The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Loretta Smith Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

January 21, 2015


Loretta J. Smith was born in 1966 in Michigan, where she and two younger sisters were raised by their mother. Smith traveled often to Portland to visit her father and grandparents, who had moved to Portland during World War II to work at the Kaiser Shipyards. Growing up, Smith was a good student who, in high school, participated in the Black Student Union, and on the track and cheerleading teams. Indeed, it was her cheerleading advisor's stories of college life that helped inspire Smith to pursue a college degree of her own.

Smith entered Oregon State University when she was seventeen years old, a process that necessitated her moving from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Corvallis, Oregon. Her initial experience of OSU came at an introductory weekend event organized by the Educational Opportunities Program, and Smith remained involved with the EOP throughout her time at Oregon State. Another very early and negative experience of the university came about when, after two days living in Buxton Hall, Smith's dorm roommate moved out, explaining that her parents did not want her to share a room with an African American student. With her mother's support, Smith resolved to remain at OSU until at least the end of Fall term. Smith continued her studies and gradually became more and more involved in the campus community.

While at OSU, Smith participated in the Black Student Union, worked at the student-run KBVR television and radio stations, and engaged in a variety of social events, including football games at Parker Stadium and broadcasts of All My Children at the Memorial Union. Smith also participated in the production of A Raisin in the Sun - the first primarily African American play performed at OSU - and traveled to London as an exchange student, where she walked in a "Free Nelson Mandela" march. Smith originally intended to study Political Science at OSU; however her work at KBVR shifted her academic focus to Broadcast Communications, and for a time she entertained the idea of pursuing a career as a television news journalist.

Smith graduated from OSU in 1987 with a degree in Communications and in the process became the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She soon began working a front desk job for Ron Wyden, who at the time was representing Oregon District 3 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Initially viewed as short-term employment, Smith ended up working with Wyden for the next twenty-one years, moving on from the front desk to a position as community liaison and manager of Wyden's entire office staff.

In 1990 Smith's son, Jordan, was born. She raised him as a single mother while simultaneously working for Wyden and attending Portland State University in pursuit of a graduate degree in Public Administration. Smith put off running for office herself until her son had graduated from high school and began attending the University of Washington. In 2010 Smith successfully ran for Multnomah County Commissioner in Portland's District 2, the primary focus of her campaign being support for the elderly and youth. While on the Board of Commissioners, Smith has led a Summer Youth Connect program and organized anti-bullying summits at Grant High School. She has also worked to prevent the abuse and neglect of senior citizens, and has supported local businesses through a micro-lending program, a White House roundtable for young entrepreneurs, and an ordinance to establish a Business Advisory Council.

In 2013 Smith was named chair of Portland's Metro Policy Advisory Committee. She has also served as Treasurer of the Oregon Assembly for Black Affairs and has actively supported the Oregon Food Bank, Head Start, and the Boys & Girls Club. She was re-elected to a second term on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in 2014.