Donna Maxey | On Seeing You


Writing a blog post about someone who has played such a meaningful role in people's lives is no easy task. It can be challenging to find the right words to convey the depth of their impact, but upon meeting Donna Maxey, one thing is clear – you feel seen. Truly seen. Donna Maxey is an inspiring figure who has dedicated her life to promoting racial equity and understanding. As the founder of RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, she has created a space for people to engage in conversations about race and racism, helping to dispel preconceived notions people may have about one another.

Donna's commitment to community service can be traced back to her parents, Johnnie Obina Samples and Charles Maxey, both of whom were actively involved in giving back to their community. Charles joined the NAACP as a college student, an underground activity, and many decades later he received the honorary Freedom Award Citation from the organization. He was also the first African-American to attend the National Young Republicans Convention.

The Maxey family lived in Albina, a once-thriving neighborhood of primarily Black families, businesses, and cultural institutions. Charles and Johnnie owned and operated several businesses, including the Maxey Better Buy Grocery Store, the Maxey Barbershop, a dry cleaner, and an appliance store. They lived in a beautiful home complete with pocket doors, built-in china cupboards, tall ceilings, a claw foot bathtub, and a yard filled with towering English walnut trees, fruit trees, flowers, and boxwood shrubbery sprawling across a double lot. I write of these details to help you better understand the depth of the devastation that was to follow.


Maxey Family
Maxey Family Photograph (Donna is the little baby)


In the 1950s and 1960s, Albina fell victim to urban renewal policies that prioritized the needs of the white population, leading to the destruction of the Black community. The construction of Interstate 5 displaced thousands of Black families, destroyed homes and businesses, and isolated the community from the rest of Portland. The Memorial Coliseum and Emanuel General Hospital further contributed to Albina's erosion. The Maxey family was one of the last forced out because they refused to accept the low bid for their beloved home.

Growing up amid systemic racism and discrimination, Donna personally faced educational disparities as a student in Portland's public schools. Upon becoming a teacher in California, she continued to encounter systemic racism. Eventually she returned to Portland, Oregon to further her teaching career.

In 2009, Donna discovered the guide, "Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools." This resource not only broadened her understanding of social interactions from various perspectives, but also inspired her to establish RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism. Recognizing the transformative potential of candid dialogue, Donna envisioned a platform for fostering understanding among people of diverse backgrounds.

Between 2007 and 2011, Donna taught seven different grade levels, which proved to be exhausting and led to her early retirement in June 2011. In February of that year, the inaugural RACE TALKS event was held. As Donna approached her retirement at the age of 62, she committed herself to creating a platform for significant discussions on race.

The RACE TALKS initiative organizes monthly events that bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds to participate in open discussions on race-related topics. These conversations range from exploring Oregon's racial history and the impact of racism on mental health, to examining BIPOC women's experiences in the workplace. By fostering a safe, respectful environment, RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism aims to promote shared understanding and learning among its participants.

RACE TALKS has been held at McMenamins Kennedy School Pub where their sale of food and beverage has helped to spread the idea that hard conversations are best held over food--it helps keep folks from getting contentious. RACE TALKS, which is in its 13th year, has served over 30,000 people of all ages and ethnicities. 

Donna Maxey's dedication to racial justice has not only earned her numerous accolades, including the 2015 Women of Achievement Award from the Oregon Commission of Women, the 2019 Friends of Muslim Education Trust Award and the 2022 Dress For Success Athena Award, but it has also inspired the next generation.

Through her, Donna has passed on her parents dedication to community service to her daughter, Dr. Shaina Maxey Pomerantz, who has taken over the reins of RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism with equal passion but a different perspective. This intergenerational dedication to racial equity and understanding speaks to the powerful impact of Donna's work, as well as her ability to inspire and empower others.

Donna & daughter Shaina sharing her wisdom with me.

This photo bringing together people from diverse backgrounds encapsulates Donna's lifelong dedication to education and fostering safe environments for challenging dialogues. Pictured from left to right are Donna Maxey, Hagster's publisher/author Rosalee Rester, and Dr. Shaina Maxey Pomerantz.

After leaving a photography session with Donna and her daughter, I felt altered and determined to start making a difference in my own way, beginning with the simple suggestion from Shaina of greeting strangers on the street.

I hope to have the opportunity to get to know Donna better, as her story and work have left a profound and lasting impression on me. Her dedication to promoting racial equity and understanding serves as a powerful reminder of the impact one person can have in making a positive change in the world. As I continue to learn from Donna's example, I am inspired to take even small steps towards fostering a more inclusive and empathetic society.

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Wisdom Questions

I enjoy discovering the ways in which an individual's life experiences have shaped their perspective and contributed to their personal growth. I believe you may share this sentiment too. In each blog entry, I feature a segment known as "Wisdom Questions," where our esteemed guest imparts valuable insights gained through their journey, enriching the readers' understanding.

What are some of the most significant events you've witnessed over the course of your life?

  • Sputnik—the beginning of the computer age for the general public; the Cold War and the possible annihilation of mankind.
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Shirley Chisholm running for President—a Black and a woman could be the most powerful person on Earth some day.
  • Death of JFK; MLK; RFK—evil can and will prevail, if we let it.
  • Anti-war protests—maybe there’s hope for the human race to become civilized after all.
  • Barack Obama’s Presidency—miracles can happen. The unimaginable burden of having the WHOLE of humanity put their dreams of a better world in “his basket”.
  • Kamala Harris as VP—a woman MAY finally be the President of the USA.

Looking back, what were some of your most important lessons, and how have they influenced your life?

  • You have the power to make your life great or miserable. See the glass as half full, rather than half empty.
  • Not to take myself too seriously, but be serious about my purpose and work.
  • Always keep a smile on your face and humor in your heart—they keep you from going crazy. Fake it till you make it.
  • Bounce back from disappointment. Don’t allow yourself to stay down too long.
  • Remember that old “4 letter word—NEXT!” Next job; next situation; next relationship.
  • Be like water—go around; go over; go under; wear a hole into the situation. Don’t ever take no for a final answer. Be undeniable in the pursuit of your dreams and goals.
  • Humanity, and especially the Black RACE, rest on my shoulders.
  • Always remember WHO I AM and WHOSE I AM.
  • Remember whose shoulders I stand on AND what my responsibility is to help make the world a better place so somebody can stand on my shoulders.
  • I have the two most important jobs IN THE WORLD: being a parent and being a teacher. EVERYONE in the world has to have them. Take these jobs seriously, but with a twinkle in your eye.
  • I am VERY important, but mostly just to myself. I might not be much to you, but I’m all I’ve got.
  • No one is better than you; and you are no better than anyone else.
  • Most lessons in life are learned in the despair of the valleys, not the euphoria of the mountaintops.
  • Whatever is going on in your life, especially sorrow, “has come to pass, not to stay”.
  • You can’t do everything and everybody. Some things you just have to lick your lips and say, “That sure would have been good”; but realize THAT food, THAT drink, THAT drug, THAT man is not good for you or your well being.
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in somebody else’s basket. They’re not careful with their own; so they most certainly won’t be careful with yours.
  • People are all the same—no matter their education, income, race, religion, creed. We all want the same basic things—Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
  • People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. You never know which one, nor how long.

 How are you different now than when you were 20 years old, 40 years old?

  • When I was 20 yo, everything in life was an absolute—BLACK or WHITE, GOOD or EVIL—nothing in between.
  • When I turned 30 yo, things starting turning GREY.
  • When I turned 40 yo, things starting getting murky.
  • When I turned 50 yo things starting getting muddy.
  • When I turned 60 yo things became a bog.
  • When I turned 70 yo things became crystal clear—any and everything is possible. Be surprised at nothing. We’re all spiritual beings having a human experience and we’re all flawed.

What advice would you give to younger women? What are some things that give you the most joy or fulfillment in life now?

  • As my Daddy said, “Love yourself first and all others will fall into place.”
  • Be gentle with yourself. You’re going to make LOTS of mistakes. Learn from them.
  • Who you are today is hopefully not who you will be tomorrow.
  • Be open to all possibilities; BUT always remember WHO I AM and WHOSE I AM.
  • Always keep learning and growing.

What are some of your favorite memories or experiences, and why are they so unique to you?

  • Being born to my amazing parents and family that exposed me to EVERYTHING. I feel that I can go from the outhouse to the White House and if you hum a few bars, I’ll fit in.
  • Having a church community that was supportive.
  • Being a life-long learner.
  • Having friends that have grown with me throughout the decades. I have a very close friend that we’ve been important in each other’s lives since we were in diapers.

How has your sense of purpose or meaning in life evolved over the years? How do you share yourself with others?

  • I was a social justice activist “in utero”. To my knowledge I’m a third generation activist and passed it on to my daughter. (It probably goes back further.)
  • My life’s work of being an educator was developed in 6th grade when my parents bought a “Mom, Pop & the kids grocery store” where I worked from age 10 yo to 21 yo (and whenever I returned to town to visit.) Some people came in old enough to be my grandparents who couldn’t read. I eventually decided to be a teacher to alleviate the problem before it got started. I taught in the classroom for 35+ years. I started RACE TALKS: Uniting to Break the Chains of Racism in February 2011, when I was 62 yo and still teaching. I retired from teaching the following June.

 What advice would you give someone about maintaining a healthy mind and body as they age?

  • Live your life with the end in sight. Don’t do stupid stuff that you’ll have to pay for later. You can’t do everything and everybody. Some things you just have to lick your lips and say, “That sure would have been good” but realize that food, that drink, that drug, that man, that job is not good for you or your well being.

Looking back on your life, what are some things you regret, and what have you learned from those experiences?

  • I used to have regrets, but as I’ve aged I realize that life is a learning process and mistakes are just opportunities for growth. Now I know that any and everything will bring a learning experience that will help me grow and be ready for my next experience. It didn’t always feel good at the time, but I sure have learned A LOT—and love it!

How have your views on life, death, and the afterlife evolved over the years?

  • I used to fear death, but now realize it’s a part of the continuum of life—if you’re born, you’re going to die.
  • We are spiritual beings having a human experience that will evolve into something else.
  • Humans are NOT the most intelligent beings on Earth.
  • G*D is in everything and everybody. Acknowledge and appreciate that.

Looking back on your life, what are some of your most meaningful experiences, and why were they so important to you?

  • EVERYTHING I’ve ever experienced has been meaningful. My job is to look for the meaning, learn from it, and pass on the wisdom I’ve learned.

Photo Credits For Color Photos:

Rachel Hadiashar, a visionary photographer, weaves a tapestry of artistry and empowerment with every portrait she captures. Her ability to illuminate the essence of a woman's strength, resilience, and wisdom allows her subjects to proudly adorn their walls with images that embody their unique stories. In her recent exhibition, "100 Women Over 50," Hadiashar immortalized the spirits of women over 50, crafting a collection of legacy images that stand as a testament to lives boldly embraced and well-lived. 


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