Black United Front Oral History Project

Interview with Joyce Harris

Joyce Harris relates how her work in education is naturally linked to social justice.

Joyce Harris grew up the eldest of eight children in a family committed to education. Always a top student, she discovered the power of education in activism at a young age, when she started tutoring her peers in high school.

There was this one young man who was brilliant, he knew history and culture— he was a good organizer— then when I went into his classroom and that's when I discovered he could not read. He was a senior and he could not read.  I knew he was humiliated and embarrassed and I just kinda took it in stride and we just started trying to do what we could do.


Joyce moved to Portland when she was accepted into Reed College, where, as a result of student activism, a Black Studies department had recently been created. During her freshman year of college, she began planning what would become the Black Educational Center, a school in Northeast Portland.  This school concentrated on alternative and conceptual learning for black students— offering a bookstore that focused on black literature, and teaching students black history and culture.  Joyce was able to get an education degree from Oregon State University while concurrently enrolled at Reed through the Portland Urban Teacher project.

To make sure people would understand that we were a credible institution, we whould have our kids tested through Portland Public [School District].  And they always tested off the charts. One year, it got so bad.  They called us and said, "We've got some questions about the accuracy of three of your students' scores. Because the kids had tested off the charts. I told them, "Well you know, if you want to retest them, you are free to do that. And so they retested them, and two of them did even better.


For Joyce, education and activism have always been inextricably entwined. After leaving the Black Educatioal Center, she took a job working at desegregating schools with the Northwest Regional Education Lab, working to make sure educators had cultural competency in black literature and African history. She believes that there is no point in having the ability to influence if you do not use it to benefit those who may not have the voice.

Further reading

  1. OEP Link, Oregon Encyclopedia [TBA]
  2. Black Studies Resource Page, Portland State University Library.
  3. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature, available in PSU Library.
  4. Joyce Harris's "Baseline Essay" in African American language arts created for Portland Public School District. 
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