Photo by Gia Goodrich

Tawna Sanchez was elected to the state legislature in 2016. Since then she has racked up a long list of legislative accomplishments, most significantly getting the Missing and Murdered Indigienous Women’s Act passed, which directs state resources to tackle the massive and underreported issue of violence against women in tribal areas.

She has also worked for 23 years at NAYA, the Native American Youth and Family Center, where she is currently the Director of Family Services. She is a longtime resident of Northeast Portland.  

What made you interested in public office? 

Well, my first response when it was suggested was to laugh. But I thought about it: there had only been one Native person to represent Native Americans in the legislature in Oregon. So, as indigenous people here we didn’t really have anybody representing us. We barely had people of color in the legislature. 

But I also recognized that I could continue to do everything I’d been doing for years like help to build NAYA family center from its small beginning place to a multi-million dollar organization that provides resources like housing and energy assistance and domestic violence services. I got to help build all that and I [realized] I could continue to do that. I could badger the legislature from the other seat or I could step up and be one of the people who make those decisions. 

How do you keep going when the work you do has so many challenges? 

It’s about recognizing that everyday you get up you have the opportunity to do good work. You have to recognize that you’re doing something for the greater good. That’s part of my culture, that what we do now we do for the next seven generations to come. 

“Serving others is taking care of yourself.”

You can’t just be thinking about yourself. You have to think about the future and your kids and their kids. How do we create a world that is safe for them? How do we deal with some of the issues that we’re struggling with and recognize what will happen to them in the future if we don’t? It’s amazing how hard all this is. But it’s so important. 

Has all the change that’s gone on in the Northeast community changed your work? 

Change and gentrification have shifted our community so much. So the mindset of some of the people in the community is different, but when it comes to the basic stuff like affordable housing and transportation and parking, when you get down to it these are all human beings who are struggling to make it happen everyday just like everyone else. 

Come down to it, people are dealing with the same problems. Some of them may have more income than others and some may have different thoughts of how you do different things, but for the most part if we remain human it seems to still work out. 

How do you balance public service with taking care of yourself and your family?

I don’t like the concept of self-care. It feels selfish in the way we put it out there all the time. When I cook for 200 people it may seem like work to other people but I get great joy out of feeding people. When I am able to make change in a big way for the community or family or individual person, I get great joy because I know that I am shifting and changing the world in some way. 

Taking care of others and serving others is taking care of yourself. 

What gives you hope? 

What gives me hope is that we’ve been able to bring more people of color into the legislature here in Oregon and throughout the country because of [the election in] 2016. And it gives me hope because I believe truly that innately people are good and can recognize lies and inappropriate behavior. One of the struggles we have as a society is we have tried to legislate political correctness or legislate anti-racism or anti-oppression kinds of things, and we really can’t do that. We have to change people innately. 

But we have a generation of folks coming up – children and young people – who are growing up with much better knowledge and awareness and understanding of their own humanness and [who are] pushing racism and oppression aside. We have others that are not doing it so much. But I think we’re doing better at helping people understand that we have a responsibility to help people be decent human beings. We just have to tilt the balance to help them do that. 

— Interview by Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer