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Born to Be an Activist: Spotlight on Janet Hamada

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The Columbia Gorge is full of passionate people dedicated to community health and health equity. This is the second in a series of “spotlights” on community members tackling these issues in unique and inspiring ways. No matter how it may feel at times, we are not doing this work alone.

If you live and work in the Gorge, chances are you know about Janet Hamada. Executive Director of non-profit The Next Door, Janet has been living, working, and collaborating in the Gorge since 2004.

Two months before Janet was born, her mom hid in the basement of their Chicago home as the National Guard marched down the street during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Just four months earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This was a tumultuous time for the country, with Chicago one of the major cities rising up against racial injustice and the Vietnam War.

Born to a Jewish mother and a Japanese-American father, Janet was raised in an inclusive and open-minded household, within an equally inclusive neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. When she looked around her classroom, everyone looked different in terms of class, race, religion, and ethnicity. Janet’s upbringing lay the foundation for her path toward social work and her role at The Next Door. As Janet says, she was born to be an activist.

Janet’s father traveled a lot for work and she often traveled with him. When she was 13, Janet accompanied her father to Bali, Indonesia. One moment in particular stands out in her memory:

“It was hot and humid, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the air-conditioned bus and air-conditioned hotel. When a boy my age tried to sell me a bird carved from wood, it struck me how privileged I was to travel far from home in air-conditioned luxury. The boy was barely getting by selling trinkets to tourists. The feeling of privilege and luck has never left me.”

Soon after this trip to Bali, Janet began volunteering at a hospital and local senior center. She went on to earn her degree in social work, and lived and worked in Connecticut, Maine, Seattle, Miami and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba before landing in Hood River. In 2004, Janet and her husband decided to move from Chicago to the Gorge to be close to her grandparents and to raise a family in a diverse area with a good public school system. She took a position as Program Manager of Nuestra Comunidad Sana at The Next Door, and was promoted to Executive Director in 2007. Since then, Hood River and The Next Door have been Janet’s home.

The Next Door is a non-profit organization that supports and empowers families and individuals in the Gorge through efforts such as youth mentoring, parenting support and education, health promotion, and economic development initiatives. The Next Door currently employs 81 staff and contractors, 24 of whom are bicultural, 30 are bilingual, and 34 are trained Community Health Workers (CHWs), or trusted members of the community who support families and provide a link to resources and services.

In 2016, the Columbia Gorge Region was awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize. The embracing of CHWs is one of the major ways the Columbia Gorge Region embodies a Culture of Health, Janet says. La Clinica del Cariño, which is now One Community Health, was one of the first federally qualified health centers to use the clinical and community health worker model. Local health departments, hospitals, and non-profits have also embraced CHWs over the last several decades. Over 100 CHWs have been trained in the Gorge: the most CHWs per capita in the country.

Janet Hamada at the annual march to commemorate Minoru Yasui, who was the first Oregonian to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photo Credit: Oregon Jewish Life

At The Next Door, Community Health Workers provide services in child welfare, health promotion, leadership development, as well as economic development. CHWs help individuals start new businesses and build credit, now working with 66 businesses and entrepreneurs in a 3 country region. This works, Janet says, because CHWs are trusted members of the community.

Janet also explains that collaboration is a huge part of a Culture of Health, and individuals and organizations had been collaborating for a long time in the Gorge prior to winning the Culture of Health Prize. Throughout her career, Janet has witnessed the benefits of collaboration:

“There’s plenty of need to go around, and if you work together, I’ve always found this is true, the resources come. So even though there’s not a lot of funding, [the resources] come when you work together.”

Funding is important, as many challenges face our Gorge community. For Janet, the biggest issues today include immigration, housing, food security, education, and a growing wealth gap. Janet and The Next Door collaborate with community partners to address all of these issues through unique programs. For example, in the area of education, The Next Door partners with school districts to provide basic mentoring, alternative schooling, and mental health counseling for students referred by counselors, and to work on crisis intervention and ninth grade attendance. In the early 2000’s, The Next Door had funding to place a trusted elder as a school retention specialist at Hood River Valley High School. This role proved so critical and yielded such a positive impact on the graduate rate for ESL learners that it’s now an institutionalized position funded by the school district.

In recent years, Janet has had the opportunity to engage with other leaders around Oregon through her role as Program Trustee at Meyer Memorial Trust, the charitable trust left by Fred Meyer. Meyer Memorial Trust focuses on removing barriers to equity for all Oregonians by investing in organizations and communities that contribute to this goal. In an effort to be truly equitable internally, Meyer Memorial Trust decided to include grantees on their Board, and The Next Door had been a grantee since the early 2000’s. Janet joined the Board in 2017, and in her role as Program Trustee, she uses her voice to ensure rural communities and Latinx communities are not forgotten in the grantmaking process.

Though most of Janet’s work takes place in the Pacific Northwest, a little over a year ago she traveled to the US-Mexico border to volunteer with refugee families from Central America. While on sabbatical with her own family in Central America and Cuba, she read extensively about the situation at the border, and she decided to go.

There she met her friend, Mariah Carlson, who had been volunteering for several weeks already. Janet volunteered for a week with private non-profit Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, working in one of 20 shelters and helping process thousands of people. The situation was dire: Immigration & Customs Enforcement facilities kept their temperatures at 58 degrees, which left most people sick, including Janet.

Janet and Mariah Carlson at the border. Photo Credit: Hood River News.

Now, Janet says the situation is even worse. Families live in tent camps with no services on the Mexican side of the border, and many are sent back to Guatemala, where conditions are even more abysmal. While the Gorge has not received any families from this recent wave of migration, Janet would eagerly reach out to anyone she hears about.

In all of her roles, from Executive Director and Trustee to volunteer at the border, Janet continues to work toward justice and equity for marginalized communities. In Janet’s words, a healthy, equitable, and thriving community is “one that is representative by everybody in the community. There is not one predominant group that has all power. It is diverse in every way, the leadership that you see.

“One of the things we’ve been doing at The Next Door for years is promoting natural leaders within the community who don’t even necessarily think of themselves as leaders and making sure that they get the support and mentoring they need in order to take on leadership positions. And only in that way are we going to see everybody lifted up. Because there’s diverse perspectives and everybody’s voice is being heard.”

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