There was no heat in Clatsop College's Towler Hall last Tuesday - the furnace had broken down again - but the dozen students in Debra Connaway's medical assistant class didn't seem to notice. Connaway, 51, conceived the medical assistant program in 1995 and worked with the college to develop it. The class provides a means for students to learn a skill that the community needs and to earn a living wage when they enter the workforce, Connaway said.
When the college administration, faced with a big budget deficit several years ago, decided to shut the program down, she convinced the college's board of directors to keep it alive. That kind of active intervention is typical of Connaway, who accurately describes herself as an "activist for progressive social change."
Connaway thinks it might be the Native American background she inherited from her mother that makes her so attuned to inequities and so determined to right wrongs.
For more than six years, Connaway has served on the board of the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation (MRG), a Eugene-based organization that supports social change, not social service. Recently, she was named to the board of Funding Exchange Foundation, which does the same thing, but on a national basis.
"Instead of putting a Band-Aid on social injustice, we address root causes," Connaway said.
MRG addresses issues such as racism, sexism, labor, immigration and the environment by awarding grants to community-based organizations. MRG also provides seed money to nontraditional groups.
When C-DOG, the Astoria-based Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, was first getting started, MRG gave them money to develop a board of directors and to create pamphlets and press materials. Other local recipients include community radio station KMUN and VOCA (Victory Over Child Abuse) Camp.
When the war in Iraq began, MRG funded groups gathering "accurate information about weapons of mass destruction and the actual cost of the war" and getting it out to the public.
"We support the troops, but we want truth in government," said Connaway, whose son Nathan, 24, served in Iraq in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for seven months, and was there during the invasion of Baghdad.
Connaway got started in the medical field in the early 1980s, volunteering as a community health educator with the Women's Crisis Service in Astoria, now called the Women's Resource Center, then working at the Tongue Point Job Corps' clinic for seven years.
She also became active in HIV prevention, serving on the board of the Clatsop County Aids Coalition, and helped to found the Multicultural HIV/AIDS Alliance of Oregon. As part of her HIV prevention work, Connaway did needs assessments for communities of color for the Oregon Health Division. She said she went all around the state to Indian reservations, immigrant clinics and African-American communities, educating people about HIV and other infectious diseases.
Connaway, whose father was a U.S. Coast Guard aviator, lived in Alaska, Puerto Rico and Florida when she was growing up, but spent the longest time in Hawaii. It was on her way back to Hawaii in 1973, that she stopped in Astoria and never left.
She and her husband, Chris, live in an Italianate Victorian home that was built in 1879, that was part of the house next door until 1900. Because it was built with balloon framing and has 40-foot old growth joists and beams, it was possible to cut off one end of the three-story original house, Connaway said. Then teams of horses were used to turn what is now the Connaways' house 90 degrees.
Besides Nathan, now studying construction engineering at OSU, the couple has a daughter, Maggie, 22, who graduated from her mother's medical assistant program, found a job at a local clinic, and is continuing her education at Clatsop with the goal of transferring to a four-year college.
Debra Connaway's hobbies are gardening and reading. She enjoys interior design and likes to collect Asian artifacts - and tattoos. She got the first one at age 35, the next at 40 and the last - so far - at 45. All are versions of healing circles. "It's like art to me. It's always there," Connaway said.
- By Sandra Swain