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O’Nesha Cochran-Dumas
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 05 January 2024

In late 2018, Cochran-Dumas was named program manager of Diane Wade House, an Afro-centric women’s transition home in Gresham. Widely praised for her leadership skills, Cochran-Dumas was often the public face of the ambitious, culturally responsive program. Her sudden dismissal only a month after the house opened shocked her and many in the recovery community. The abrupt termination prompted Cochran-Dumas to sue the nonprofit running the program, Bridges to Change, which settled with Cochran-Dumas and two other employees in 2021 for an undisclosed amount.

Cochran-Dumas told The Skanner that after leaving Diane Wade House, she was hired as a mutual aid coordinator for the nonprofit Brown Hope. A year later she moved into the position of community liaison for The Miracles Club, a Black peer-led recovery center specifically serving BIPOC individuals struggling with addiction. Now nearing its 30th year of operation, the nonprofit  provides harm reduction and addiction recovery services, and has expanded its offerings since receiving $2.6 million of an allotted $3.2 million of Measure 110 funding. Cochran-Dumas now serves as senior director of program development and outreach, supporting the organization as it became certified through the Oregon Health Authority to provide certified recovery mentor (CRM) training, and as Miracles extended its hours to 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

The Skanner sat down to speak with Cochran-Dumas about her work and how Measure 110 has changed addiction services in Oregon for the better. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Skanner: What was your experience with The Miracles Club when you accepted the position of community liaison?

Cochran-Dumas: In 2011, when I first got clean, I came to Miracles broken, with nothing. Everything I owned was in a Black garbage back at my now- mother-in-law’s house, and when she got up at 7 a.m. to go to work, I had to leave her house and I had to catch the bus all the way out to 162nd to my wife’s friend, who had an apartment where she didn’t have to pay a water bill, take a shower there, catch the bus all the way back up to Northeast Portland to The Miracles Club, and I would sit up here all day, and I would let these people tell me what I needed to do to get off of drugs, get a job, pay a bill, get a house, and walk me through my whole process of lived skills that I needed, life skills. I was a street kid at 13, I lived my whole life bouncing from homelessness, couch-surfing, and then when I wasn’t couch-surfing I was in prison. I went to prison three different times. From the age of 13 to 35, I was in prison or I was houseless on the street. So I had no life skills. 

But the people at The Miracles Club had experienced those things, and they made it to other levels in life.

And they showed me, they talked to me in a language I could understand, they held my hand. And today I hold two degrees of my own – I got my associates in alcohol and drug addiction at PCC and my BSW from Portland State University as a licensed social worker. I was the first peer mentor at OHSU. There was no way I could’ve achieved these types of things without these women in recovery who have been there, done that, and shown me how to.

Couldn’t no doctor show me; couldn’t no lawyer. Couldn’t no politician. Couldn’t no policy, and all the people that want to repeal and change Measure 110 – they couldn’t have taught me how to get clean and sober and get my life together. 

The Skanner: How has Measure 110 funding and implementation changed the work you do?

Cochran-Dumas: It definitely has changed the work that collectively a lot of community-based organizations are able to operate. I’m also the tri chair on the Measure 110 Oversight and Accountability Council (OAC), and I’ve been a part of that council for about two years. So we got to read the grants and make the decision on who would receive the money.

About a year later I ended up working at Miracles, and Miracles was one of the recipients, and I got to see how their funding has immensely grown the services that they’re already offering. They were already doing culturally specific peer support and groundbreaking work in the community, so what the Measure 110 dollars did was start to multiply those services. There was one peer mentor that was here, an executive director and operations manager, and they were all probably doing peer work, even though that was outside of their scope, because they were in leadership positions but they had to all come together and offer the peer services. But since the Measure 110 dollars have been implemented, they’ve been able to hire a network of peers who are able to work three different shifts – the a.m., the swing and the night shift; we’ve been able to open up a stabilization house, run a women’s house and a men’s transitional home that offers housing to nine different people who are in different stages of their recovery process.

I think that without the Measure 110 dollars, we probably wouldn’t have been able to grow as quickly as we have over the last year, and a lot of people were concerned about the amount of money that was given out – would we be able to utilize it? But what they didn’t anticipate was the need is so great. Of course we’re able to utilize the money and hire a peer workforce, which is why we were OHA-certified to be CRM trainers as well. We knew not only did we need to serve those most impacted by drugs, but we needed to train and double the workforce so we can meet the need. 

The Skanner: Do you think Measure 110 is serving people who might not otherwise have ever sought help for addiction?

Cochran-Dumas: I definitely think that when you offer the service and the service is available, it’s going to organically uptake the increase in service.

The drug decriminalization…the police officers were kind of forced into this. They weren’t really onboarded on it, and they didn’t really know how to operate. (There was an attitude of) ‘I don’t know how to play this game, so I’m just not going to play.’ They turned a blind eye to a lot of behavior that was going on that they still could’ve arrested people for. Decriminalization doesn’t mean you don’t arrest people for actively using in public. But there’s certain ways that they interpreted the law that made them have a hands-off approach, and I think that was deliberately done, like ‘ok, they don’t need the police, let’s show them what it looks like when the police have a hands-off approach.”

But it should’ve been them picking those people up who are publicly using small amounts of drugs and bringing them to The Miracles Club, and to other organizations.

To not criminalize them in that moment, but to say, hey man, you can’t be out here doing this.

I can pick you up and take you to Miracles, or I can pick you up and take you to jail. You have a choice.

I think had they had that approach, then the cleanup would be a lot swifter. I don’t think it was met with that, okay great, here’s a program we can be a part of, let’s enhance it and make it better. I think the approach was, oh, this is some b.s., I’m not going to be a part of it, I’m going to let them see how well they can do without our participation.

There’s this thinking that a lot of White people have, that there is an echelon of people that should be making the decisions – there’s the kings and the queens, and the people that counsel the kings and the queens. And the people should not have a part of the decision-making. But culturally specific people – most indigenous and most Black people, we come from a different lens. We come from a round table order, and that means that even those with no power should have a buy-in or a say in how things are run.

And that is our whole philosophy with the OAC council. We have people on the OAC council who are currently using drugs right now but are on medicated assisted treatment.

Why does their voice matter? Because they lived through this and they can tell you best how to fit their needs.

And then you’ve got people that have been to prison, who have been on drugs but got off of drugs. I want to hear how you got off drugs. I want to hear how you did 15 years in prison, got out, and changed your life.

The Skanner: What is your response to critics who call for the repeal of Measure 110?

Cochran-Dumas: I think it goes without saying, people are always willing to criticize those with lived experience. You’re talking about an oversight and accountability council that is made up of people with lived experience, and compare that to who’s been making decisions for the last 50 or 75 years in the behavioral health network systems: It’s been professional people without that experience trying to make decisions for those who are closest to the problem.

So you get a group of people with lived experience who changed their lives, they’re now working professionals and they’re offering some solutions that really work. And of course they’re going to be open to criticism, because that’s new, right? The power and control usually goes to people who are professionals, never had a drug problem, never had a criminal record, and they think they know what’s best for those who are on drugs and got criminal records.

These new drugs, they’re affecting rich White people’s families. So some rich White people, and some people with power and influence, said let’s try something different. And some other people who are not used to that type of change, to give somebody with lived experience a position in power to make decisions on this level? Of course it’s going to be criticized.

But compare that to how many years and decades and centuries we’ve been doing it the old way, and people are dying. And I really think we should look at how many people are getting services from each network within Oregon, and if we count up all those counties that receive money from Measure 110, how many people access treatment? How many people access detox? How many people access peer recovery services?

How many people access some amount of clean time because they got services from ballot Measure 110? I know thousands of people in the year we’ve been working with this money have gotten clean time. They’ve gotten 30 days clean, 60 days clean, a year clean. They’ve gotten their kids back, they’ve gotten housing. And that’s only here at Miracles.

We’re currently working on our end-of-year report and those numbers will be public very soon, in the next week or so. That’s going to share all of the things that we’ve accomplished with this money, and we’re only one organization. We are the largest African American organization in Oregon, but that’s just us. There are 233 organizations that receive money from Measure 110 that are doing work very similar to ours, and if you think about that on a macro level, none of those services were available 18 months ago. And if you take that away, then how much damage are you doing to our community?

I love that quote by Glenn E. Martin – those that are closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but the furthest away from the resources. That’s how it’s always been, and that doesn’t make sense. If you want to teach a new mom how to raise kids, who should you call on? Men? Or do you want to call on a mom that’s already raised kids and got grandkids now.

That’s what we are: We are the grandparents of surviving drugs, surviving the streets, surviving reentry from prison. We’re trying to teach other people how to do it, and we’re trying to educate professionals that are furthest from that experience how to implement the best service requirements for receiving care. We’re trying to implement trauma-informed care. 

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