Alissa Keny-Guyer ’77 is an Oregon state representative and a fervent advocate for those who are underrepresented.
Inspired by her parents, Keny-Guyer took naturally to advocacy and serving others. “My father exposed us to international humanitarian issues as president of Save the Children, and my mother reminded us of social justice issues in our own country through the foundation she directed. I carried this passion to the Current Events Club and other volunteer activities at Hotchkiss.”
After Hotchkiss, Keny-Guyer earned a B.A. in human biology at Stanford. “This major appealed to me as it provided an interdisciplinary approach to understanding humans through a biological and behavioral standpoint, with an emphasis on cultural perspectives and the social determinants of health.”
Keny-Guyer spent more than three years working in Indonesia during and after her Stanford years. “I taught English at an agricultural research station on Java as an undergrad and returned after graduation to work for Oxfam on Timor to improve health, family planning, agriculture, and micro-enterprise.”
Seeking more concrete skills, Keny-Guyer won a scholarship from the East-West Center to earn a master’s in public health in 1985 at the University of Hawaii. “Social workers and health care providers often help people one-on-one, but I wanted to work on ‘systems’ such as education, housing, and employment, to improve the physical and mental wellbeing for populations in need.”
In 1986, Keny-Guyer was hired by Hawaii Community Services Council to coordinate “Help for Nonprofits,” which provided technical assistance to 150 nonprofits. Three years later, she became a consultant for nonprofit and public entities, including the Hawaii Department of Health AIDS Project, the University of Hawaii School of Public Health Master’s Program, and the Hawaii State Legislature Health Committee. “The seed to enter politics was planted in the back of my mind at that point,” she recalls. “We passed a lot of great legislation in the 1989 session, and it was exciting to see the enormous positive impact that can have.”
In 1990, Keny-Guyer and her husband, Neal, moved to California when she became executive director of Volunteers in Asia. Running an international exchange organization and traveling overseas while pregnant or nursing two young sons were manageable due to her organization’s and her husband’s strong support (one of many reasons why she supports strong family leave laws). In 1994, the Keny-Guyers switched roles and moved to Portland, Oregon, when Neal became CEO of Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian organization headquartered there.
For the next 17 years, Keny-Guyer balanced motherhood (adding a third child to the mix) with jobs aimed at improving educational opportunities in her new home state for children at risk. She launched the Saturday Academy outreach initiative, a program aimed at increasing the math and science achievement of students from underrepresented ethnic groups, served as director of the Hanna Andersson Children’s Foundation, consulted for public and private organizations, and managed the governor-designated multi-sector team to rebuild flooded schools in a rural town outside Portland.
In 2011, Keny-Guyer was appointed to the Oregon legislature to represent House District 46, which includes parts of SE and NE Portland. A lifelong Democrat, she worked hard to bring different stakeholders together to pass legislation. In 2012, she earned the nominations of the Democratic, Republican, and Working Family parties, winning her first full term with 97 percent of the vote.
“I represent a very progressive district, and I am proud to be aligned with the people I serve. But it’s essential to work across the aisle. I am currently cosponsoring legislation with a rural Republican to get toxic chemicals out of children’s products. He wants as little regulation as possible to achieve the goal, but we both want children to be safe, so there are areas where we can agree.”
Having worked for years with underrepresented communities, Keny-Guyer has the background to serve her constituency. “My primary goal is to give all kids the right start in life. While emerging research demonstrates the importance of the prenatal and early childhood period, there is limited support for low-income pregnant moms and children from birth to age five. Head Start is a part-time enrichment program accessible to only a small portion of families, and childcare is like private school – it’s great if you can afford it.”
“There are many community health challenges, such as addiction, mental illness, obesity, chronic disease, and access to safe neighborhoods and a clean environment. Getting agreement on how to raise revenue in a fair way to address these issues is tough.”
Despite the challenges, Keny-Guyer is passionate about her job. “I love working with community groups and my constituents, and serving on the House Health Care, Human Services & Housing, and Consumer Protection & Government Efficiency committees. Together we have passed many bills to build healthy communities.”
A number of Keny-Guyer’s bills have become law. They include After-school and Summer Meals (serving low-income kids), Culturally Competent Care (requiring health-related licensing boards to offer cultural-competency continuing education in order to close disparities), Midwifery Licensure (requiring a license to deliver home births), Early Learning Council (expanding prenatal care, home visiting programs, and services for children with disabilities), Foster Youth Bill of Rights (enabling foster youth to know their rights), and Bereavement Leave (amending Oregon’s Family Leave Act to provide two weeks of unpaid leave for the death of a family member).
As for Hotchkiss, “My passion for equality stretches back to my goal as a 14-year-old, wanting to be in the first Hotchkiss year to include girls,” notes Keny-Guyer. “I had heard that some faculty didn’t approve of coeducation, so the feisty part of me wanted that transformation to succeed. I even gave up an opportunity to take a year off to travel around the world with cousins because I wanted to be part of that historical class. Today, Hotchkiss continues to promote solutions to the social issues of our day through its focus on diversity, globalism, and the environment. I am proud that Hotchkiss is marching forward in this direction.”