Advocating and Mediating for Native Americans and Homeless People (Jennifer Frenzer-Knowlton)

Sylvia: It’s November 16, 2016, and I’m interviewing Jennifer Frenzer-Knowlton. I know that you’re trained as a lawyer and that for a time you lived with your former husband on an Indian reservation. And you’ve been active with Occupy Eugene [a complex program in the city of Eugene, Oregon, part protest and part meant to alleviate problems of the homeless] as well as other things. What do you think in your past led you to become an activist?

Jennifer: I think I really did feel empowered, having spent that time on the Indian reservation. I was trained as an attorney. I only served as an attorney for a couple of years. My first degree was about development and emerging nations and emerging economies. When I went to the reservation, the tribe decided that what they really wanted was for me to help them with their economic development. This was in the state of Washington and it’s the Makah nation.

They’re up at Neah Bay on the Olympic peninsula. That’s where I learned the day-in day-out elements of activism. I think I was just born into a time and place in the United States where it’d be very hard for someone not to have some sense of, well, what could my role be in change? I’m 52 years old, so I was born with Vietnam War demonstrations going on around me. The culture of my own household changed. My mom discovered that she maybe didn’t wanna keep practicing the religion she was practicing. Maybe she wanted to investigate what feminism was and she was very open about that with us, even though we were pretty little. Martin Luther King gets assassinated and I watch my mom get educated about what that means.

So those seeds got planted pretty young, either by the media or just by watching my own family members mature and grow and try to figure out what their roles were. And on the reservation, I learned the day-in day-out work of being an activist. Because, it didn’t occur to me how much of a daily effort it was for people who were disenfranchised. And it was a lot more than just legal cases and what role non-profits could play.

Just yesterday I was talking to a woman who said she’d lived on a Navaho reservation in Arizona, teaching in a local college. She said that the great majority of the roads weren’t paved and there were no stores. You had to drive forty miles to get to a hardware store. There were no places to get basic necessities, aside from Kentucky Fried Chicken or something like that.

 Yeah, I’ve been to one Navajo reservation and of course, every reservation has different dilemmas. It depends on what area of Navajo you go to, it can be very isolated. And the roads can be so incredibly rutted that most regular passenger vehicles struggle to get there. I remember, where I lived up on the Washington coast, it’s four hours from Seattle, the last beach in the contiguous U.S. We looked out at Vancouver Island. We were all the way out on the coast and as far north and west as you can go in the contiguous United States.

The roads would wash out regularly. We’d have avalanches and mudslides and no guardrails, but we also had a tribe that was diligent about using the legal system. And diligent about making sure they had young people with skills that were always being mentored to make sure that they could communicate with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, stay on top of their liaison work with the Bureau so they always got their budget from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not all tribes have that kind of people power. And not all tribes have that capacity to invest in their youth and make sure their youth get to go to college. It was a unique situation. I didn’t realize that was the situation I was getting into, but this is the tribe that fought the Boldt decision. And the Boldt decision went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

It secured the rights of Tribal Treaty Nations. That meant that the entire state of Washington’s tribes that had an interest in treaty fishing rights got their rights secured because the Makah nation cut down trees, hired lawyers, and made sure that that case was won, and eventually it was won. It took a lot of trees. It took a lot of lawyers. But they are diligent to protect those rights and they’re diligent about making sure dealings with the Bureau of Indian Affairs are taken care of, day-in, day-out. Their treaty has to be taken care of day-in, day-out. And that was the walk away message that I got, just because you have an agreement in place with a state government, a local government, or a federal government, you’re not scot-free. You have to protect the words in that document. You may not let the meaning of it be eroded by some future official or by some interest group that wants a piece of your action. You’ve got to stay on top of your rights. I had that driven home to me within about six months where I realized, “Wow! We cannot sleep here.” [laughs] It is an ongoing effort. Day-in. Day-out. Protecting budget line items.

How long were you there?

 For four years. It was like getting another degree. I had gotten my economics degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Then I went to law school at Ohio State University. In between undergrad and law school I worked three years on Wall Street. I was in a business called reinsurance. Insuring insurance companies against high-risk loss, like an entire book of business getting wiped out by a hurricane, for example. They need coverage so that they don’t go bankrupt if there’s a hurricane. It’s legalized gambling. [laughs] It was really not my cup of tea but I sure liked living in New York City as a young person, you know. It was great fun.

Yeah. Well, you have a wonderfully rounded set of experiences. Would you like to talk about Occupy Eugene or any of the things that came in between?

 I’m happy to pick up at Occupy. From the reservation I moved to Eugene directly. I have a son who’s 19 and a daughter who’s 16. My life from that point forward has been a combination of parenting and activism and different kinds of odd jobs that I end up doing along the way to accommodate the parenting and the activism.

 One of the things I did learn in law school that I really wanted to take off with was mediation and alternative dispute resolution. I was in a corporate law program. That’s what got me into Wall Street; it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do, but it got me in. One of the few practicums was in mediation and it was interest-based, facilitated mediation. It’s the neighborhood mediation style that comes out of San Francisco’s Center for Dispute Resolution. That was a federal program. It was very helpful. I just didn’t get to use it until about twenty years later. [laughs] And then I took the mediation class again and got to volunteer in a mediation center in Eugene and eventually I ran the family program and got a paid staff position there.

This brings to mind the difference between mediation and arbitration. Because one of the horror stories of the current age is the way arbitration is foisted on many people. On many contracts, you deprive yourself of certain legal rights. Can you talk about that a little bit?

 With much knowledge? No. Probably not much more knowledge than any other consumer has. But I do know one of the areas where it could be helpful, and I thought about doing it, is with high conflict families. Up in Multnomah [Portland is in Multnomah county] they have a program where families come back to court over and over again to consider their custody arrangements or their parenting plan arrangements. They tax the system and they obviously need a whole bunch of assistance so what the judge offers them is someone who is a mediator, but in the end could be an arbitrator if they just can’t get through who’s gonna pay for lunch. These are high conflict scenario families, skill-wise or emotional or whatever, they just can’t parent together, so they actually do need an arbitrator. But arbitration has been overused, particularly in consumer contracts.

Meanwhile there’s a disrespect of mediation. It’s underutilized. Certain kinds of mediation are regulated in this state but it’s hard to make it a profession because the consumer doesn’t see it as something of value, the same way they would see legal services. I’ve been hopeful that being a lawyer practicing mediation would make people more inclined to pay for mediation services and that has not always been the case. So it’s a tough way to make a living right now. [laughs]

Right. [laughs] So would you like to talk about Occupy Eugene?

 Sure. One of the reasons I got involved in Occupy Eugene was the mediation element. A lot of negotiating needed to be done with government officials. Also within the Occupy movement itself, a lot of negotiating needed to be done between committees, between residents of the protest camp itself. So I got involved in the Peacekeepers tent and taking hours doing security at night and then also being part of a committee that helped relationship building within and without the camps.

Now, I know a little bit about Occupy Eugene, not a whole lot. But since this is for a blog where people may know nothing about it, would you like to describe the whole thing?

 Sure. Occupy Eugene was a protest camp that, like in most places in the United States, got created by social media. Complete strangers found out about the commencement of a protest camp under the Occupy banner through social media. This allowed it to mushroom very quickly, this new way of protesters getting together, complete strangers, no official 501(c) 3 that they were operating under or anything like that. Just a very grassroots group of public members getting together to protest things that they were seeing.

Economic issues were particularly distressing for people. They were seeing the banks getting bailed out of their poor decision-making and the economic impacts of those poor decisions but typical consumers who were in mortgages that were burying them weren’t helped, they were getting kicked out of their homes and ending up homeless. As government budgets contracted, services were being cut and people were losing services that were vital to their life, whether it was the subsidies for rent or entire programs that assisted disabled people. All sorts of programs were evaporating and yet somehow in the corporations and the banks, the executives were still drawing their salaries and, in fact, even getting bonuses to the tune of millions of dollars and not getting punished for their bad decisions, not expected to pay back their bailout.

The inequity of that and also more and more information about the income gap [was coming out about] who was benefiting from our economy. Who over the last 30 years, or even the last 10 years were seeing growth in their income and growth in their capacity to take on debt and pay off loans. A very small group of people, in fact, 1% while the rest of the population, 99% were in stagnant situations. So the inequality of how the economy was serving the nation was the primary thing that was highlighted in the Occupy movement.

Now, we’re talking about the Great Recession that started around 2008. And the first salvo of this whole battle was Occupy Wall Street.

 Occupy Wall Street in New York and Manhattan. But it was also patterning itself on movements that were happening in Europe. People were saying, “Hey, yeah, we got some of those same problems that people in Spain, for example, are pointing out and maybe let’s try one of those style protest camps here. What would it be like if we occupied the sidewalk but then didn’t go home. Stayed. And slept there, ate there, provided medical care there, took care of one another there, and just said, we’re not gonna go home until you offer us something different than platitudes. And toughed it out.

We had 3,000 marchers the day that the Occupy march was called in Eugene and that was in October of 2011. A rally was called. They had met about four times through Facebook. Their organizers had met four times to create the rally situation. Some subcommittees were created and then the plan to occupy a center location which was the park blocks downtown, but first we marched. And with the community members we had 3,000 people. And we had 3,000 people on our Facebook page following the event development and afterward. And people supporting and bringing food down to the Occupy camp and then the city wanted us to leave, of course. And so did Saturday Market, for that matter [which is set up each Saturday in the same area]. So we negotiated with folks to move in advance of the Saturday Market and we moved to Alton Baker Park which was a disaster, I have to say. [laughs] Yeah.

The move was difficult. The location was difficult. Because we had this honeymoon glow of the first week of the Occupy encampment. I’m not really sure what changed in the chemistry of things but I think just the reality of so many different kinds of people trying to put up a temporary village together and all having very different kinds of needs and very different objectives for even being there. Some of the people who were there were homeless and they wanted security but [for others] there’s territoriality. And the protesters knew nothing about it. Nothing. No clue.

One of the first things that happened is street families had to create agreements with one another. And then there was an alliance called The Street Family Alliance where certain agreements were made and disagreements were put aside in order to live together and have the benefit of a place to sleep without harassment. Food. Medical Care. They even had a library. Most Occupy camps had a library. We moved a couple of times. By the time we ended up in one place … we were there for a couple of months and so it allowed people to accumulate so we had about 200 people.

And where are they now? Do you have any idea?

 Oh yeah. I definitely know where some of the people are, for sure. There were people who were homeless who eventually got housed. They got into political activism. And some of the people who got housed became part of the first “rest stops” and became part of Opportunity Village Eugene. Rest Stops are legal camp spots for people who are unhoused and they’re managed through an ordinance by the city. It tells you the parameters of what that rest stop could be.

Is that living in your vehicle or what?

 That’s the car camping program. Rest stops are tents [or minimal, one-room structures that have lockable doors] on pallets. And it’s organized with agreements, applications, a vetting process. Nothing is run by the city. [laughs] None of the homeless emergency shelters that came out of Occupy are run by the city. They are all run by community members. Opportunity Village Eugene (OVE) came out of the Occupy movement and some of the people who were unhoused and living at the protest camp became board members and activists and eventually residents of that. Another component of Occupy that continues to live today is Occupy Medical. That’s a free clinic on Sundays that’s still operating. That’s a 501(c)3.

Some people involved in the Occupy movement, myself included, wanted to continue to just work on addressing the economic issues and the dilemmas of the banks. So there was a bit of a schism between those who felt called to continue to educate the public and get public support about, what about these banks? And what about this income inequality gap? And what are we gonna do about it?

So, you’re talking about working on it as a national issue?

 As a national issue. So there were people who wanted to continue working on that and they were frustrated by the amount of people and energy that had been pulled into working on the homeless issue. Because one of the most compelling things that occurred was a bunch of activists and do-gooders became suddenly aware of the gigantic population of unhoused, uncared for, and unheard people who actually were living the effect of the income inequality gap. Those of us who felt moved to continue working in the homeless movement in some way took a different direction. I ended up eventually being recruited to work on the Human Rights Commission for the City of Eugene. Commissioners are volunteers. So I’ve continued to do work on that.

I consider the work that I’ve been doing on homelessness a way that brings more and more community members awareness because we need awareness and compassion and people sort of thinking out of the box. I think there was a giant leap that Occupy was trying to make, an intellectual leap that was too fast for everyone to keep up with. People were at home trying to make ends meet. They didn’t have time to go to a protest camp.

So I think just getting people to accept that they had been holding onto myths about homeless people, ideas about poverty that blocked them from understanding the income inequality gap issue. And maybe instead of judging people who were not able to pay their mortgage and had been taken advantage of by the banks, seeing that they’re in the same boat with them? That the banks would just as soon take advantage of them as they would the poor people who weren’t making their mortgage. I think people getting the concept of “I am part of the 99%,” was a big leap. Not everyone was willing to go slow enough for the general public to jump on that bandwagon.

 I think one of the ways that we are reaching the general public about it is the tangibility of “come help us at camp, see what these myths are.” I’ve watched people’s minds change, definitely. It’s the day-in day-out, you know, exposure to it. The City Council has changed dramatically. Eight people who three years ago were just mad that we were even in the park blocks are now problem-solving the issue of homelessness in their community. Actively problem-solving it at their work session instead of politically grandstanding. That’s a major shift.

I’ve visited Opportunity Village and Community Supported Shelters. Do you have any feelings about Community Supported Shelters? A co-director of CSS was the first person I interviewed for this blog.

 Well, Community Supported Shelters and Nightingale Health Sanctuary are two of the organizations that have stepped up to run the rest stops. We need more folks willing to run rest stops because the city is now willing to have more of them and they’re willing to consider loosening up the restrictions about where they can be located. CSS and NHS can train more people on how to host a rest stop. They’re both very effective at doing that. The same ordinance governs them but they go about doing their work slightly differently. A church or a group of churches or some new non-profit or even just a group of neighbors could run a rest stop. It could be any size up to twenty people.

 What are the most interesting, satisfying experiences you’ve had as an activist?

 Well, I would say that every day I learn something. And for me, I have to be learning all the time to be happy. So the complexity of the issue has kept me very satisfied in terms of constantly learning about human nature, it challenges my skills as a mediator and as a facilitator. I’m constantly being asked to hone those skills further. That’s been very gratifying. I feel the work that I did on the reservation around thinking about someone else’s life from a different cultural point of view and trying to stretch my imagination and my knowledge about the day-in day-out hardships of their life has given me some good prep.

What are those hardships?

 I mean, I shared the same address as the people who lived on the reservation. So I know what it’s like to go into a store, write a check, and have someone decide that they’re gonna give me a hard time about my check, based on my address. That was a pretty eye opening experience. I know what it’s like to be standing at a homeless camp and someone comes up and starts talking to me as if I’m a disadvantaged person and I need to have a bunch of stuff explained to me. [laughs] That I really didn’t need to have explained to me, so it’s been interesting having that, it’s a cross-cultural experience. I really feel like the life on the reservation prepared me for more cross-cultural experiences and working in the homeless movement has definitely been a cross-cultural experience. Working with people in government. I worked for tribal government. It’s very different than working for mainstream Oregon government. That’s not the same thing.

I loved working for tribal government. I loved that work environment because people were genuinely respected. I did not feel like I had to constantly prove myself. I felt valued as a human being. I felt valued for the work I was showing them. I felt like it was a cooperative environment. People wanted to match skills and wanted to collaborate. They didn’t just give lip service to that. And I don’t feel like that’s what working in city government always is like.

Although you feel that people on the city council have been educated and have learned something.

 City council is different than staff. You have a bureaucracy that carries out the policies of the city council.

Right, right. Now that’s the end of my questions. Is there anything you would like to add?

 [laughs] Well, my comments are mostly gonna be about this [national] election we just had. Last night at the Human Rights Commission, we had a public comment period which we do once a month and we had a hundred people in the room. Normally we get two or three comments. So we’re gonna hold another meeting for a couple of purposes. One of them is just to give more people more opportunity to talk to the commission. They are worried about their human rights under the president-elect’s administration. And I’d like to find a role for the commission and for community members to all collaborate on what it looks like to create safety in our community so people aren’t living in fear, whether they’re living in fear of being deported and want a sanctuary city. Or they’re living in fear of someone harassing them for the color of their skin. Or they wear something that indicates they’re of some religion. Like here, the Interfaith Services was born out of someone who is Sikh who had their hair up in a turban, being attacked for being a Muslim.

 The level of sophistication and cosmopolitanism in this town isn’t always awesome. People get treated poorly. They don’t report it. So I’d like to see a community response that advances our human rights agenda, fast forward. I feel like we need to complete our entire work plan in a couple of months instead of an entire year. So the human rights agenda for the Human Rights Commission has been put on fast forward and a lot of community members are willing to roll up their sleeves and do that work with us. Instead of being paralyzed and distraught, I’m being propelled into a lot of action because the community members are willing to do that work right now. The only role that we have on the Human Rights Commission is as an advisor to the city council. That’s it. We do not investigate infractions.

But you’ve said that you feel that the city council has been moving forward because of their own education.

 For sure. All this work that’s happened since Occupy, about people who are homeless, people who are vulnerable, the mythology, making the city more compassionate. It has laid the groundwork in a pretty interesting way in this town. People are way more geared up to hear the fears and concerns and realize that there’s good community problem-solving that we can do around it. They’ve seen community problem-solving in action over the last four years. So I think it gives us a little bit of an edge, a faith that we can community problem-solve, come what may, in facing the administration that’s gearing up right now.

I think in America we’re still learning what human rights actually are. There was significant resistance to the 25th declaration in the human rights list [the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the U.N. in 1948] and the right to housing and food was something that we had to educate the city council about. And quite frankly we’re still having to educate officials about it. That that actually is a human right.


About Sylvia

Sylvia Hart Wright, the interviewer and blogger, has combined efforts to help achieve a more peaceful world and social and economic justice, with a career as a librarian, author, and longtime college professor. For more about her, please visit her website at There you can also find the first chapter of her memoir-in-progress, ACTIVIST: Adventures at the Cutting Edge of Social Change.
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