooke ’01 and Bosnian writer Ismet Prcic were this spring’s distinguished visiting writers. Julia read from her book about Cuban culture, The Other Side of Paradise. . . . PLACE director George Zaninovich facilitated a workshop at Punahou School’s Wo International Center in Honolulu focused on partnering classrooms and schools with surrounding communities. . . . U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer met with students from the CatlinSpeak newspaper and student government before speaking at an assembly.
 

OUR AMAZING STUDENTS

For the fifth consecutive year, Catlin Gabel sent a mock trial team to the state competition. . . . Catlin Gabel’s team won the Oregon History Bowl Competition. . . . Katie Zechnich ’14 is a National Merit Scholarship winner. . . . Ian Fyfield ’14 and Kallan Dana ’15 were solo finalists in the Oregon Thespians Northwest Regional Acting Competition. . . . An essay by Annika Holliday ’20 about the “uselessness of stuff” won the middle school section of the YES! National Student Writing Competition. . . . Emma Latendresse ’20 and Charlotte Speyer-Stocks ’19 tied for 2nd place in the Oregon Poetry Association contest for grades 6–8 . . .The New York Times ran a photo by Zulema Young- Toledo ’17 in a series about “light in the city.” . . . Valerie Ding ’15 won a gold medal and a $1,000 scholarship, and Kristin Qian ’14 won a silver medal, at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Young Artists Competition. They were also winners in the Van Buren Concerto Competition. . . . Kellie Takahashi ’15 won a silver key for science fiction and fantasy writing in the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers Scholastic Awards contest. . . . Grace Masback ’17 is one of 10 high school students nationwide to participate in the U.S. State Department-sponsored Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. . . . Daniel Chiu ’17 won 1st place at the regional U.S. History Bee, and went on to national competition; he also won the Oregon History Bee Individual Championship, where Ian Hoyt ’17 came in 3rd. Ian also qualified for the U.S. Geography Olympiad.
 

SCIENCE AND MATH KUDOS

Daniel Chiu ’17 was one of fewer than 200 students nationwide to qualify for the USA Jr. Math Olympiad exam. . . .The Middle School Science Olympiad team placed 2nd in state, and the Upper School Science Olympiad team placed 3rd in state. . . . After winning regional fairs, Valerie Ding ’15 and Nikhil Murthy ’17 competed and won numerous awards at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair. . . . The team of Evë Maquelin ’16, Gregor Peach ’16, Kellie Takahashi ’15, and Y Yen Gallup ’15 took 3rd place in a statewide computer programming contest sponsored by the Technology Association of Oregon Foundation. . . . Team Startstruck, a Middle School robotics team, won 1st place in the software category at state.
 

FLAMING CHICKENS FEED THE FIRE OF SUCCESS

Our robotics team won the Championship Innovations Controls award, which recognizes the team with the most creative software, at the FIRST world championships. That followed the district Chairman’s Award for increasing appreciation and expansion of STEM education.
 

KUDOS TO OUR ATHLETES

Several students won national recognition in their sports: Luke Selliken ’16, kart racing; Chloe Lewis ’18 and Logan Bye ’16, ice dance; Isabella Pozzi ’19, gymnastics; Alex Lam ’15, fencing; Anushka Gupta ’21, squash. Receiving state or regional recognition were Matthew Bernstein ’15, racquetball; Tristan Furnary ’16 and Adrienne Tam ’24, swimming; Mahala Lambert ’24, Sydney Slusher ’23, and Li Kamau Lambert ’20, taekwondo.  
 

Critically acclaimed author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore ’94 reading at Powell’s on July 1

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Alumna Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s third novel, Bittersweet, is a suspenseful and cinematic beach read. Join her at Powell’s on Burnside for a reading on Tuesday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m.

About Bittersweet: Secrets unfold when a scholarship student at a prestigious East Coast college visits her roommate’s pedigreed New England family.

“A page-turner riddled with stubborn clues, a twisty plot and beguiling characters.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Beverly-Whittemore’s novel is suspenseful and intriguing… Her short chapters, with their cliff-hanger endings, will keep readers turning pages late into the night.” —Booklist

“The theme of Paradise Lost courses through this coming-of-age tale tinged with mystery.” —Publishers Weekly

“A suspenseful tale of corruption and bad behavior among wealthy New Englanders.” —Library Journal

“Evokes Gone Girl with its exploration of dark secrets and edge-of-your-seat twists.” —Entertainment Weekly, A- review

“Like a Downton-in-Vermont, Bittersweet takes swift, implausible plot turns, and its family secrets flow like a bottomless magnum of champagne, but Beverly¬Whittemore succeeds in shining a light into the dark, brutal flaws of the human heart.” —New York Times Book Review
 

Gabby Bishop '14 on her experiences as CatlinSpeak co-editor

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From the Spring 2014 Caller

I came to Catlin Gabel in my sophomore year from Grant HS. . . . I had never done any journalistic writing before.
 
One of the favorite stories I wrote came about because I heard that a friend was involved in a protest against austerity measures in November 2012 with the Portland Student Union. There was no permit to walk in the street, but they walked near Lloyd Center, and the police pepper-sprayed them. Researching it was a very long process of asking for and being denied access to public records. . . . It was a fun article to write, but I found the process to be the most interesting part.
 
Editors Simon McMurchie, Nico Hamacher, and I each lead groups of three to four people, and each group publishes every third week. It keeps the workload lower but allows for more in-depth articles. The editors lead the groups, create schedules, help students come up with ideas, and edit the articles.
 
Our advisers Pat Walsh and George Zaninovich review the ideas and content to see if we are on the right track with angles and help facilitate class discussions. We talk about current events and about possible articles. We talk about how to pump an article up or offer angles so a student can choose a direction if they are having trouble writing.
 
CatlinSpeak is a creative outlet for me. Catlin Gabel has an open curriculum, but CatlinSpeak is astronomically more open. Writing about what I’m interested in is very rewarding, especially when I think I’ve done a good job or learned from it. As editors, it’s gratifying to see other students fulfill their full potential. The education offered here is amazing, and students accomplish wonderful things. CatlinSpeak is just one way.
 
I guess I just have an open mind. I’m very determined about things and have opinions, but they’re not set, and I want to learn more. If people ask me for my opinion and I’m not educated enough, that drives me to find out more.
From an interview in March 2014

»Read about her co-editor Simon McMurchie '15

My Introduction to Journalism

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The CatlinSpeak newspaper provides an incredible learning opportunity

From the Spring 2014 Caller

By Simon McMurchie '15

I had little idea what to expect when I entered into CatlinSpeak, the student newspaper, in my sophomore year. I was aware that it had only just become an official class, moving beyond its traditional club status, and it was clear its presence in the community in the school community was growing from year to year. Still, I wasn’t quite sure how I would fit into it, especially as a feckless youngster in a class of accomplished juniors and seniors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was welcomed right away. My editor, Fiona Noonan, who graduated at the end of that year, was a phenomenal writer and leader in the class, and as much could be said of the rest of its members. What at first had been a typical course, consisting of semiimportant assignments that begged to be completed half-heartedly, quickly transformed into a wonderful opportunity to be ambitious and creative in a loosely structured system.
 
I wrote an article on the quirks of the electoral college, I attempted to tackle the complex and convoluted relationship between federal and state legislation, I submitted a 4,000- word piece that previewed each and every one of the 32 college football bowl games that was met with a smile and an editor’s critical eye (the final version was a tidy 1,500). I interviewed, among others, a member of college basketball’s March Madness selection committee, and gained the valuable experience of teasing out the words and phrases I needed for a quality piece.
 
With little instruction, and a healthy dose of freedom, I found I could research any topic I found interesting, learn how to synthesize it into something meaningful, and then publish and share it with the community. Suddenly the pieces I wrote for school extended beyond the essay process: my grandfather emailed me about a piece; I found myself speaking to friends and classmates about something I had written; Peter Shulman, a history teacher, approached me and said one of my articles had sparked an interesting debate between him and a friend.
 
In January of 2013, CatlinSpeak’s advisers, Upper School teachers George Zaninovich and Patrick Walsh, reached out to non-seniors working on the paper to feel out interest in filling the positions of the graduating editors. I leaped at the opportunity, sensing the chance to push further my role in the class, and was lucky enough to be selected along with Nico Hamacher, a fellow sophomore, and Gabby Bishop, then a junior.
 
Changes were proposed for the new year, including a switch to daily news updates in place of the traditional weekly editions. Most ideas were student-driven, and the structure of the class was largely left up to discussions between the editors-to-be and the advisers of the course. All of a sudden I found myself helping to design a curriculum, the type of responsibility I would never have expected of myself, but which presented a wonderful and exciting opportunity.
 
Summer came and went; with its departure came the arrival of a new crop of writers ready to forge a new identity for the class. Daily news began without a hitch, and even as new writing styles and heavier workloads were introduced, students produced an incredible number of quality pieces.
 
Lauren Fogelstrom, a current junior and a newly appointed editor-to-be, followed an interest in the issue of youth homelessness, writing a piece focused specifically on the issue in Washington County. While it would have been simple and easy to do the entirety of the research online, Lauren reached out to nonprofits in the area and directly interviewed kids on the streets. She wrote an article that felt authentic and relatable, going beyond the requirements to produce something with a greater level of meaning.
 
Trevor Tompkins, a senior fond of writing about basketball and hip-hop culture, visited De La Salle North Catholic High School for its Black History Month celebration and reacted so positively that he wrote an article both describing his visit and, to some degree, pointing out the lack of effort by the Catlin Gabel community to promote discussion on issues of racial diversity.
 
Trevor’s story is key to what makes CatlinSpeak important. This is one of the few opportunities for students to have a voice in the community, to speak up and, at the very least, start the discussions that need to happen. Often, Catlin Gabel’s biggest problems are student-driven, and thus the response needs to come from within the student body. CatlinSpeak provides both a forum and a firestarter for meaningful discussion and, hopefully, change.
 
Looking to next year, fewer students have signed up than in years past, but to look at the numbers as a negative would be a mistake. With the ability to scrap the class structure and start from scratch at our fingertips, CatlinSpeak’s future is thrillingly malleable. Perhaps we’ll be a monthly periodical, with students required to report on topics within the school community. Perhaps we’ll make each edition focused on a particular issue, ranging from climate change to election coverage and more.
 
What makes CatlinSpeak such an incredible and unique opportunity is its nature as a class that will give back however much a student puts in. All it takes is a few inspired kids to create something great, and with some effort, those kids can make a difference in a community they care for deeply.
 
Simon McMurchie will be a senior this fall at Catlin Gabel.  

Who Tells the Stories? Who Benefits from the Stories? Who is Missing from the Stories?

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From the Spring 2014 Caller

Ann Fyfield’s 6th grade humanities class centers on these three key questions as they explore the world from ancient civilizations through modern notions of gender. Eight of her students reflect here on their year of learning, posed with the selfies they took for their unit on gender studies.

Aarushi

I loved the unit on ancient India. You can see from the past how they made great advances and made us who we are. . . . We can change the course of history. If a woman doesn’t fit a stereotype, she’s not accepted into society and is put into a box. Men are in a box, too, but it’s bigger. When we put up this wall of selfies, we put girls under “strength” and boys under “beauty.” But if we separated it by gender, which is who you are in your mind and not your body, it would be turned around and look different.
 

Kean

I originally thought history was boring and bland. With Ann, I find it more fascinating. She lets you state your opinions, and brings in creativity and interactive activities. Our project with imaginary civilizations made me really understand that civilizations aren’t black and white and are not at all simple. Our gender groups are a great place to talk about sexism and LGBT people. We can talk a lot more when we’re with our own gender. Stereotypes do not define who we are.
 

 

Samma

I never thought before about the fact that we’ve had no woman president, although half the people in the U.S. are women. . . . . Learning about the people who lived before us and the stuff that isn’t here now interests me.
 

Eamon

We talk a lot in class about social justice and gender issues. There’s an ancient Greek ideal, arête. It combines beauty and strength. The Greeks didn’t care about gender equality, but they still thought women could be strong. I like the recitation I did from Socrates’ Apologia. The meaning was that no one knows anything until they realize they don’t know that much.
 

Emma

We watched a video about beauty and how you perceive yourself. It’s a problem that people try to look a certain way, and maybe not eat. If you change the way you think about yourself you can change everything. Ann’s class is the most creative of my Middle School classes. One of my favorite things in her class was at the beginning of the year, when we interviewed someone in class and learned something about them. It made us feel like people cared about us, and the new kids got to meet somebody. . . . Middle School is different from Lower School because everything has higher stakes. You can’t turn in something that isn’t good, and you have to put in 105 percent to do your best.
 

James and Britt

James: We studied gender stereotypes in Ann’s class to see if gender affects learning. We were separated into boys’ and girls’ groups. I learned that most legends and myths are written by men or based on ideas from men.
 
Britt: I was surprised by girls’ stereotypes about boys. . . . I also liked the ancient civilizations project. My group studied Egypt and had to write an essay and do research. I chose to research the kingdoms, and James did the dynasties.
 
James: We made a video, with a green screen and fancy lights, and wrote the scripts.
 
Britt: Right now we’re inviting people to an imaginary dinner. I researched and invited Black Elk, Cornel West, St. Marcella, and Pericles.
 
James: We wrote about why these people merited invitations, and some were famous and some we hadn’t heard of. I invited Demosthenes, Chief Seattle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, César Chávez, and Jimmy Carter.
 

Ramya

One of Ann’s projects that made me think was the creation of an imaginary culture: how would I want a civilization to be? My partner and I made it powered by women, and it intrigued me. . . . If women were treated as equally as men, what would the world be like? I hope we have a woman president soon. A parent named Jason Stevens came and talked to us about ancient Greece. We found out that their culture was similar to ours right now because men overpower women and have more rights. When I’m an adult I want to make a difference, even if a small one, to advance my community and make it better.

What Does it Mean to Thrive?

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Third graders go beyond the tap, studying water from local to global

From the Spring 2014 Caller

By Katie Boehnlein

The aim of the social studies curriculum in the Lower School has long been to engage students in the world through meaningful questioning and research. In 1st grade, students are introduced to big ideas such as community, family, and courage, moving on to study forests in 2nd grade, discover the depth of water issues in 3rd grade, simulate immigration in 4th grade, and research the food system in 5th grade. Social studies, by nature an interdisciplinary subject, teaches students writing and research skills as well as how to ask good questions about the world. And at Catlin Gabel, students are curious, Herb Jahncke and Marcelle Donehower’s 3rd grade classrooms being no exception. At the beginning of the school year, Herb and Marcelle pose an over– arching question to their students that guides much of their studies all year: “What does it mean to thrive?”
 
Throughout the year, the students identify what helps them succeed as learners as well as study what is essential for their communities to flourish. They anchor this study through the lens of our greatest resource: water. Over the course of their 3rd grade year, Herb and Marcelle’s students will discover the origins of their drinking water and expand their awareness of how water is used around the world. Walking into their classroom reveals an excited buzz of activity and learning. Some students are hard at work on individual computers editing stories, some meet in small groups with teachers, others sit in quiet corners, reading. The walls are lined with class projects, from math conjectures, to a map of Oregon showing its watersheds, to reports about marine animals, to class guidelines written inside rain drops. From the soft cushions overlooking the Catlin Gabel woods to a poster recording daily campus temperature, the classroom is a laboratory, rich with discovery.
 
Herb Jahncke has taught at CG since 2007 and was joined by Marcelle Donehower in 2012. They both have backgrounds in environmental education: Herb as an outdoor educator in Jamaica, Virginia, and on Catalina Island, and Marcelle in the West Linn/Wilsonville School District and at Springwater Environmental School in Oregon City. Their backgrounds make them perfectly suited to their task of teaching their students about local and global water issues. Both teachers say that they love teaching 3rd grade because the students are energetic and excited about learning. At this age, students are feeling more empowered and confident in claiming independence with their learning. They demonstrate an adept ability to grasp complex ideas, such as how maps are visual representations of our physical environment. Both Marcelle and Herb relish the opportunity of actively engaging their students in meaningful, interdisciplinary experiences, particularly in social studies.
 
Third grade social studies would be incomplete without expanding the classroom to the diverse ecosystems of Oregon itself. Students begin by visiting the city’s water source, the Bull Run Watershed; Eagle Creek to study salmon migration; and Bonneville Dam to investigate how water is used for power. They also visit a wastewater treatment facility to see what happens to water after it goes down the drain. During this first phase of field study, the students identify a water question that deserves more research and embark on their own inquiry project, where they independently research a topic and teach their new knowledge to the class. The entire Lower School social studies curriculum has embraced the “inquiry cycle,” where students ask questions rooted in prior knowledge or experiences, research these questions, present their knowledge, and then ask more questions. It is a cycle that is never complete.
 
Marcelle says, “If I do my job well, I expect that my students will not only be asking more questions, but craving more answers. To make this type of curriculum work the classroom community has to embrace the idea that every person in the classroom is both a student and a teacher.” Herb reflects that when both teachers and students enter into a practice of asking rich questions, a trusting community of learners develops, which allows students to take charge of what they are learning. Some examples of this year’s inquiry projects include researching the Port of Portland, looking at the use of water in agriculture, researching water in recreational activities, reading about bridges, studying salmon, and finding out how to build a dam.
 
As the year progresses, 3rd graders revisit the question, “What does it mean to thrive?”—but turn to the global community for answers. They investigate how people in other parts of the world get their water and what kids around the world need to thrive. These questions lead to a study of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which the 3rd graders examine similarities and differences in what children throughout the world deserve in their lives. Focusing on personal identity leads these students to understand more deeply their role as global citizens.
 
Marcelle and Herb also talk about how learning about differences can teach students about important qualities such as empathy and perseverance. In the classroom, students watch videos of how kids around the world help their families collect water (sometimes carrying several gallons for miles at a time!). During PE class, the students try this themselves by each carrying around the track milk cartons or buckets filled with water. One student said, “Today when I carried water, I got sooo wet. It was much harder than it looked. I can’t imagine doing that every day.” Students synthesize all this learning by picking a country that they want to know more about. After researching their country, they write realistic fiction stories about a child in their country and include a piece on water access.
 
Though Marcelle and Herb observe their students learning and growing immensely during their 3rd grade year, they recognize that creating effective curriculum is always a work in progress. They continually evaluate each unit, keeping what works and revising what doesn’t. Marcelle says that she is grateful to work in a place that values evolution of curriculum and student experiences. “We are always pushing the boundaries of what we can do,” she says. Both teachers already have ideas for improvement. This spring, they hope to add a service learning component to their study of marine ecosystems by picking up garbage at the beach. They also hope to build on this year’s excitement with global studies by working more on letter writing and civic engagement and evolve their use of technology in the classroom, perhaps Skyping with students from other countries. The 3rd grade year is one of discovery, with students learning about the civic and natural world through hands-on field experiences and studies of other cultures. At Catlin Gabel, water is used to illuminate so much more than just what we drink.
 
Katie Boehnlein has been the 5th grade teaching assistant at Catlin Gabel since 2012. She is an environmental educator and active writer about place-based education and experiential learning. Read her blog at kboehnlein.wordpress.com.

A Fanatic for Service

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Nkenge Harmon Johnson ’93, spokesperson for Oregon’s Governor Kitzhaber, has worked in political communications for the U.S. Congress and President Obama

From the Spring 2014 Caller

By Nadine Fiedler

Political nerds are service fanatics. You can’t really shake it off,” says Nkenge Harmon Johnson ’93. She should know. Three years shy of turning 40, she has already carved out a notable career in public service in U.S. and state politics. A brilliant, curious, and resilient woman, her driving force is her love for this country and an overwhelming ethic of inclusivity and giving back.
 
Since January 2014, Nkenge has served as communications director for Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and as a member of the Governor’s executive team. “I deal with the media, elected officials, and the public about really important issues that affect lives today and affect the future of the state. It’s no small matter,” she says. It’s her voice you hear discussing state issues and policies, her words that you will read in the media about the Governor’s stance on crucial matters.
 
Nkenge does much more than talk about policy, though: she is an instrumental player in shaping the work of the Governor’s office. “Not only do I help define how to discuss the work at hand, I also identify ways to focus the work to the greatest effect,” she says. “It’s about identifying commonalities and differences where that is most important. The job is not just talking to people but helping us to listen.”
 
Nkenge began her work in political public service 11 years ago. After Catlin Gabel she attended Florida A&M University as a business and engineering major, and then attended Howard University Law School, which had recognized her potential and vigorously recruited her. Nkenge’s law school class was the first to graduate after 9-11, and the job situation was brutal for her and her peers because of the economic downturn. Her family has a strong military tradition, and she recounts the day when she was in D.C., trying to figure out how to serve her country in a time when the employment outlook for budding lawyers looked bleak. She looked up and noticed the Capitol, and realized: that’s what she could do to serve.
 
But Oregon was calling her back, so Nkenge returned home to take the Oregon Bar exam. She passed the Bar, and went as far as accepting a job at Legal Aid in Portland. She grabbed a chance to take a road trip before she began working—and was in a terrible car accident in Texas. “Every now and again I feel as though the universe puts its hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Slow down,’” Nkenge says. “I was lying on a hospital bed looking up and saying, Oh! Was I not paying attention to something?” That’s when she decided to act on her moment of inspiration and seek work on Capitol Hill.
 
When Nkenge finished her rehab and recovery from the accident, she began working as legislative counsel for U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas. Nkenge’s first experience with the duties of a press secretary came when she realized the haphazard nature of the communications coming from Lee’s office, and decided to be the gatekeeper for all public material. Although she yearned to practice law, she says, “The job was a natural fit for me to be talking to reporters and talking to the public and helping to shape messages, because I understood the underlying policy and motivations behind what I was saying. There’s nothing better than that.”
 
Growing weary of the politics of being in the minority party in the House, Nkenge worked for two years supporting national political campaigns as deputy press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Her focus was outreach to stakeholders and media such as the African American, Spanish language, and faith press, a great learning experience. When the election cycle concluded, she earned an MBA and worked as a lawyer in New York and D.C.—and found a way to fulfill her intense entrepreneurial drive.
 
Before she turned 30 Nkenge bought a mixed-use housing development in D.C., one she owns to this day. She started this business in 2005 partially to see if she could put into practice principles of highest and best use. “I had some theories and ideas about housing issues, homelessness, and finance. I wanted to see if I could walk the talk,” she said. She lived in the building and maintains close relationships with her tenants, some of whom have been living there longer than she has been alive.
 
After her business was up and running, Nkenge’s thoughts turned to working on the Hill, stirred again by her love of public service. She took a job as director of outreach communications for Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Shortly after, she became communications director in 2009 for Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a state that resonated for Nkenge because of its economic similarities to Oregon. Nkenge admired Sen. Stabenow’s strength of character, and enjoyed the work of helping her build a strong national presence.
 
And then the President called: the Obama administration tapped her to help move forward the country’s trade agenda. When that happens, you act. She joined the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, a position she held for three years, working to help solidify trade agreements with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. “Our schedule was unrelenting,” she says. “But it’s a great honor to work in service of my country and this President. I have to start and stop with these points.”
 
When the three trade agreements were signed, Nkenge saw that as an opportunity for change. Once again, Nkenge left D.C. to return to Oregon, this time for a very personal and important reason. In September 2012 she married Erious Johnson, a classmate of hers from Howard University Law School. She had been based in D.C., and he was successful attorney in New York. Moving to Oregon was their chance to make a life together. Nkenge and Erious moved to a house in south Salem above a Christmas tree farm, with sunsets, great views, deer, and space to grow. They established a law firm of their own, where she worked until she was called upon to serve Governor Kitzhaber.
 
“Success for me means finding people from whom I can learn and who are supportive of my decision to work hard to build my dreams,” says Nkenge. At Catlin Gabel, headmaster Jim Scott, science teacher Paul Dickinson, and most of all Spanish teacher Roberto Villa were those people for her. Nkenge had been part of a cohort of students who came from Harriet Tubman Middle School, which brought what she saw as interesting challenges. Jim Scott was someone she went to for help with finding solutions to those challenges, and was a hugely supportive presence. Nkenge loved science and says that Paul Dickinson allowed her to “play with ideas and participate in events outside of school, like the Bickleton bluebird trip, which I did every year at Catlin Gabel.” Roberto Villa is most memorable for her because he challenged her when she didn’t want to do what she saw as a tedious and boring part of her classwork. He urged her to do work that was more complex and interesting, and earned her trust by supporting her to do the work her own way and in turn learn more deeply. She still credits him with her love of and facility with the Spanish language, which she used daily as a lawyer in New York and D.C.
 
Nkenge says that one of her biggest challenges is helping others see the greatness of her community and state the way she does. “I reject conventional theories about diversity in Oregon. I figure I have a reason to know,” she says. “What’s important is not census numbers or language or heritage, but opportunities that need to be available for all of us. I reject the idea that one has to look a certain way or be from a certain place to succeed. It’s a challenge to make it true that everyone can do what he or she makes up their mind to do—in education, employment, arts and culture, sports, or health care. As long as we think about the state as homogenous it lets us off the hook. Oregon is not so. What the state looks like calls us into account to make our organizations resemble the state,” she says.
 
“And the same is true nationally. In the Senate I was one of two African American communication directors out of one hundred. There were two Asians and no Latinos. The numbers of persons of color were far underrepresented, and this was true of every level of senators and their staffs, and it is still true,” she says.
 
Another great challenge for Nkenge has been her equal desires to be both a public servant and an entrepreneur while working in jobs that are difficult and consuming. She was always interested in business, had thought in college that she would work in finance, and always had the sense that she would work for herself at some point in her life. “Being a public servant means being focused on issues of others. It’s very external. Being an entrepreneur means being mostly focused on oneself and the business, and the mission to build a going concern. Both are different and important to me! I’ve spent most of my time, though, in public service. It’s a challenge to find a way to embrace the entrepreneur in me. It’s probably also a success in that I continue to believe I am able to do more than one big thing at the same time,” she says.
 
When she looks back on the years since she began working on Capitol Hill, Nkenge feels fortunate to have had an exciting and fulfilling career, and to have been nimble enough to take advantage of opportunities that came to her, even at inopportune times. “I’m not a written-in-cement planner,” she says. “I’m lucky to get to do interesting work. I’m committed to making choices that allow me to do what I want most of the time. I’ve been through pay cuts, moves, leaves of absences, starting businesses on a wing and a prayer. I’m willing to allow myself the chance to do what’s satisfying personally and of most use to the society in which I live. I’m trying to learn from experience.”
 
Nadine Fiedler is Catlin Gabel’s director of publications and public relations, and the editor of the Caller.