Portland State University alumna and Oregon House of Representatives member Tawna Sanchez (Democrat, 43rd District, N. and NE Portland) earned a Master’s in Social Work in a program designed for working professionals. The long-time Director of Family Services for the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) is a political advocate for children, families, elder support, Indigenous People, and women. In 2016, she became the first Native American to represent Portland in the Oregon Legislature, and only the second in history in the Oregon Legislature.
Now in her sixth year in public office, Rep. Sanchez has a strong list of priorities for the upcoming session. She is aware of the challenges ahead, and is prepared to meet pressing public crises. Homelessness, housing, mental health, and addiction are top of mind, as well as the environment. She asks, what could we have done better or differently, long ago? The need is obvious, but nothing can be assumed. She notes even simple things, like recycling, a Portland way of life, is not held to be a given in the state’s legislative assembly.
“Environmental infrastructure is important. We want to recycle. We don’t want a negative environmental impact,” says Rep. Sanchez. “PSU is a good example of how important this is to the people of Portland. There are opportunities to recycle, reuse, and reduce all over campus.”
She is equally candid about the mental health crisis in Oregon, and how to fund solutions. “I’m not afraid to say it out loud,” she says. “Without a sales tax, and with the Oregon kicker checks costing the state billions of dollars annually, it’s absolutely necessary that we face the reality that we live in a state where beer and wine have not had taxes increased in 40 years.”
There is also the possibility to introduce a telecom tax for the new 988 mental health crisis number that was just approved federally. She sees it as a life-saving measure for all Oregonians to have access on their mobile phones just as they do 911. And then there is the Corporate Activities Tax (CAT), which she says, all added together, amounts to nowhere near the level of investment needed.
“We have to be able to respond more deeply,” she says, in reference to behavioral health. “When police respond, that is not what they are trained for. Measure 110 is a good start and fundamentally changes how we approach drugs and addiction, but it doesn’t give law enforcement the tools they need to have a trauma-informed response. We as a state must continue to prioritize sustained investments in behavioral health, mental health, street response, and addiction if we want to see a difference.”
“Republicans don’t like taxes, and any proposed measure for a new tax in the legislature, by law, requires a three-fifths vote,” she explains. “I have to convince my colleagues, and we still have to pass that.”
However daunting, that won’t stop her from trying. Her victories are stacking up nicely, including legislative policy and investments focused on protecting communities from climate change, equity and justice for all, access to healthcare and healthy communities, economic recovery, workforce development, education and childcare.
Thinking back to her college days, she recalls the struggle to pay for tuition while earning her undergraduate degree (BA in Psychology and Communications, Marylhurst University), for which she refinanced her home. At PSU, she received a scholarship from the School of Social Work, which inspired her later, as an elected official, to champion programs for adult learners in the workforce. At a 2021 conference, she learned that PSU and community colleges could provide credit for prior learning with more resources. She went to work on making these programs a reality.
She sees an important role for educators in creating a healthy future for Oregon. Now in her 25th year as NAYA director, she reflects on NAYA’s Many Nations Academy, which provides a culturally relevant, student-centered learning environment combining a high school and college and career-readiness curriculum. “It matters that the kids see themselves in the world and in education to succeed, invested in who they are,” she says. “That’s so important.”
Dr. Maria Tenorio, Educational Policy and Leadership faculty at Portland State University recalled early work with sisters Tawna and Johnelle, and others taking Native youth to basketball practice and to drum at a church in southeast Portland. Many in the community supported the next steps of forming a non-profit and Tenorio later helped NAYA develop its Many Nations Academy. “Tawna,” she states, “was active in so many critical issues for Native communities and many don’t realize the root of Tawna’s strength is her spirituality in all she does. It is one of the reasons she is such an effective role model and foster mother.”
By Sherron Lumley