More than 100 community members — including elected officials, public safety leaders, and close friends and family of late parole and probation officer Diane Wade — gathered Feb. 23 for the grand opening of the Diane Wade House.
The long-awaited, Afrocentric transitional home provides culturally specific support services for women whose lives intersect with the justice system. Those services include counseling but also employment, education, mental health, addictions services and more.
The home, operated in partnership with Bridges to Change, is meant as a step toward addressing significant disparities in the criminal justice system that have long affected communities of color. African Americans currently represent roughly 20 percent of inmates in Multnomah County’s Jail, despite making up just 6 percent of the County’s overall population.
“Some days I just step back and continue to be in disbelief that in Portland, Oregon, alongside Bridges to Change and the community, we actually are opening up an African American-specific women’s transition home,” said Ebony Clarke, interim director for Multnomah County’s Mental Health and Addictions Services Division.
Community members celebrated that promise at Northeast Portland’s Highland Christian Center, sharing poetry, interpretive dance, musical performances and sharp stories about the effects of over-incarceration.
“I feel as though I’ve come full circle,” said Clarke. Clarke shared a story about her mother’s experiences with addiction decades ago that illustrated the importance of culturally specific services.
Clarke said she herself was in foster care when she was a baby, while her mom was in and out of jail, battling addiction. They were reunited when Clarke was 18 months old, after her mother found help in one of the first re-entry programs that accepted African Americans in the late 1970s.
“She couldn’t be herself, an African American woman in Portland, Oregon,” Clarke said.
“The fact that we have an African American program that recognizes the importance of mental health and wellness,” said Clarke. “We get to get to a place of hope, healing and recovery.”
Remembering Diane Wade
The Diane Wade House, located in Gresham, is the first facility of its kind in Multnomah County. Its namesake, Diane Wade, was a more than 10-year veteran of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice. Wade worked with adults as a County parole and probation officer from May 1999 until her death in October 2010.
Family, colleagues and former clients all remembered Wade as a mentor and leader in the African American community.
“I never was aware as a child, but there was this vital turning point for my mother where she went from unknowingly self-destructive to who she was remembered as today,” said Alexandra Iaone, Wade’s daughter.
“The fact that that change was self-initiated by my mother is incredible in and of itself,” Iaone said. “I’m appreciative that every person here gives me little pieces of my mom back.”
Wade mostly worked with women of color as a lead parole and probation officer with the Department of Community Justice’s African American Program as well as its Gang Unit. She also hosted an African American women’s group at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
“We would watch movies and documentaries, and have focus groups,” said O’Nesha Cochran, who spoke at the celebration. “I did 15 years all together. And I felt like that was my life — but I remember Diane telling me that my life was what I wanted it to be.”
“And even though I was fighting in prison,” Cochran continued. “I would still go to that group and every time I walked through that door,they accepted me just as I was.”
Wade died in 2010 after a seizure. Cochran now serves as program manager at the Diane Wade House, for Bridges to Change. She recited the poem she wrote, in her cell, after learning of Wade’s death:
She had the power to stop you cold
With just the snap of her neck
Her skin was black smooth liked mahogany
She made me feel powerful too by the way she talked to me
She had attitude, love, discipline and respect
She never was predictable who knew what she’d do next
Diane Wade, wade in the water float thru our mind
Take a minute to think about the way she spent her time
She came into the prison to see us and dared us to dream!
She told us nothing was impossible or as bad as it seemed!
The home is part of an overall set of strategies to interrupt cycles of incarceration — particularly for communities of color.
Clients are referred by County Mental Health and Addiction case managers and supervised by County parole and probation officers as they transition to their next level of recovery. They receive assistance and guidance from women who not only have a similar cultural background, but have also experienced incarceration.
“I’ve heard some of the stories of the women who work at the home,” Quete Capuia, constituent relations coordinator for Chair Deborah Kafoury’s Office, said at the event.
“Women who struggled with addiction, incarceration, women who experienced homelessness, women who lost everything,” Capuia said. “To see those women survive and rise above and now giving back to their community by helping others who’ve experienced similar hardships, it’s impressive.”
Like Latino Network and the Native American Youth and Family Center, the Diane Wade House is designed by and for community— down to a culturally-specific curriculum for African American women. The celebration culminated with staff at the home embracing a tearful Diane Wade House resident.
“It’s more than just a house,” said Michelle Aguilar, Interim Deputy Director of the Department of Community Justice and former colleague of Diane Wade’s. “It is a home and a safe place to heal and reunite with family, children, partners and parents and our community.”