Q&A with our outstanding and outgoing SNA President Ash Hester
As 2020 in Portland began to take shape, with a pandemic just beginning and a city righteously upset with systemic racism, Ash Hester wanted to make a positive difference. But how? She decided to direct her energies about as local as you can get—into the Neighborhood Association.
“I attended a couple anti-racism marches, and while the impact was incredible, I wanted to serve in a role to create justice and equity through other avenues,” Ash told me on a chilly but sunny Sunday morning in early March over breakfast at Cricket Cafe (3159 SE Belmont St.).
Originally from Arizona, Ash moved to Portland in 2016. With a background in business development, operational processes, and strategy-building, she’s also worked in fashion and at creative agencies. When she moved to the Sunnyside neighborhood she became an avid reader of the neighborhood newsletter. Around the time of the anti-racism marches she read that elections were coming up. “So I reached out to the association and went on a walk with our previous Board President, Matt Lembo,” Ash says. Inspired by what he told her, she showed up the next day at the Sunnyside elections, gave a speech, and got voted in.
Two years later, Ash is not only President of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, she is a board member and Co-Chair for SE Uplift. To continue putting in effort when the going gets tough requires a deep level of commitment. In her words, “I’m working hard for equity and inclusion, for all within Portland, and applying my professional skill set to help restore broken systems and provide lasting solutions that benefit the community at large.”
Nate: This work—which really is politics on the most local level—is really hard. How do you keep the peace?
Ash: Everyone is entitled to their own personal experience. It’s about trying to find bipartisan neutrality and letting people know that we hear them, while also making it clear what the organization—what our neighborhood and neighbors—need. There will be contention about certain issues, but it is essential to create solutions that will help everyone out in the long run.
Nate: A lot of people who get involved for the same reasons you do give up when they experience just how challenging and toxic this work can be.
Ash: That’s true, it can be a rotating door. Progress can be stagnant, but really good work is happening and we don’t celebrate that, and the people doing the good work, nearly enough. We could be doing even more if we focus on solutions for our communities instead of infighting.
Nate: How have you kept at it while remaining so positive?
Ash: I grabbed a virtual coffee with our State Representative Rob Nosse in 2020 and he said, “Look, if you want to get involved you need to find your passion, because you’re going to get burnt out and you’ll need to keep going. You need to narrow in on your thing. You can’t be everything for everyone—all things to all causes.”
Nate: Do you rent or own?
Ash: I rent off 31st and Yahmill, but I’m looking to buy. Sadly, it won’t be in Sunnyside since the market is very high for a first-time homeowner.
Nate: What has brought you the most joy during your tenure on the SNA Board?
Ash: The opportunity to connect with people—to literally know my neighbors. I know that’s a mentality of the past, like the 50s, but we often live in such an isolated bubble. But now I know everyone on my block and that’s expanded across all of Sunnyside.
Nate: I love that.
Ash: Yeah, I think it’s important to know your community. I will always get involved in my Neighborhood Association so that I can meet my community. Of course there’s other rewarding things that have brought me joy: doing awesome things that are positively impacting lives is icing on the cake. Not only do I get to make new friends but I get to help improve people’s lives.
Nate: What do you love most about Sunnyside?
Ash: The people that care and show up and are selflessly doing the work. Just the dedication of folks like Hannah Wallace and all she does (including running the Sunnyside Shower Program), Vincent Dawans and his litter pick-up, coordinating with the Business Associations, and all the work he and others do to keep our neighborhood clean and safe. That’s what I love most about Sunnyside—people show up, caring, and doing the work.
Nate: Where’s your go-to restaurant?
Ash: I dig the Gold Dust Meridian (3267 SE Hawthorne Blvd). It’s got chill vibes. I’m also a fan of Ardor Natural Wines (4243 SE Belmont St #400). I’m a wine club member there. Their new wine bar, Nil, is a nice addition to the neighborhood.
Nate: As your time on the Board comes to an end, what do you hope continues in the organization and neighborhood that you’ve been such a big part of?
Ash: That the momentum of impactful work continues. I can totally see myself popping into a Thursday night meeting and being there to hang out and brainstorm ideas.
Nate: You are such a nerd.
Ash: I care about these people. While I might not be picking up trash around the neighborhood or volunteering for a shower shift, it’s still my community wherever I end up.
Nate: What’s one thing you’d like to see improved in the Sunnyside neighborhood?
Ash: I’m excited to see more people get involved in this organization. There’s a low barrier to getting involved and it provides such rich substance. We’re starting to see more people reaching out and popping into meetings just out of curiosity, and then they come to another meeting. Some of these people don’t even live in the neighborhood but they felt welcomed and say it’s a warm environment. Seeing stuff like that makes me excited that Sunnyside will continue to do capacity-building work, applying a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. I hope that the work we’re doing—advocating for those in need and public safety—grows to become the leadership example for other neighborhoods and the City. This stuff doesn’t just happen—we all have to put in effort and show up for each other.