Recently, XRAY In The Morning had the pleasure of sitting down with Rukaiyah Adams to discuss her life, her city, and the role philanthropy plays in building our future.
Jefferson Smith: It is time for the most interesting person in Portland. I’m Jeff. Our most interesting person in Portland is Northeast Portland’s own Rukaiyah Adams, Chief Investment Officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, board member at OPB, chair of the Oregon Investment Council, and here with us this morning. Rukaiyah, good morning.
Rukaiyah Adams: Good morning.
Jefferson Smith: It is nice to have you here.
Rukaiyah Adams: I don’t know about that most interesting thing, Jefferson.
Jefferson Smith: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault, but it is true. At least for today it is true. I’m not gonna ask you what makes you the most interesting person in Portland. I am willing to make the case. I am willing to make the case, or that case will be made in the course of this conversation. You grew up here. Tell us where you went to school. I know you ended up going to Catlin. Tell us the early part of the story.
Rukaiyah Adams: I grew up in Portland, Northeast Portland, between Walnut Park, which has been rebranded as Alberta Arts, but it was called Walnut Park when I was a kid, near 9th and Roselawn, went to King Elementary School, went to Woodlawn for a stint, but then I punched a teacher and got expelled and went back to King, Harriet Tubman-
Jefferson Smith: Why’d you punch a teacher?
Rukaiyah Adams: She said something bad about my name, and I wasn’t having it.
Jefferson Smith: I don’t know if you want to repeat that trauma, but what did she say about … She made fun of your name? She rhymed it with something?
Rukaiyah Adams: She just said, “Why can’t you guys just have regular names?”
Jefferson Smith: “Why can’t you guys just have regular names?”
Rukaiyah Adams: We had an incident. I wouldn’t say I punched her. I did whatever. I defended my honor, and my honor was told to go somewhere else, so I went back to King, and then to Harriet Tubman for middle school, which was amazing. Paul Coakley was the principal there. It was just an amazing place to be a kid in Portland at the time.
Jefferson Smith: What made it amazing?
Rukaiyah Adams: High expectations for performance. The teachers knew our names. We knew each other. It was very safe, very creative. I just loved that time in Portland politics. Ron Herndon and Joyce Harris had for years advocated for the creation of a middle school. I was in not the very first cohort, but maybe the second cohort to go through Tubman, and so the kinks were worked out by the time I got there.
Jefferson Smith: To be clear, Joyce Harris and Ron Herndon advocating for a middle school focused on black kids.
Rukaiyah Adams: Focused on black children, educating them. We learned black history. We learned African languages. We were expected to write very long essays that were serious. The ones of us who showed promise were not exempted from the work. We were just given special teachers to teach at the level that we tested to. Our parents were a part of the community. The neighborhood, the school was within walking distance if we needed to. We didn’t have to be bused. It was just an amazing experience.
Jefferson Smith: You say it was just an amazing experience using the tense that suggests to me that you’re suggesting that something has been lost.
Rukaiyah Adams: No, I don’t have children. I’m the village spinster.
Jefferson Smith: You just knew that it was. Maybe it still is.
Rukaiyah Adams: From what I hear. I will say that I feel like I came through public schools in Portland during a golden age.
Jefferson Smith: Me too.
Rukaiyah Adams: It was excellent. I feel like it was fantastic. By the time I got to Catlin Gabel for high school, I was very well prepared to compete with children who had significantly more resources and very high expectations. To the extent that I struggled in that transition, it wasn’t because of lack of training or educational preparation.
Jefferson Smith: Let’s talk about the transition from going from Tubman to Catlin. They recruit you because you’re so very smart, because you’re so very good and how you treat your teachers and because you’re such a good athlete?
Rukaiyah Adams: I loved my teachers. I can’t remember the name of that teacher who hurt my feelings. To this day, if you try to harm the little black girl in me, you’re gonna get-
Jefferson Smith: You’re not down.
Rukaiyah Adams: Something’s going down. That was the first lesson in defending myself. I would say that what I think happened, and I don’t know for sure, I think that the Catlin Gabel School decided they wanted to diversify their student population, and they understood that they couldn’t do it incrementally, and so there were some conversations that happened between Catlin and I think one of the counselors at Tubman. We were being prepared to go from Tubman to the Scholars program at Jefferson. There was a pipeline that was being created to continue excellence in the neighborhood schools.
For whatever reason, set of reasons, our year was the year that they decided to try to diversify. There were seven students taken from Tubman who enrolled at Catlin. By taken, that verb is maybe not the right verb, but there were seven of us whose families opted on our behalf-
Jefferson Smith: Why’d you decide, just because everybody knew it was a really good school and was a scholarship provided potentially and it just seemed like an easy decision, or was it a hard decision?
Rukaiyah Adams: It was a hard decision. I think for us to leave the community that was an amazing place to be in order to make our way in the world, most people of color have that experience at the collegiate level. We just shifted a lot of the lessons, the most difficult lessons I think that kids of color have in adjusting, we shifted that to being 13 rather than 17 or 18. I think our parents really wrestled with this issue. They continue to wrestle with it. I think it’s fair to say of the seven of us who went, we all still feel a little bit off-kilter-
Jefferson Smith: Really?
Rukaiyah Adams: … for having been plucked out of a very rich environment to being in a totally different environment, not just culturally, but we were a different class. The way girls behave at the schools were drastically different. How you express power as a young black girl was so different than-
Jefferson Smith: Say more about that.
Rukaiyah Adams: At Tubman we were encouraged to be assertive. We could protect ourselves. We could be forward socially, academically. There was no sense that boys and girls had different expectations about behavior. I think one of the hardest lessons I learned in going to Catlin, which at that time was largely white and not just upper middle class, but upper class, was that girls weren’t so forward about their power, that you didn’t carry your body in a powerful way, you didn’t speak out in a powerful ways, so there were a lot of social adaptations and social-
Jefferson Smith: An expectation to be quiet?
Rukaiyah Adams: I wouldn’t say be quiet, more to be indirect about it. Just even in your physical carriage, to be a comfortable black woman, you face people, you look them in the eye. Your hair is typically not in your face in a way that prevents people from seeing you. Just those little subtle differences in the way that you stand, whether you square up to someone or your posture is erect or you look them directly in the eye or you say no directly, those kinds of things were hard to learn, the social expectations of girls were. That was the most difficult part of the transition.
Jefferson Smith: How’d you deal with it?
Rukaiyah Adams: Awkwardly.
Jefferson Smith: Say more. What did awkward look like? Did you find yourself adapting? Did you find yourself resisting? Did you find yourself doing a little bit of both?
Rukaiyah Adams: Definitely adapted. I would say the seven of us felt like we talked into Catlin Gabel holding hands. We had known each other all of our lives. We had gone to elementary and middle school together. We let go to survive in that environment.
Jefferson Smith: It started that the seven girls who came together were … All girls?
Rukaiyah Adams: No. Four girls, three boys.
Jefferson Smith: Four girls, three boys, started out as a friend group, and as you moved forward you found your own friend groups?
Rukaiyah Adams: We did what we needed to do to make it through those years, and based on our interests, we went in different ways. I had the advantage of playing sports, and so I had the built-in social network that helped me through it. Some people were artists. Some people were musicians. We all had our different way. It’s funny how Catlin was such a smaller school, but we seemed so much further away from each other during those years. I will say this. In addition to King Elementary School and Harriet Tubman Middle School, at Catlin I feel like I got the best education available.
Jefferson Smith: An interesting mix.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah. By education I don’t mean what I learned in the classroom, but I learned a lot about American society. I learned a lot about class.
Jefferson Smith: What else did you learn? I’ve been the poor kid and I’ve been the lower middle class kid. My mom was raising my brother and I, putting herself through school at the same time, in not a wealthy school, but in an upper middle class school. I’ve felt that stress, and it sucks. In a country where we equate financial success with virtue, even from my own white privilege experience I know that it sucks. How did it feel like for you? What did you notice in a school wealthier, Catlin Gabel, much wealthier than South Pasadena Middle School?
Rukaiyah Adams: First there were changes in our bodies. We lost weight, the girls did. That was another difference in social expectation. There were the demands to conform physically with the standard of beauty. There was some weight loss. I would say I learned to carry my body in a different way.
I would change clothes when I got on the bus in the morning in my own neighborhood. I would be dressed differently and I’d change into different clothes on my way to school so that by the time I got to campus I had on different clothes, so that I’d fit in with the community there.
There were struggles in my family to buy things like computers. At that time laptop computers were becoming available for people who were wealthy, and I didn’t have a computer. Finding a way to close the digital divide even back then was a bit of a challenge. It put a great deal of stress on my family. I’m sure that I gobbled up a lion’s share of resources. I have two brothers. I know that just clothing me, the sports camps, the books that I had to buy to read …
One example is in I think my freshman English class we had to order an annual subscription to the New Yorker. We read the New Yorker every week as a part of our curriculum. Just the cost of the subscription, I remember that being a stretch. A part of that adjustment was that I always had a job. From age 10 on, I had a side job that helped me supplement some of the costs.
The social part of it as girls come of age and begin to understand their bodies and social power and feminine power, being so far out of whack with the pervasive culture around you, it was disorienting.
Jefferson Smith: Explain that.
Rukaiyah Adams: Dating was doubly awkward. It’s already awkward when you’re a teenager, but when you layer in physical distance … There were times when we lived in public housing and I would live far East County, so 181st let’s say, and Fremont or something like that, and my friends were West Side kids that lived near the Catlin Gabel campus. I couldn’t be out at a party on Saturday, not have a car, and get across town back home before the buses stopped running. There was the physical connection of connecting with people.
It was a pretty big, dramatic shift. I think for me the biggest thing in being multicultural and being able to navigate lots of different kinds of power dynamics, I’ve learned to adjust my tone, the way that I speak, my comportment, my gait. They all change. It’s not inauthentic. I’ve just learned how to navigate different environments. It started at 13 being dropped into this very fancy school, alone it felt like.
Jefferson Smith: Home life, what were your folks … You said public housing, 181st at some point during this experience. Your folks clearly were being champs. Your family was giving you support through this time. What can you tell me about-
Rukaiyah Adams: My mom is a soldier. She’s frigging awesome and was down for giving us resources from the start. My father wasn’t around. He’s alive, but I don’t know where he is. All I’ve really known is a mother.
My grandfather was also our caregiver, so there was a man in our lives. After school at King or Tubman, we’d go to our grandfather’s house and he would serve us a meal after school. He was the person that we saw every day from a man’s perspective. Every single day my grandfather took care of us.
My mom, she learned very young that all three of her children were gifted. She went to Jefferson High School. She went to some community college at Cascade, but didn’t go to college. She knew from the beginning she had these really gifted children and needed to do some extra work to keep us challenged, and she did. She would find us scholarships to go to summer camps in the summer with other kids whose families were more privileged. She took us to the library on the weekends. She was just a super mom. She thinks that she was born to be a mother. I was just lucky to have her.
For Catlin, I actually tried to leave the school and register myself at a public school. I wanted to be a Jefferson. I did not want to be at Catlin. Pretty much the last butt-whooping I’ve got in my entire life was my mom coming to Jefferson and literally pulling me by my ear out of school and sending me back up to Catlin Gabel.
Jefferson Smith: Describe again the circumstances by which you ended up back at Jefferson.
Rukaiyah Adams: I just left Catlin. I didn’t tell her. I forged her signature.
Jefferson Smith: What year was this? What year of school was this?
Rukaiyah Adams: Freshman year.
Jefferson Smith: Freshman year. You were like, “I’m out of here,” in the middle of the year or-
Rukaiyah Adams: “I don’t want to be with these crazy white people.”
Jefferson Smith: After how many days at Catlin Gabel did you decide, “I’m going to Jefferson.”
Rukaiyah Adams: Maybe 10 days.
Jefferson Smith: You just show up at Jefferson. You forge the documents to allow you to enroll. You start going. How many days are you there?
Rukaiyah Adams: A week.
Jefferson Smith: A week. How does your mom find out, word on the street, a friend tells her?
Rukaiyah Adams: No. Ron Sobel I think, one of the counselors at Catlin, call her and she comes and finds me.
Jefferson Smith: Of course Catlin recognized you were missing, and then they had your family’s phone number, and then she comes and pulls you out of Jefferson. Did you try leaving again?
Rukaiyah Adams: It was lunchtime. It was lunchtime, so it was humiliating.
Jefferson Smith: You’re in front of everybody, and she literally grabs you?
Rukaiyah Adams: Yes.
Jefferson Smith: Literally pulls you out of school?
Rukaiyah Adams: Right.
Jefferson Smith: Did you try to escape again or did you stay? Did you stay happily, or occasionally happily?
Rukaiyah Adams: I was not gonna cross my mother like that again.
Jefferson Smith: How many brothers and sisters?
Rukaiyah Adams: I have two brothers.
Jefferson Smith: What are the ages? What were they doing at that point?
Rukaiyah Adams: My older brother is three years older. My younger brother’s two years younger. Neither of them went on to Catlin. My older brother is an interesting personality in the world. My younger brother’s a creative. My mom had a pretty boy, a quant, and a artist that she somehow had to keep-
Jefferson Smith: We’re talking to Rukaiyah Adams, most interesting person in Portland. I’m Jefferson Smith. You’re listening to XRAY. I want to move from … You finished Catlin. You go off to Stanford for undergrad, where for undergrad?
Rukaiyah Adams: Carlton College.
Jefferson Smith: Carlton for undergrad. How’d you pick Carlton? Pretty white school, yes?
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah. It was a lot like Catlin. I had intended to go to another school, which I will not name, because I don’t want to upset people.
Jefferson Smith: Where were you gonna go?
Rukaiyah Adams: I had intended to go to another school. I went out to visit in something like February or March of my senior year.
Jefferson Smith: To visit where?
Rukaiyah Adams: Some other fancy school. I hated it. I was like, “Oh my gosh. The class differences here are just so stark.” It just wasn’t the right decision. I came back to Catlin and said to the college counselor, “I think I’ve made the wrong choice.” Actually I know I said it to a teacher named Clint Darling, who was fantastic. He just was a wonderful man. He said, “You’ve totally screwed yourself, kiddo, but feel free to come to the presentations to the juniors this evening. They’re gonna hear from five schools, and they’re private schools.”
I go to the presentation to the juniors, and it was Haverford and Swarthmore and Williams and those schools. Then Carlton, the presenter started with this image of the campus in the fall and the chapel shooting up out of the farmland in Minnesota with all of these maple trees that turned orange. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’d like to visit that place.”
A couple weeks later I got on a plane and told the admissions director, “Look, I’m applying, and you can tell me no.” Through this crazy, last-minute application process, I applied to four or five schools, got into a lot of them, but Carlton was the only one that gave me financial aid. Although my life was great and I had a great mom, I didn’t feel like I could stay here. I needed to go. There was no option to stay.
Jefferson Smith: You weren’t just gonna to PSU or go to U of O or something. You wanted to head out and go to college.
Rukaiyah Adams: I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
Jefferson Smith: Say more about that. You didn’t feel like you had a choice.
Rukaiyah Adams: Nope. My mom was awesome, but I would say we moved around a lot, so I didn’t feel like there was place that was home. There was no particular house that was home. My peers at Catlin were going off to elite schools, and so I certainly wasn’t gonna be the one who didn’t, especially if I was performing at the top of my class. That wasn’t an option.
I just felt like the combination of the elevated expectations of my peer set and the reality of not being wealthy enough to hang out at home and take a gap year or something like that, it just felt like I needed to go, and so I packed my bag.
This is crazy, Jefferson. When I left for college, I left alone with two suitcases, no coat, and five $100 bills in my pocket. That was all I had. I flew to Minneapolis. I arrived there at something like 10:00 at night. I hadn’t thought about how I would get from the Minneapolis Airport to the campus. At that time there was no bus, so I-
Jefferson Smith: You used one of the $100 bills, took a cab?
Rukaiyah Adams: I used one of those $100 bills to take a cab from Minneapolis to Northfield. I got to Northfield at about midnight, and I hadn’t thought about what I would do once I got there. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I just thought that all the dorms would be open at that at midnight there would be someone to welcome me.” I was a bit early because of sports. I ended up sleeping in a student lounge the first night, in my clothes, and got up the next day with four $100 bills in my pocket, and I started college, alone.
Jefferson Smith: Luckily there was a place for you to live?
Rukaiyah Adams: Yes.
Jefferson Smith: You go through Carlton, and what, basketball and track at Catlin? You were an athlete, and that’s part of this story. Add facts about being an athlete and what that meant back here in Portland and maybe what it meant maybe at Carlton.
Rukaiyah Adams: Huge, huge advantage for I think girls, because sometimes, I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, sexual desire and physical desire sometimes, those wires get crossed. I think for young girls in sports, you learn earlier in life the difference between the need for physical activity versus physical desire. I would say at the high school level that kept me out of a lot of trouble and made me much less vulnerable as a girl, and then more confident physically, socially, sexually, as I went off to college.
I played three sports in college. In the fall I played soccer. In the winter I played basketball. In the spring I played rugby. My experience with college was from the soccer pitch, from the basketball court, and from the rugby pitch. I experienced the outdoors there year-round for soccer.
Jefferson Smith: We’ve known each other. I didn’t know you played rugby.
Rukaiyah Adams: I was back and our team was awesome. That was probably the sport that I had the most success in.
Jefferson Smith: I’m not even sure I knew there was rugby in the United States.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah, it was serious.
Jefferson Smith: Is Carlton in the Patriot League? What league is Carlton in?
Rukaiyah Adams: It’s in the MYAC.
Jefferson Smith: MYAC. You finished Carlton, go off to Stanford for law school?
Rukaiyah Adams: Took a year off, and then banking, some stuff happened in banking that year.
Jefferson Smith: What year is this and what’s the stuff that happened?
Rukaiyah Adams: 1995. I took a job at Chemical Bank. It was acquired by Chase Manhattan Bank that year, so my analyst class got jammed.
Jefferson Smith: What does jammed mean? Eliminated, plugged in?
Rukaiyah Adams: Just caught in the wash. It just happened to be that at the time I was thinking about where I wanted to be next. I came back to Portland for a while, applied to law school, and got in. It was one of the rare occasions that people in my family expressed opinions about where I should be. They really wanted me to be at Stanford.
Jefferson Smith: Instead of?
Rukaiyah Adams: Some other schools. I went to Stanford. That’s all that matters. Went there, loved it. I was super intense. I studied. I’m like, “Why’d I study so hard?” I don’t quite understand. I was literally studying all the time.
Jefferson Smith: At Stanford, at law school?
Rukaiyah Adams: In law school, yeah.
Jefferson Smith: You gotta study in law school.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah, you do have to study. It was hard.
Jefferson Smith: Law school’s hard. Not every school’s the same, but it seems like there’s a lot of overlap. It seems like to get a lot of B minuses is not that hard, but I think to do well is hard.
Rukaiyah Adams: You have to do well. Again, like other places, I was one of few black people there, so I wasn’t about that B minus life. I think it’s true of Stanford, it’s a place where people are intensely personally driven. There are not external drivers to ambition there. It’s all inside. The beehive energy is just you know that people are thinking up new ideas, they’re dreaming up new products, they’re dreaming up the future, and you can feel the energy. If you don’t have the internal drive there, man, you’ll get squashed.
Jefferson Smith: We just got a text in, by the way. Somebody said, “I’m gonna vote for you someday.” They’re talking about you. They said, “Thanks for sharing your story, Rukaiyah, and for being such an incredible champion for Portland. I hope to vote for you some day!” We’re talking to Rukaiyah Adams. I’m Jefferson Smith. She is the most interesting person in Portland. We’re talking to her right now.
Some of this experience is moving from the kind of experience in North, Northeast Portland to Catlin, Carlton, and Stanford, with some similarities maybe culturally between Catlin, Carlton, and Stanford. For me, I had an experience when going from essentially Grant to U of O and then to a fancy law school, that the fancy law school felt like a really different experience because of what you were just saying, because so many people are paying attention. Everybody was raising their hand when a question was asked. Everybody had done the reading. There were a lot of other people. It wasn’t the weird thing to have studied. It was the weird thing not to have studied. For you that sounds like it wasn’t new in law school because you had experienced some of that already in high school and college.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah. High school was intense. Carlton was intense. On a Friday or Saturday night, we would study in the library until it closed and then have 15-minute dance parties after the library closed outside. We studied hard. I did work. By the time I got to Stanford, again, from an academic standpoint, I didn’t feel unprepared for that experience. I think the thing that Stanford did was ratchet up the internal drive, the learning what it takes to really be among the best, and the kind of both physical and mental stamina.
Jefferson Smith: Why’d you go to law school and what did you do after?
Rukaiyah Adams: I didn’t want to be poor. That’s why I went to law school.
Jefferson Smith: What’d you do after?
Rukaiyah Adams: I was a deal lawyer for almost eight years.
Jefferson Smith: Where?
Rukaiyah Adams: Skadden Arps. It’s a New York-based law firm. It’s like The Firm, the movie.
Jefferson Smith: What year did you graduate? Were you ’99?
Rukaiyah Adams: ’99.
Jefferson Smith: We graduated the same year in law school.
Rukaiyah Adams: We’re the same year from high school.
Jefferson Smith: For every single year. The reason I point out that out because we also both, in order to stay, in order to have the same timeline, we both had to take a year off at some point. At that point I think Skadden was the biggest corporate law firm in the country, yeah, in terms of number of lawyers?
Rukaiyah Adams: It’s interesting though. It was the biggest, maybe. It was one of the big ones for sure. It also had a history of being the place where people who were rejected from white-collar firms went to succeed. Skadden has a really interesting history. It was founded by Jewish lawyers who didn’t get jobs at the other firms in New York. It’s evolved into being one of the most successful firms. That was the important part about choosing to go there. I had other options. I wanted to be a deal lawyer. I wanted to be in the Bay area. I wanted to be around people who were dreaming up the future. I wanted to be a part of it. I did that for a while.
Jefferson Smith: Eight years, then what happened?
Rukaiyah Adams: It was seven years, a little less than seven years. Then somewhere around year three, I tell people I sat down at 24 or so, whatever it was, after we graduated, and looked up at 30 and said, “What the hell am I doing?” I had just worked around the clock, literally around the clock. I would go into the office at 7:00 or 8:00, work until midnight.
There was a homeless guy in San Francisco who would stand by the exit of Embarcadero Four, the building I worked in, and would walk with me to the entrance of the train station so that I could take the last train east to Oakland, which is where I lived. He was my late-night escort and a person that I would talk to on the street.
I did that for years and years and years. One year I worked on a hostile deal that required me working basically around the clock for a few weeks, and we filed whatever we needed to file.
Jefferson Smith: A hostile takeover of a company.
Rukaiyah Adams: It was HotJobs.
Jefferson Smith: Not a hostel like a hotel that kids stay in when they’re traveling, right?
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah, not a hostel, a hostile. Yahoo did a hostile takeover of HotJobs, and I was one of the lawyers on that deal.
Jefferson Smith: On the Yahoo side?
Rukaiyah Adams: On the Yahoo side.
Jefferson Smith: Skadden was the leading LBO leveraged buyout firm in the ’80s even. They were driving a lot of the … When people watch Wall Street, Skadden is the lawyer to call to go take over HotJobs. Go on.
Rukaiyah Adams: I was one of those lawyers. I was sitting in my car. It was maybe 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I was listening to NPR, trying to decide whether I was alert enough to drive home from this place where we were doing work at the printers, and this show came on. I can’t remember what it was about, but the gist of it was it’s your life and you have no excuse for living a life you don’t want.
The light bulb went off, and a few weeks later I took a test of the GMAT to think, “Maybe I can make a pivot out of this into business,” because I felt like I was as smart as the people who were hiring me to execute deals for them. Took the GMAT, I couldn’t do the math on it. It was humiliating. The verbal section was fine but I was like, “Holy crap, I’m gonna have to do some work to get ready for this.” For a year and a half I worked the lawyer’s day, the 14 or 16 hours, I would go home at night alone-
Jefferson Smith: Study math.
Rukaiyah Adams: … and study math.
Jefferson Smith: Then you take the GMAT and go to business school?
Rukaiyah Adams: Nailed it, yep.
Jefferson Smith: Congratulations. Then you go to business school where?
Rukaiyah Adams: At Stanford. There were some other options.
Jefferson Smith: That you can’t name. No other school’s name exists in the context of this conversation.
Rukaiyah Adams: I was tempted by Cal I will say. Cal has a wonderful business school program.
Jefferson Smith: In the same geography. The producer’s wanting us to wrap. I got a couple other things before we do. After business school, then what?
Rukaiyah Adams: Then I go to New York. At that time you remember the market tanked, so that was 2008 I graduated.
Jefferson Smith: Terrible time to graduate.
Rukaiyah Adams: Terrible time. Even with all the experience I had, I couldn’t get a job in the Bay area. I was really just really frustrated. I didn’t want to go back to the practice after leaving to go to business school. I took a job at a hedge fund in New York and did that for a number of years, proved better at that than deal lawyering, and I think I was a pretty good deal lawyer.
Jefferson Smith: To me it seems better to be a client than a lawyer on the deal side.
Rukaiyah Adams: Much better to be on the capital side than the execution side, especially if you’re a black woman.
Jefferson Smith: Say more about that.
Rukaiyah Adams: The people who control the capital control the agenda. There’s a nobility to that, even if you’re only the controller by proxy.
Jefferson Smith: Even a Stanford-trained business lawyer is still the person that’s taking the orders, and the person who has the capital is the person giving the orders.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah. It’s not even so much about giving orders as setting the agenda and saying, “This is what matters.” That’s what I felt like I was missing in the role as the advisor. I also have an executive temperament. I don’t have an advisory temperament. I needed to reconcile-
Jefferson Smith: What’s an executive temperament?
Rukaiyah Adams: I’m bossy.
Jefferson Smith: You said that the people who have the capital end up setting the agenda. You are now the investment officer for one of the biggest foundations in our state. I want to talk again about that, if you’re willing to talk about it, but any teaser of that conversation. When we get into the here and now, the part two of this conversation I’d like to have is where we are in Portland right now, where is philanthropy right now, where is wealth right now, where is wealth as it relates to racial disparities in this country, in this state, in this city, but anything you want to say to tease that conversation for part two.
Rukaiyah Adams: I think you said something very clear about how we assign benevolence or insight to wealth. Being someone who invests a pool of money, sometimes I get that effect in the second order as the person who controls capital. I don’t know if that makes any sense. The real challenge with wealth is not to have people ascribe intelligence or insight from you, but to work hard at observing what you can see from a position of control and capital and using what you learn for the benefit of society, not just for your own self-benefit.
Jefferson Smith: People will say yes to you and make you think you’re smart, not necessarily just because you’re smart, but also because you have dough and power.
Rukaiyah Adams: Because I control the dough. It’s not mine, but yeah. I think that thing that we think wealthy people know what they’re talking about, I sometimes push back on that, as someone who’s involved in investing.
Jefferson Smith: Rukaiyah Adams, the most interesting person in Portland. Thank you so much for part one. We got lots of texts in about people who think you’re awesome. I’m one of them.
Rukaiyah Adams: I think you’re awesome too.
Jefferson Smith: Cheers.
Rukaiyah Adams: Cheers.
Jefferson Smith: Joining us now is someone I want to be when I grow up: the most interesting person in Portland, Rukaiyah Adams. Good morning, Rukaiyah.
Rukaiyah Adams: Good morning.
Jefferson Smith: Northeast Portland native, Chief Investment Officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, board member at OPB, chair of the Oregon Investment Council. Here with us to continue our conversation on the future of the city, about her life, welcome back. It is nice to have you.
When we started, we went through King Elementary, Tubman Middle School, Catlin Gabel, off to Stanford. I want to talk now about what you’re doing now, how you lived your life, how you’re applying your values, how you’re seeing the financial world right now, how you’re seeing Portland community right now, how you’re seeing philanthropy right now, and even engage in some policy questions you’re wrestling with. Where do you want to start? Wherever?
Rukaiyah Adams: I’m ride or die with you. Let’s do it.
Jefferson Smith: Let’s hope it’s ride. Let’s just hope.
Rukaiyah Adams: Or both die.
Jefferson Smith: Let’s hope it’s ride. Let’s start with your TEDx Talk we just heard a little snippet of. I’ve seen it. I’ve now seen it twice. The key takeaways for me is you did some math and looked at that the tax credit that was offered at the time of emancipation was $300, is that right?
Rukaiyah Adams: Per healthy adult black male.
Jefferson Smith: You did the math for inflation and found that that translated to a roughly $6,500 today?
Rukaiyah Adams: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jefferson Smith: That correlated with the average wealth of African Americans in the United States right now?
Rukaiyah Adams: That’s right.
Jefferson Smith: That taught you what?
Rukaiyah Adams: It led me down a number of avenues to understand how our economy solves for wealth redistribution. My takeaway was that my people were deemed to have a value, and our whole economic system continues to solve for that number. The math behind that is hard. We’ve had world wars. There was no modern fit. There were times when interest rates were crazy because of political upheaval. I’m smart enough to solve those problems.
In the end, what I see is, from an economic perspective, if I can just look past or through race and look at us as productive units in the American political economy, there’s a number assigned to us. There may be individuals who break out of that, but the vast majority of people, the average value or wealth continues to fall back to that tax credit number, which is a fascinating issue as we ponder tax reform.
That led me to think, “How is this happening? What would you need to do to continue to solve for $300 in slave tax credits?” You need to under-educate people. They need poor health, have shorter life spans. They need to face highly stressful lives that would prevent them from accumulating wealth. You’d have to have controls on the distribution and acquisition of real estate.
All the things that we have come to see as problems in our society, particularly for African Americans, really if you can extract out the racism, because that’s there, if you can look at it as an economic trade, what you see is you’re solving for relatively low economic power and poor coordination or efforts to prevent coordination. All of our movements have been about coordinating our economic and social power.
Jefferson Smith: You started answering my next question, which is sources. I will say that your talk and you, even as a human being, are one of the reasons that I considered taking another job, where I would be primarily focused on wealth inequality.
The argument I was making, that I will continue to make, not in that job, is that I don’t think you can understand American democracy, I don’t think you can understand the American economy, if you don’t understand growing wealth inequality, not just income inequality. I don’t think you understand American wealth inequality, and therefore can’t understand American democracy or the American economy, if you don’t understand the racial implications, the racial drivers of that wealth inequality.
What I was gonna ask you is what do you think are some of those drivers of that? You already said under-education. You said health. You said stress. You said real estate. Say more about those things or add more. What’s driving the limits of wealth?
Rukaiyah Adams: We’ve had specific policy strategies aimed at reducing or increasing wealth inequality, redlining, GI bills, military underwriting mortgages for returning servicemen. We’ve had underfunding of-
Jefferson Smith: Redlining I understand. There were neighborhoods, they were mostly black neighborhoods, where you couldn’t get a loan, so that can’t-
Rukaiyah Adams: It’s not just redlining. I’m not gonna let us off the hook. That was bank policy. City policy, we know clearly in Portland, having read city council minutes, that redlining was a byproduct of urban policy that concentrated people and under-invested in those communities, even though they were taxpayers. To me, the private sector reaction is really a second-order effect that followed public policy, and by cities and counties and states.
We know in Portland the Albina District was the district where African Americans were encouraged by urban policy and by bank policy and private sector policy to accumulate, and then that neighborhood was deemed to be a blighted neighborhood, when it was intentionally created and then intentionally underfunded.
That would be city policy and private sector policy following education policy, you name it. We know that schools are underfunded and that if there’s adequate funding and attention that students perform equally well, yet we continue to do it. All of the navel-gazing and hand-wringing about disparities in performance, we know what the solutions are, we’re just not doing it.
Jefferson Smith: A friend of mine said the other day, and I added one piece to it, he said, “Poor people welfare in this country is different than middle class welfare in this country.” I added, “It’s also different than wealthy people welfare in this country.” With middle class welfare, it happens through tax breaks, such as home mortgage interest deduction. With poor people welfare, you gotta go through a whole bunch of bureaucracy. You gotta meet with somebody, prove that you deserve it, prove what you’re doing. Wealthy people democracy tends to happen with ribbon cuttings, “Hey, here’s a check from the Oregon Investment Council,” I don’t know, and you have a party to celebrate.
Say more about the GI Bill piece. I understand the home mortgage stuff to some degree. When you say there was a GI Bill, I’m assuming what you mean is there were more white Americans who were receiving support for college than African Americans were receiving after wars.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yes, and it’s not just college. It’s home purchases in the years after World War II. My grandfather was a vet. He didn’t get any support in buying his first home in Portland. It is post-World War II real estate that really set the black middle class apart from, black military servicemen apart from their peers and their peers’ families 15, 20 years later.
What I’m seeing, sitting in my seat as an investor, are the ways that our capital markets and our private sector liquidity providers like banks and credit unions, how they are participants in the wealth transfer system, that they’re the mechanisms by which wealth is transferred. Sitting in both the OIC chair and my chair at Meyer, I can see how the outcomes for generations that are just born today are already rigged. They’re already rigged.
Jefferson Smith: You told a story of being in, I think you were in England, and you were at this table, and you realized that the bank that you were meeting with had participated in profiteering from enslavement. How did you recognize that and how did you respond or interact with that information?
Rukaiyah Adams: It was horrible. I was sitting in this conference room that was called the Americas Conference Room. I was in London. On the walls of these banks, the old banks at least, they have historic bond issues, so a million dollars for the Panama Canal or two million dollars for the Silk Road, these historic issues that they had. This bank in particular had a million dollars for the Virginia port system to take human cargo to and from or a million dollars for the great railway system to connect agricultural poor to the American South to inland producers. They were these giant bond issues on the wall.
When I walked in I didn’t notice what they were, but the people who were supposed to meet me were a little bit late, so I had time to gaze at what was on the wall, and I realized, “Holy cannoli, this bank was the funder of the American slave economy,” so to speak, and the people who put me in that room clearly didn’t Google me. You would’ve thought twice.
Jefferson Smith: They might’ve taken down a couple of the posters.
Rukaiyah Adams: Or put me in the European room or the South American room. It was just so distasteful. The meeting went on, and it was pretty clear to me that they weren’t prepared to talk to me technically, they weren’t prepared to deal with me historically, and it just was off the rails from the beginning.
Jefferson Smith: You asked a question. I think your question was something like, “What have you learned from your historical experience enslaving my people?” or some question like that.
Rukaiyah Adams: Yeah, “What’d you learn from financing slavery?” Yeah.
Jefferson Smith: What’d they answer.
Rukaiyah Adams: Everyone in the room was European, and the conversation about slavery is more of a commerce discussion for people whose family lived in England and didn’t actually live in the colonies. They view their role in financing slavery with some shame and disdain, but it isn’t the same kind of living together in South Carolina on a plantation energy. We had a conversation about those bond issues and whether or not they thought it was a good idea for them to put me in this room and to come unprepared to talk to me about the subject matter that we had come to talk to.
I think they were more embarrassed that they were under-prepared for me as an investor than the emotional harm and disruption that caused me as a descendant of those slaves. I don’t think we could get to clarity or understanding, but I wanted to at least throw up the flare and say, “Yo, America’s really diverse. You really should think about how you approach this or come with an answer.” I didn’t get a good answer, but we also didn’t make that investment.
Jefferson Smith: Other than an occasional choice to pick one investment over another maybe based on an entity’s track record on issues like this, how do you apply this ethic to your work? Let me weight that question a little bit. One of the challenges if we reduce our choices to numbers, it can remove humanity. It seems to me that part of your project is try to reinsert humanity to numbers. How do you wrestle with it?
Rukaiyah Adams: Actually, the challenges are the two opposites. One is to reinsert humanity into the numbers, and then to get us at least activists and people who really want to understand the American economy and the impact of their decisions, is to actually insert numbers into that. So much of the discussion about the impact of racism and some other isms is social sciencey.
Jefferson Smith: A bunch of humanities majors.
Rukaiyah Adams: Right. Sometimes you gotta see the numbers. In those conversations, inserting the numbers are really important. I will say that in my investor’s seat, and I want to be clear, as chair of the OIC I have no authority to direct the way that investments are made there on the strategic board chair, but in my seat as CIO at Meyer, I certainly do look at the numbers and I’m interacting with the people who are dealing with some of the consequences of our investments.
Here’s an example. At Meyer we really wrestle with how we invest our real estate dollars. On the one hand, during the great economic downturn, we invested in distressed assets. If you double-clicked on that asset class, for 10 years it was distressed real estate, residential mortgages, in Baltimore and Nevada and California. That was an asset class that big institutional investors put money in. Five years later on the grant-making side of our business, we were trying to solve some of the problems that we created as investors.
It’s where there’s a clear tie that I think my generation’s role is to be transparent. We haven’t quite gotten to solutions, at least be honest about what we’re doing. Real estate is one area where there’s a lot of tension, and I have to insert real people into the conversation.
Another area that we continue to pretend like there aren’t people back there is student debt. Student debt is a fixed income asset class. Lots of institutional investors invest in it. That’s where all the capital’s coming from. Students can borrow because there are lenders back there. Bank of America isn’t an institution. It is an institution, but it’s not the source of the money. There are investors back there putting in money that they end up loaning to students.
Once the money goes out, it becomes an asset class. It’s fixed income that we want to optimize. What does it mean that fixed income investors want to optimize the return in this asset class? What are the real people back there? What are they doing? How is it impacting their home purchasing? How is it impacting their family planning? How is it impacting communities?
It’s in those conversations that I do try to talk to people, but look, this is a small town, so people will come to me and say things to me. They’ll raise issues with me or my family members. I love being here in Portland, unlike New York, where you can pretend like what you’re doing is investing money and not investing people’s money, and you can strip away their values from the pool of capital that comes in to you. Here you can’t strip that away. People are your neighbors. They’re children’s friends. You see them in the PTA meetings. You see them when you’re on runs. There’s no hiding here.
Jefferson Smith: It was something that actually Stan Amy, a guy who would should interview at some point, one of the founders of Nature’s New Seasons, who said one of the critical things that’s changed the American economy, that it used to be at least the family of the CEO, the owner of the factory, ran into the worker’s family members at school, a market, at church, at least they’d look them in the eye over what was happening. Now with more and more economic and geographic segregation, you don’t go to the same club, you don’t go to the same school, you don’t go to the same church, you don’t shop at the same store, and you can treat people not as humans when you’re making economic decisions.
I want to ask about reparations. There was an Onion article some years ago saying, “Barack Obama, now it’s the time to talk about reparations.” I found it an amusing one. I had the question from a group of students what I felt about it. I hadn’t wrestled with my own thoughts about it. I had to on the fly. My question is how do you wrestle with it? Whether or not you think in terms of reparations in that word, what do you see as maybe the top three things you would do from a policy standpoint to impact wealth disparities along racial lines?
Rukaiyah Adams: I’ll answer the last question first.
Jefferson Smith: It’s more comfortable.
Rukaiyah Adams: You can decide whether I’m talking about reparations. It’s been interesting talking about Albina and the vision for the future, and the first thing white people say to me is, “You’re talking about reparations.” I’m like, “No no, I’m talking about excellence.” It’s been an interesting dialog.
I will say I do think about reparations, but in answering your question about the policy things I would is first, we know that helping working women helps families, so the first thing I would do is make equal pay the law of the land everywhere, cut the crap on that, because if equal pay goes into families, then families, particularly those led by women, will reinvest in children, period, number one.
Number two, fully fund public education, and I mean through college. Fully fund it. Make it a game that the best students get paid-for education, because we used to fund education when universities and colleges were largely white. When they became more diverse, we stopped funding them. There’s a whole other policy discussion there. Fully fund education through college so that people come out of college without a $40,000, $50,000 debt load.
Number three, we have to have a policy for reintroducing people who have been incarcerated into our economic system, both socially, politically, and economically, all three. We cannot write those people off for life. They have to be able to obtain the right to vote again. They have to have job training. I would co-locate community colleges in jails and prisons. We cannot give up on those people.
I think those three things, equal pay, fully fund education, and reintroduce people who have been troubled into society, would be huge, huge, huge advances for the wealth inequality.
At that point, there are a lot of people who are graduating from college who may achieve income parity, but because they have so much debt, they never fully achieve wealth parity and never have the kind of power that wealth accumulation in our system allows. By wealth I don’t mean Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I’m saying you can retire at 65 or you can afford to pay for your children’s supplemental-
Jefferson Smith: Or you own a home.
Rukaiyah Adams: You own a home, basic stuff. Those three things are what I would do. In terms of reparations, I think from where I sit, making that happen would be the first part of the conversation about reparations.
Jefferson Smith: Making those three things happen you mean, making some general stuff happen?
Rukaiyah Adams: Would be the very first conversation about that, right. I’m open to a really meaningful conversation about what the reparations number or idea would look like, but it would be far greater than that. Far greater than that.
Jefferson Smith: For what it’s worth, my own answer was it had some overlap, although I wrestled with it and I had to say, “You know what? It is hard for me to think of the moral argument against … I can think of practical arguments against reparations. I think of mathematical arguments. I can think of political arguments. The moral argument to me is relatively clear.” I am seeing more and more tax policy through a lens of white supremacy and through a lens of racism.
I think in particular, the thing stuck in my craw right now maybe the most is a discussion right now to eliminate the estate tax. I know who that benefits and I know who is left out of that entrenchment of wealth. Where do you land on that? How do you wrestle with it? How do you talk to people? People who donated money to Meyer Memorial Trust, or maybe more specifically, more accurately, Oregon Community Foundation, which takes it from not just the Meyer family, but lots of families, that was in the shadow of the estate tax, but I can only imagine what some of those families would feel about the estate tax. Where do you land on that? How do you think about it?
Rukaiyah Adams: Tax policy is the tool of wealth redistribution, period. It will be the tool for more equitable redistribution as well. This conversation about the estate taxes is a conversation about benefiting the wealthiest Americans. There’s no question. There’s no discussion to be had. Are there nuances? Yeah. Are there farmers in the Midwest that probably have real estate wealth that might make the case for a change in the estate tax because that tax makes it difficult for successive generations of independent farmers to succeed? Yeah, I could see that. For the vast majority of the country, it’s not. It’s a discussion about the wealthy. There’s no debate to be had about it.
The only question is who do we elect to have these conversations about tax reform. What we’ve heard from the electorate is that they want wealthy interests to be protected in a discussion about tax. What’s happening with the tax discussion is not a surprise. Tax policy and redistributing wealth back to wealthy people is, was, and has been the agenda of the party in power forever. We’ve been fighting about taxes since slavery. The original conversation about tax and wealth redistribution was about slaves. This is the same freaking reason why I focused on a tax rebate or tax credit in that TED Talk is because we’ve been talking about tax policy as a proxy for the distribution of labor wealth to people who were owners. That has been the conversation all along. What it has morphed into is a tax policy discussion about the redistribution of wealth from renters to owners. It hasn’t changed.
To me, this conversation about whether we should enrich wealthy people more through tax policy, it’s not even a conversation. If we finally have it and say, “Look, yo, let’s be honest about what you’re doing,” then I think we can make strides, but as long as we’re talking in euphemisms and not being direct about it, we’re just gonna continue going on in a circle about it.
We can use those tax tools in different ways. I don’t think the tool itself is evil. I think the people who are doing it are being exploitative and they’re being assholes.
Jefferson Smith: You’re saying you don’t think tax policy is evil, you think the way tax policy is being used.
Rukaiyah Adams: Policy itself is not evil. One way that we could solve some of these problems is using tax credits in a different way, to drive different social outcomes. Sweden’s Minister of Finance has a tax credit to solve the pay disparity issue for women. Women in certain industries where there’s demonstrated inequities in pay have that problem solved through the tax credit system. The tools are not the problem. It’s the people we elect who use them.
Jefferson Smith: What inspires you most about your current gig?
Rukaiyah Adams: I love being Robin Hood in a sense, because I can see how the money that we earn in the capital markets really benefit the community. There have been buildings that are built. There are after-school programs. We clean up rivers. It’s really tangible. It takes the work from being abstract to being physical and visceral. I really love the town square aspect of investing money for people that I know and are in my community. I think the growing pain in Portland right now isn’t the tremendous change. I actually think it’s the change in that town square effect that you talked about, being able to see your neighbors and know who they are. I think what we’re feeling disoriented about is that the city might be growing so fast that we actually don’t know our neighbors.
Jefferson Smith: What’s the hardest part?
Rukaiyah Adams: Being honest. That real estate conversation that we mentioned earlier about making money on the one hand on distressed mortgages and on the other hand trying to say with integrity that we want to help solve some of the problems we’re creating, that’s the hardest part. There’s no part of investing that is benevolent or purely clean. You’re touching a system that can be exploitative by definition. That’s the hardest part is being honest. The only way that I can approach this with integrity is to tell people what I know.
Jefferson Smith: What would I have asked you that I didn’t?
Rukaiyah Adams: Memories about Portland, specific places. This is my hometown. I have a lot of good memories about Portland.
Jefferson Smith: What’s a Thanksgiving memory?
Rukaiyah Adams: A few years ago, we don’t have dogs in our family, but we had a friend visiting for Thanksgiving. We had a heated political debate as my mom was letting the turkey cool. She opened the oven and pulled out a rack to let the turkey cool down. The family was distracted and had this debate about politics. I can’t remember what it was. We turned our back on the dog and the turkey, and we turned back around and the dog had eaten the turkey, had taken it out of the oven and was going to town on the turkey on the floor. It was just a hilarious moment that we were entrenched in some debate or conflict, and to turn around and see that our beautiful holiday turkey had been just totally jacked up.
Jefferson Smith: What are doing for Thanksgiving tomorrow?
Rukaiyah Adams: I’m hosting my family at home.
Jefferson Smith: I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving.
Rukaiyah Adams: I hope you do too. Happy National Native American Heritage Month.
Jefferson Smith: Rukaiyah Adams, most interesting person in Portland. Thanks for being with us.
Rukaiyah Adams: Thank you.