Challenges are Opportunities
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
Jackie Winters doesn’t subscribe to the word, “can’t.” She never has.
In 1959, Winters was rejected in her attempts to enter business school. African-American women at that time rarely got employment opportunities outside being a nurse’s aid or a domestic. Then someone told her about an opening for a clerk at the Oregon Health Sciences University; so she applied. The supervisor—Laura P. Martin—told her she had to pass a civil service exam.
“I said, ‘Is that all?’ You became so used to be told no because of color reasons,” Winters said. “When I got my notice of passage, I returned back to med school and said, ‘OK I passed, now are you going to hire me?’”
Martin did, and Winters to this day credits her former supervisor with a lot of her success. Winters is in her third term in the Oregon state Senate.
“That was the beginning of recognizing you can overcome barriers,” she said.
Part of it is effort and how you look at challenges, Winters said.
“I’ve learned that challenges actually are opportunities,” she said. “All of us have challenges in life. It’s how we address and deal with those challenges that become important. We can either let the challenges consume us and we never move on, or we can figure out how we can actually manage those challenges and move beyond those challenges.”
Winters chose the latter route. But she’s humble enough to know she couldn’t have done it by herself.
“In our lives, there’s always someone or something that has helped us along the way,” she said.
She’s had many.
Her eighth grade homeroom teacher, Robert Ford, was another influence.
“He used to say if he didn’t prod me and poke me I became too satisfied and he knew I wasn’t reaching my potential,” she said.
When Winters co-founded the Oregon Northwest Black Pioneers, one of the first people it recognized was Ford.
“He insisted that you learn and he had this knack of knowing where each one of his students were,” she said.
She acknowledges that many people influenced her throughout her life because, as her mother always said, Winters never met a stranger.
“I was very fortunate because when I grew up, I not only had my parents and my siblings, I had a whole community of individuals,” she said. “All of them play a part in who you become.”
Winters regularly reaches back across her 76 years for guidance and reference. For instance, that bold decision to become a clerk at the Oregon medical school lives in the back of her mind as the state—and nation—addresses health care reform.
“Never in my wildest dream would I think that my history at the med school would come back years later to help me as a policymaker that’s actually very much involved with setting public policy as it relates to health care,” she said.
Even her first run for the Oregon House—where she served two terms in the late 1990s before being elected to the state Senate—was predicated on her experience working in the administrations of two governors decades before.
“I thought what was occurring in the halls of our government was that polarization was beginning to creep in,” she said.
She knew it could be better. After all, she had experienced it while serving as ombudsman for Gov. Victor Atiyeh starting in 1979 and before that working as a supervisor of the Office of Economic Opportunity’s New Resources Program in Gov. Tom McCall’s administration.
“I thought I had prior experience and knowledge to assist in working more collaboratively in bringing people together,” she said.
So she ran for the office—a Republican African-American woman in a district with a very small African-American population—and was elected, then re-elected twice.
Even though she’s a member of the minority party, Winters has never been without a gavel; she is regularly appointed to chair various committees in the Senate. She believes that has a lot to do with her attitude of bipartisanship.
“I think we do the best when we do come together,” she said. “We do our worst when we’re divisive and divided.”
She recognizes that other people might improve her ideas and that the reverse is also true.
“In order to actually make it work,” she said, “we all have to put our oar in the water.”
She believes something else is equally true—legislators have a role to play outside the Capitol.
“Not everything we do as legislators is to legislate,” she said. “Also, we have responsibilities, I believe, to use our bully pulpit to help with changes in the community and bring people together that is in a collaborative way that doesn’t require legislation or resources from the state.”
Winters practices what she preaches.
When she worked on Gov. Atiyeh’s staff in the 1980s, she started Oregon Food Share, now the largest food collection and distribution system for the needy in the state. As the owner of Jackie’s Ribs, a barbecue restaurant she started in 1985, Winters regularly attended a barbecue cook-off in Sparks, Nev. So she started one in Oregon, and proceeds were split between the food program and Albertina Kerr, a charity that works with people with mental health challenges and developmental disabilities.
Her efforts are also international. Winters has helped raise money through a program called Wine for Water to assist an orphanage in Rafiki, Tanzania, gain access to water.
“I think the best gift we can all give is the gift of ourselves,” she said. “We should recognize that we all do have talents and that no matter what it is, you can contribute that and that contribution to other is for the greater good.”