The Purposeful Agitator

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Michelle DePass took over the wheel at Meyer Memorial Trust in 2018, replacing longtime president and CEO Doug Stamm

The philanthropic vision of Meyer Memorial Trust’s new president is to disrupt, repair and rebuild.

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Transformative change is not just an appetizer when Michelle J. DePass is invited to the table; it is the main course, palate cleanser and dessert.

A little less than two years ago, DePass brought her legacy as an unapologetic, social justice activist and agitator to her role as the third president and chief executive officer of Meyer Memorial Trust, one of the state’s oldest and largest charitable foundations.

She was hired over 140 applicants, after a six-month national search. And she is the first woman in that position, the first Black person, and the first to bring three decades of nonprofit, academic, environmental and government experience to the role.

Former CEO Doug Stamm, formerly a Nike executive and head of Friends of the Children nonprofit, led Meyer for 16 years. Under his leadership, the foundation’s first strategic redesign led to more mission-related investing, a focus on affordable housing and the health of the Willamette River.

In 2013 Stamm shifted Meyer’s funding priorities to lean toward equity. Over the next three years, it changed its logo, website and program focus to direct its $800 million endowment into four areas: building community, equitable education, healthy environment and affordable housing.

The course progression, at times, disrupted comfort levels. But eventually Meyer’s staff and trustees began to think — and look — differently.

“Doug turned the ship,” DePass says. “And the staff of color really helped in that journey. Now I’m taking it out into the deep waters. I came here to be in it for the long haul.”

IT4A2518Michelle DePass, the new presient and CEO of Meyer Memorial Trust. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan 

DePass has been fixated on equity, decades before she landed in Portland on April 28, 2018. That Saturday evening, she received her first public introduction at a standing-room-only Black Oregon Village Welcome, an annual event that welcomes new Black people to the community, held in Portland’s downtown Oregon Historical Society building.

The next day, before DePass even had keys to the Meyer offices, she met with board members to discuss several pressing matters, including the new headquarters under construction in an inner North Portland neighborhood. The day after that, DePass met members of her staff for the first time.

Throughout her first 18 months, DePass spent days, sometimes weeks, traveling the state with Meyer employees and listening to the perspectives of those working in social justice, government, the arts, business, education and nonprofits.

“Like every new leader who approaches their job with appropriate humility when relocating,” notes Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, “she has been listening and learning from stakeholders to better understand how to position Meyer in an ever more meaningful way to better our region and beyond.”

On her statewide listening journey, DePass says she learned about the disparities of Oregon’s educational, cultural and political divides, which tend to be shouldered by people of color and those from the LGBTQ+ and disability communities.

She met both loggers and environmentalists, and says she was struck by rural Oregon’s depth of poverty. DePass and nine staff members also spent several days with members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, before visiting the state’s other eight federally recognized tribes.

The information gathering shifted DePass’ priorities on which groups, communities and causes it invests its money in. The 2020 Census, for example, will shape how political power and federal tax dollars are shared over the next 10 years.

So Meyer leveraged financial support from 14 area foundations, Gov. Kate Brown and the city of Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life for the #WeCountOregon campaign.

The grassroots-led crusade will pay community members to fan out into Oregon’s 36 counties, focusing on reaching those at risk of not being fully counted in the upcoming census, such as tribal communities, people of color, houseless, immigrants, children under age 5 and geographically isolated households.

“Meyer operates within a system of hundreds of years of White supremacy,” DePass explains. “Philanthropy resources come from some of the very spaces that can cause some of the problems that we’re trying to fix. We have to be bold to make a difference, to reach the deeper impact that is needed in communities across the state.”

IT4A4328Standing in what will become her new office, Michelle DePass credits flexibility for success — both hers and Meyer’s: “If you stay in your lane, you are not thinking big enough.”

Another of DePass’ priorities is leveraging Meyer’s influence and issuing a call to action for the business community to invest more of its dollars into public education, not as a social justice handout but as an economic reality.

“Competition for talent is forcing the issue and requiring dramatic changes in the way companies and education cooperate to assure a flourishing, prosperous and equitable Oregon,” DePass says.

“Although there are short-term, turnkey programs that will help get some students ready to work, ‘growing our own’ is a long-term strategy to permanently address the private sector’s need for talent.” 

Meyer trustees believe DePass’ priorities align with the wishes of Fred Meyer, the German entrepreneur whose $63 million seeded the charitable trust.

“Realizing as I do the uncertainties of the future,” Meyer wrote, “I want my trustees to be able to exercise broad discretion in shaping and carrying out charitable programs which can be tailored to fit changing conditions and problems.”

The Portland Business Alliance’s Hoan says he stands behind DePass’ intentions. “We applaud her aggressive approach,” he says. “And we can learn from her leadership when it comes to how we, in the business community, can better ourselves in the effort to make sure every resident in our region has a brighter future.”

Leading by example, DePass explains that she first had to shift practices and beliefs in-house before she could authentically champion equity, diversity and inclusion as objectives that guide the foundation’s priorities. So, seizing Stamm’s momentum, DePass also focused on creating a work environment that leans in closer to what she calls “a supportive space.”

“If we are really going to become a foundation that can transform and support people where the most needs are in the state, we need people who understand these issues sitting in these seats,” DePass explains.

Of Meyer’s 38 employees, 27 are women, 11 are men; more than half identify as Black, Native American, Asian or mixed race. Meyer’s executive team is all female. And four of Meyer’s five trustees identify as a person of color. Board chair Toya Fick, who is Black, joined the Meyer board in 2016 and became its chair in 2019, in part, to play a more supportive role for DePass.

“Meyer has seen a lot of change in the past five years,” notes Fick, executive director of Stand for Children, an advocacy organization that has leveraged more than $6.7 billion in educational investments.

“All great things — but anytime there’s a lot of change in a short period of time, there tends to be a bit of fatigue. Michelle was able to come in, assess how everyone was feeling, and provide the space and time to reflect, breathe, and build the connections we needed to regain our strength to keep running this race.”

As her middle name is Joy, DePass says she creates intention for staff members to enjoy each other’s company. And when mistakes are made, she says Meyer employees are expected to give each other grace and risk embracing growth from the experience of failing.

Even the website’s listing of her team members is even-handed: alphabetical, not hierarchical.

“I’m trying to create a learning culture,” DePass explains. “This is an evolution. The current events are changing every day. Our partners in the field have to keep moving and adapting. We have to keep moving and adapting.” 

DePass’ career is a case study on reflecting, building and adapting. When she enrolled in law school at New York’s Fordham University, her intention was to become a real estate attorney and earn a lot of money.

But when DePass passed the bar and still couldn’t find a job, she created her own. In 1991 she co-founded and became the first executive director of a scrappy grassroots nonprofit. The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance used legal action and community organizing to fix some of the inequitable impacts that city and state policies and regulations had on residents of color.

One of DePass’ successes was shining a light on New York’s practice of dumping its garbage in communities that could not say no, such as Queens, the Bronx, and parts of New Jersey and the Caribbean islands, where DePass’ family roots are from.

That grassroots activism inspired DePass to obtain a master’s in public administration. Eventually, she became the senior policy advisor for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.

In that job, she persuaded the governor to sign the country’s first environmental justice executive order, which required all state decisions and policies to consider their impact on residents’ health and environment.

DePass eventually moved to Washington, D.C., for five years, becoming the federal Environment Protection Agency’s assistant administrator for international and tribal affairs under President Obama’s administration.

She worked for years on negotiating the 2016 Paris Agreement, where countries around the world agreed to mitigate global warming; and she helped persuade China to acknowledge how its love affair with industry was negatively affecting its air quality. And with DePass’ advocacy, Obama elevated tribes to receive the same benefits as any other sovereign nation, such as the U.K. or Brazil.

DePass remains close to high-profile trailblazers who have mentored and witnessed her evolution from an advocate to an activist to an agitator. Her former boss, Lisa Jackson, the Obama-appointed former head of the EPA, is now Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives.

They first met when DePass was working in New Jersey. “She taught me that you can have it all,” DePass says, “but not at the same time.”

While working in Washington, D.C., DePass had the first of her two sons, now ages 4 and 7, with husband Joshua Paulson, a civil-rights attorney who grew up in Corvallis. “My children keep me very grounded,” DePass says.

“They are why I am doing this work. History will judge me and that’s what keeps me going. What did I do today? What will I do tomorrow? It’s the only thing I know how to do.”

DePass also remains close friends with Don Chen, who is the third president of the Surdna Foundation, a New York City-based social justice charitable organization that also works to shift the historical imbalance of private funding inequality.

Their paths first crossed 27 years ago when DePass was his colleague at a small office on 145th Street in Harlem. They both eventually became program officers at New York City’s Ford Foundation, which was the first national charity to advance equity as a core value. Both DePass and Chen are children of immigrant parents.

Recently visiting Portland on a family trip, Chen joined a private tour of Meyer’s $10.8 million, almost 20,000-square-foot headquarters, under construction in Portland’s historic Albina neighborhood.

The three-story structure sits amongst modest, older single-family homes; slick new residential high-rises; small businesses; and community-based nonprofits. Meyer’s move-in date is targeted for August.

Since buying the property in 2018, Meyer has worked closely with staff, architects, landscape designers and the project developer to help design a project that is intentional about fostering community building both within and outside its walls.

The entrance to Meyer’s new headquarters, for example, will look similar to a Southern porch, a traditional place for socializing and storytelling. Neighbors will be welcomed to sit in Meyer’s outdoor garden, which will be officially named using a word from the ancient Chinuk Wawa jargon, which loosely translates to “always.” And plantings will continue near the street around the building’s footprint.

IT4A4601Construction on Meyer’s new building, at the corner of North Vancouver Boulevard and Tillamook Street in Portland, is slated to be complete in August.

“Fred Meyer was a believer in having great purpose,” DePass says. “So we have dedicated a lot of time to how we can be welcoming to the community. Being part of the neighborhood is being a good neighbor.”

Glass walls will allow people to view the lobby’s distinctive open wooden staircase and seating that invites conversation. The second-floor lunchroom will feature a neon rainbow trout swimming in a freshwater ecosystem, which will be visible to highway commuters.

And a gallery will be positioned on the walls in the communal gathering space so that people can view creations from artists around the state from wherever they sit.

All of the executive team’s offices have an equal amount of square footage. And the spaces that get the most sunlight were saved for the common areas, such as the conference room, which has a partial view of Mt. Hood.

In the southwestern corners of the building, both the third-floor library and second-floor accessible eco-roof have views of the Rose Quarter, downtown Portland and the Fremont Bridge.

“You’ve been in some pretty cool buildings, but this is your own,” Chen mentioned to DePass on the tour. “And to do it in a way that faces the community? This is very rare for a foundation to be doing this.”

Intention was created from the beginning for the building to be environmentally friendly and for its design, construction and development team members to be diverse. The headquarters’ walls were built with wood from Mills City foresters who are leaders in protecting water, worker rights and wildlife habitat.

The solar roof panels harness energy to light the building. Even the spaces for indoor bicycles and cars are fairly distributed: Each mode of transportation has 20 spaces each and includes a vehicle charging station.

“For me, it’s part of who I am to make sure that we are going to be good environmental neighbors,” DePass says. “You only get this opportunity once, and I want to do it right.”

IT4A4565From left: Anyeley Hallová, partner at Project PDX, reporter S. Renee Mitchell, Meyer CEO Michelle DePass, Don Chen, president of New York’s Surdna Foundation and Ali O’Neill, co-owner of O’Neill Construction Group tour Meyer Memorial Trust’s North Portland building site.  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

DePass notes that the new headquarters is symbolic of her leadership’s intentionality. Its geographical shift represents a move away from Portland’s fashionable Pearl District — which was reportedly named after Ethiopian social worker Pearl Marie Amhara — to a historically Black neighborhood just a block from the Billy Webb Elks Lodge, a restored, historical landmark for the Black community.

Its spatial shift comes from the new headquarters having a welcoming front entrance and its objective to offer meeting space to community members and groups.

And its relational shift is reflected in Meyer’s role in leveraging its influence with Oregon’s philanthropic powerhouses to develop new initiatives, including the Portland Clean Energy Fund, which provides energy-efficient home upgrades and clean-energy jobs for low-income Portlanders.

Despite DePass’ Oregon-based accomplishments, one will not find more than a few paragraphs or staged pictures of her online. Although she has been candid in her speeches at Portland State University, Lewis & Clark and other venues, DePass has previously refused any media interview requests until she could learn more about the state that is her new home.

“I’ve heard people express disappointment because they haven’t had the chance to get to know her one-on-one,” Fick says. “Sometimes that’s mistaken for being unapproachable or self-important. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is one of the most approachable people I’ve ever met. But she’s incredibly busy. In fact, many of our conversations occur before the sun comes up and often on the weekends.”

DePass offers no apologies for her priorities or her tendency to work in overdrive. While building her career, she also mentors others, including Alexandria McBride, Oakland, California’s chief resilience officer. DePass says her grounding philosophy is: “If you don’t see it, create it.”

“The expectations of me as a woman of color, who has a certain background, is a little different,” acknowledges DePass, an only child of Jamaican immigrants. “But I can sit in that because that’s power for me. I sat in that power for decades.”

This article has been edited with the following correction: Don Chen and Michelle DePass were colleagues at a small office in Harlem when they met 27 years ago. It was previously inaccurately reported that DePass was Chen’s boss. 

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