Damien Pitts, in his UO campus office, says his childhood in the Deep South and experience traveling the globe while serving in the U.S. Army has helped him appreciate diverse cultures. BRADLEY COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO
Editor’s Note: This profile of Springfield City Councilor Damien Pitts was written by freelance journalist and author Catherine Russell for The Chronicle. It’s part of our paper’s commitment to covering local politics in a non-partisan way, giving readers insight into candidates and elected officials in their own words. – Erin Tierney
When you sit down to talk with Damien Pitts, the newest member of the Springfield City Council, probably the first thing you’ll notice is that his is a big presence coupled with a remarkably gentle voice and manner, all wrapped around a mischievous sense of humor. You also notice pretty quickly that his focus tends to be on other people, and not on himself, even when he’s the one sitting for an interview.
As for most of us, the strictures of the pandemic have been tough for Pitts. “I’m really extroverted, so I miss people,” he says. “There were students that I met this year that I just recently learned what their faces look like!” Those are students at the University of Oregon, where Pitts has served as Academic Adviser and Diversity Initiatives Specialist since his appointment in late 2016.
“I miss ironing my clothes,” Pitts continues, musing about how the pandemic has changed so many habits. “I never wore jeans in high school. I didn’t wear jeans when I was in college. But now it’s like jeans, polo shirt. I’m good to go.” All of which sits unevenly on his background in business development and leadership, and it rankles the part of him that spent 10 years in the U.S. Army, where uniforms are pressed, boots are polished, every ‘T’ is crossed, every ‘I’ is dotted.
Pandemic or not, Pitts is the sort of person who thrives on creating the connective tissue between people, helping build networks and make things happen. He is always looking for ways to contribute, what he can learn, and what kind of progress he can foster. The Army afforded him the chance to learn Korean and even a bit of Arabic, and it allowed him to cultivate a global perspective on life. He’s served on the battlefield and in the classroom. With a master’s in Sociology, he notices the differences between people, and he sees the ways we are all the same – and he delights in both perspectives. It’s notable, too, that he’s the youngest member on the Council and the one whose recent roots are the farthest away from Springfield. He sees almost any glass as half full. He’s deeply professional in his manner but informal with people, and he feels odd being called “Mr. Pitts.” That’s how he is.
Oh, and spoiler alert: Damien Pitts is Black.
Should that matter, race or skin color? No. But in this case, because Pitts is only the second Black person to ever serve on the Springfield City Council, it’s a demographic reality.
In this one respect, Pitts follows Jesse Maine, who served on the City Council in the 1990s. “You can’t find anything about him. Nothing,” Pitts says. “But to me that’s history. You always pay homage to those who came before, but I couldn’t do that because he passed away in the ’90s. But I wish he could see the standard that he set. People really loved him, and the fact that he did this in the 1990s … a lot of people don’t understand how big of a deal that was. And granted, it shouldn’t be a big deal, but the fact that it took this long for somebody to feel comfortable enough to even be in these shoes …”
We are where we come from
Back to our current newest Council member …
Damien Pitts was born in New York state, but when his parents divorced, his mother moved him and his brother back to her hometown of Memphis, Tenn. “I’m a Southerner through and through,” he says. As testament, he still carries a slight, soft twang in his speech.
That divorce came early in his life, and Damien says he doesn’t remember his parents being together, but he doesn’t see that as a negative. He’d be with his dad, who traveled a lot in his work in retail management, every Christmas and summer. “Some people might see me like, ‘Oh, parents are divorced, you poor kid,’” he says, “but I thought it was kind of cool.” Damien liked tramping off to be with his dad. “I always felt like my mom deserved a break, you know,” he adds with a smile.
So, like so many ordinary American kids, Pitts was a child of neither privilege nor poverty. Somewhere in the Great American Middle. His mom was a social worker, no more lucrative a profession then than now. “My mom knew how to save. I remember waking up on Sunday and watching TV and cutting out coupons.” He admits his scissor skills left something to be desired, but it was just all part of his life growing up. “I definitely think I was middle class,” he adds, “and if there was any struggle, I really didn’t see it.”
Pitts grew up in the still deeply segregated South, with his mom from Memphis and his dad originally from Columbus, Ga. His was a world that was reversed in its lack of diversity from how Springfield or many other American towns and cities were at the time, and even now. “Everybody in my neighborhood was Black,” he laughs. “We had a couple of white teachers, but that was it. I didn’t have any friends who weren’t Black growing up. And even though we had a very strong culture in Memphis – which I love and appreciate to this day – it wasn’t very diverse. It’s gotten better. But growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, diversity didn’t exist.”
Family was important in his world, family in the broadest sense of the word, including relatives one step away and neighbors who paid watchful attention to other peoples’ kids. Pitts credits this upbringing for any upsides to his character, saying that he was “surrounded by amazing Black women and men who lifted me, but who would also put me in my place really quickly. You know, I never felt ‘less than,’” he continues. “Even my white teachers in K-12 never treated us like that – ever. So, I can’t even relate to somebody thinking less of you because you’re Black.”
Friends and family. “They definitely shaped me and kept me fairly humble,” he says. “I have a tendency, no matter where I move: I’m not going to know anybody when I get there. But when I leave, I know everybody. I always want to bring people together.” And a lot of that, for Pitts, revolves around food and music. “I listen to music all the time,” he says. “And I love to cook.”
“I had everything I needed and a lot of stuff I wanted growing up,” he continues. “I learned to be somewhat independent when I was young. There was a lot of love there, but you had to be tough. I mean, could things have been better? Everything should have been way worse. But I don’t lose much sleep over that because I feel that no matter what, I’m going to move forward and want to be successful in some way. I’m going to make my parents, and the world, and those who love me proud.”
Go somewhere, young man
But his childhood wasn’t an American idyll. “I didn’t grow up in the ’hood or anything like that,” Pitts says, “but it was an urban area where you didn’t have fields to run in or play.” That, he believes, was a factor in his wanting to be in the Boy Scouts, like his brother. Plus, his mom was a Scout leader. “I love camping,” Pitts says – even though it presents challenges, because he admits to hating frogs and being afraid of mice.
Again, though, even in Scouts, Pitts’ world remained mostly monochromatic. “We had an all-Black troop at one of the largest Black churches in Memphis,” he says. “Nobody was blatant racist, but it was strange to see an all-Black troop, and so we thought that we had to be better, we had to outshine.”
Scouting offered a structure that appealed to Pitts, with weekly meetings and so much to learn, starting with leadership skills, and he rose to Eagle Scout at 16. “I think that’s part of what led me to the Army,” he says.
“My mom had a picture of me at my Eagle Scout ceremony at her office,” he remembers. It happened that Army recruiters visited her office one day to talk to another staffer, and they saw the photo of Damien in Scout regalia. The recruiters suggested that Pitts might want to consider joining the Army when he graduated. Both his parents were college educated, and even though they didn’t talk much about their college years, Pitts says, it was always assumed that both sons would pursue higher education. Perhaps that’s why his mother’s advice at the suggestion of military service was circumspect: “Be respectful and keep your options open.”
“I was always fascinated by other cultures,” Pitts admits to having that “bug,” that drive to learn more about the world. That didn’t make the whole decision, but Pitts knows it was part of it. “I like culture and history and food,” and at that point in his life he thought he might want to be a history teacher. So, while applying to and being accepted by colleges, he went through maps of the world and decided to take a chance.
“I was like: I need to go into the army. I need to experience the rest of the world,” he remembers.
It turned out that upbringing and education had conferred another gift on Damien Pitts. His language skills were at the top of the charts, and when he sat for the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), he aced it. DLAB doesn’t let you choose; it picks the language track the learner will travel. “I scored high enough to be able to get one of the four hardest languages, which are Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. I had no idea what language I was going to get when I left basic training.”
When he decided to enlist, Pitts says, “I thought I was going to learn Spanish and jump out of planes and stuff, but nope, that didn’t happen.” The Army decided he would learn Korean and go into intelligence.
For all his mature, outward thinking, at this point, Pitts says he was still pretty much just a Black kid fresh from Memphis. So, Korea? “I knew we’d had a war there. And I remembered watching the Olympics there on TV when I was eight.” That was about it.
More than anything, the Army presented challenges to this self-aware young man who had put off college to experience the world. Learning Korean language and culture was just the first blast of it. Next came deployments to Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
“The moment that I realized that I can pretty much do whatever I need to as a leader was in April 2004 when I landed in Afghanistan,” Pitts recounts. “My commander said, ‘Welcome to Afghanistan, Pitts,’ you’re going to be supporting this unit. You get 24 hours to find them. Good luck and congrats.”
Pitts had to prove himself to himself in that heartbeat, and he did. “That’s when I realized that if I have a task and somebody trusts me enough, I’m going to make it happen.”
Pitts specialized in military intelligence (human and tactical), and terrorism, specifically terrorism as a social movement, so he was in the thick of it during what we now think of as America’s “longest war.” But his work in the Army brought him in close contact with the Afghanis, and he developed a deep respect for the people and their culture. “We can talk about social justice and all that, but just imagine the stuff that some of these people were going through,” he says with genuine awe. He quickly came to admire the resilience of the Afghan people and was struck by the fact that the Afghans were no more monotone than any other culture. “They are far more diverse than we think,” he says.
Pitts really remembers the human details, recounting the story of one little boy he met there. “The kids there? A lot of people said they were bad, but I thought they were inquisitive, and they were funny. I mean, genuinely kids.” Among other things, speaking in Pashto, the children would often ask the soldiers for pens. “There was one little kid who was kind of off by himself,” Pitts remembers. “So, I walked over to him and greeted him and then we just started talking. I pointed at myself and told him my name, and he told me his name.” Pitts handed him the pen and paper. “And then I wrote my name in English, and he wrote it.” The boy was delighted with the simple gift of something to write with. “It just blew my mind, you know … most of us are worried about the next iPhone or whatever, and here’s this kid being happy with just writing. It was just amazing. He was inquisitive, he was smart, but who knows? Will he ever get an opportunity?”
This is just one moment in a lifetime, but Pitts believes it’s times like these that have allowed him to understand things from various cultural angles, and – most important – to remain open to empathy.
June of 2008 meant the end of the military for Damien Pitts, though not the end of service. College was next, but he was entering that world as a grown man, not fresh-scrubbed from high school, so his was not the typical college experience.
“I was trying to readjust to being a civilian, but then kind of holding on to that military piece just a little bit.” Still, three years later, he had his bachelor’s in Global Studies from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and in 2015, he upped the game with that master’s in Sociology. Then he was off to Salt Lake City, Utah, that same year for a position teaching as an adjunct while working as an academic career coach. Next up, Oregon.
Pitts says that the University of Oregon kind of picked him. “I saw this position that would allow me to do diversity-related work and allow me to teach and advise.” He didn’t want to become a one-trick pony professionally, and though he had other interviews and offers, UO was the right fit for him professionally.
Personally and culturally? That’s another matter.
He chose to live in Springfield, and Pitts says his neighbors know him there because he’s “the only Black person around,” but there’s not much interaction. He laughs – and admits he shouldn’t – when he recounts recently meeting a new neighbor and her dog, and then her husband, and they ended up just chatting. “It’s weird. To me that small gesture made me feel a lot more comfortable in my own neighborhood. And so, I ran into my apartment, I was like, ‘Hey, I got something for you.’” They were new to the building, he’d found out, so he offered them a bottle of spirits as a welcome gift. “That’s where I am, where I’m from, you know, we share. And if you show me just a pinch of kindness, I will do anything for you.”
Has this sense of distance been typical for Pitts as he’s navigated his years in Oregon? Unfortunately, yes. He finds people here aren’t connected or friendly, the way they are in other parts of the country. “I mean, I’m surprised when I get good service at a restaurant,” he says. “It literally changes my mood when people actually speak to me or just if we make eye contact. Not when I go to Memphis.” There, he says, people talk to one another, whether longtime friends or absolute strangers. “And it’s just the greatest thing.” He misses that.
His world at UO has been more welcoming. While, he says, some students at first thought he was mean, probably in part due to his rather direct manner of speaking, they soon learned otherwise. They realized, he says, “that, man, this dude actually really does care.”
Pitts is famous for a well-stocked and carefully tended basket of candy in his office. “I’m proud of this candy basket,” he says. “I have three types of Snickers, three or four types of M&Ms … I mix it up. I also have a snack drawer with little bags of Cheez-Its, little cookies. Students love it, and even my coworkers.” They may hate him sometimes, he laughs, but they love the snacks. He knows the gesture is what counts. But people can be picky. He jokes that he almost got himself fired one day because one of the deans was disappointed to find – egad! – the wrong kind of Twix in the basket. She forgave him, though.
So, with a life already lived in multiple states and several different countries, with numerous moves behind him and probably more yet ahead, the team in his office at UO is what’s kept Pitts in Oregon. “They’re the reason I’m still here,” he says.
Pitts has developed a reputation for being direct, both at UO and on the Springfield City Council. He’s very much of the “put up or shut up” school of thought and makes no apologies. It’s not arrogance, you soon realize, but is perhaps a reflection of the fact that he’s essentially very straightforward. “I’m not putting on a hard front. This is just me. I operate in silence a lot,” he continues “which, being on Council, that doesn’t always fit because you have to let people know what you’re going to do.”
He knows that some people assume he has an angry streak. Not so. “I’m not an angry person,” but, he explains, “I’m not an emotional person either. I am really silly, and so I’m always cracking jokes and stuff, and so that’s how I show my emotion.” Pitts believes that when people come to know him and what he’s trying to do, they’ll get it, get him. A lot of that directness, he says, comes from his time in the Army.
“In the Army,” Pitts says, “we were taught if you have an issue with something, you find a solution. What good is me whining about something if I’m not going to step up and try to actively support change?” He doesn’t think of that effort as his alone but thinks of himself as part of a shared energy. “So, yeah, put up or shut up.”
Pitts knows he’s a different face on the Council. But it’s arguable that what makes him different isn’t so much race or skin color, but that he is younger and from away. Really, he first thought it was his friend who should run, but his friend wasn’t in the right Ward, so in the spirit of “put up or shut up,” Pitts stepped up. He filled out the election paperwork, thinking, “Man, this application is kind of short,” so he filled in around the edges, talking about identity, his time in the military, about “being an educator and how that puts [him] in a position to navigate various spaces.”
That’s his focus: other people and other spaces. “How do we elevate those other voices that aren’t just like me?” Some people have reached out in gratitude, he says, telling him that they “appreciate you making yourself vulnerable” by speaking up. More recently, he’s been saying that he wants the Council itself to seek ways to attract and include different types of people. It’s too “homogenous,” he believes – and Pitts being Pitts, he’ll keep saying that until it changes. He knows not everyone will be happy about any noise he makes.
He also knows that trust will take time. “I don’t expect anybody to trust me right off the bat. They don’t know me, you know, and some people will never know me,” he says. “But what they can trust is that I’m not out for self, even if I seem arrogant or confident or whatever, I don’t think anybody can say that I’m all about me. You’ll never hear anybody say that.”
Pitts hopes – believes – he got the position on Council for reasons that go beyond race. “I do think that I bring a unique experience because I’ve lived so many different places, my educational background, and just the way that I think.” But he worries that with people who have been on the Council for years and years and years, change is tough.
“I wish there were more ways I could bring other people up, you know, so it’s more about other people. How can we continue to support and uplift and – especially some of our younger people – how do we provide them with opportunities? How do we give them exposure?”
Culture and intelligence
Blame it on the sociology majors, but Pitts understands that people react in situations based on their life experiences. It’s a given. And he knows that “people love you until you piss them off, and then they revert back to their privilege and where they come from.”
“I don’t always make the assumption when somebody is Black that I’m going to relate to them,” Pitts says. “People try to create parallels and they try to relate, but you don’t have to relate to everything. You don’t have to understand what everybody’s going through sometimes. Just listen. And I think that doesn’t happen nearly enough here in Lane County.”
What he means is to listen and try to understand – but don’t co-opt. Don’t get him started on “allyship.”
“That’s not a word I use. I don’t like it. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, and I don’t know what it’s like to be a whole lot of things. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen and say, ‘Hey, OK, that’s your experience, thanks for sharing with me.’”
He often looks at it more simply: “I don’t feel like you can be an ally to somebody that you don’t know.” The solution there, then, is, of course, to get to know people.
“I’m definitely more than my skin tone, and I’m very proud (to be Black). I think people should be proud to be whoever they are,” he says, but not just because they have a sign in their yard.
How do we create a space where people aren’t always looking to be offended by something, or where people aren’t always on the attack? How do we get comfortable with the gray areas? How do we stand back enough to, just maybe, apologize to one another occasionally? How can we accept the fact that we all sometimes make mistakes? These are among the many questions that Pitts carries with him into Council meetings, and in life.
Politically, he calls himself a “left-leaning moderate,” and he believes that “the national government should set the standard, but the states should have some flexibility. But when it comes to human rights, it’s universal.”
“We need to be able to understand and learn about each others’ histories, and that often doesn’t happen,” he says. “I recall various points of my life growing up, I was Black, but different people have exposed me to their identities, and that completely changed the planet. It changed my mind, opened my mind to something I would have never experienced. Yes.”
“But I mean, the fact that we even have to say, ‘both sides’ is itself a problem,” he continues. “The fact that we are so far gone that we have two political parties that have emerged and nothing in between even has a chance … There’s a lot of divisiveness and it’s like you’re one way or the other, you can’t be in the middle.”
He worries that some of it is just about how we talk to one another. “I also noticed people use words that create divisiveness. You know, they say ‘defund’ versus ‘reallocate,’” he says. “They say ‘critical race theory’ versus ‘talking about race critically.’ And so, no side wants to drop the harsh words to be able to come in the middle. I’ve never seen a place so polarized in my life.”
Is that the place or is it this time in history? “No, I think it’s the place,” Pitts says.
So, what does Damien Pitts want for his adopted hometown of Springfield? One thing is a stronger connection with UO. “I’m working with the business clubs to see how we can create a space where these students understand that civic engagement will actually make them better business professionals,” he says. That’s “especially with Springfield, because it’s not easy-access, and a lot of students are like, ‘Oh, you don’t go to Springfield.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, why, what’s so different?’”
He also has concrete goals, literally concrete. Pitts has been championing the idea of putting grills and event pavilions in Springfield-area parks. He believes doing so would not only help create community but create jobs and a revenue stream for Willamalane by way of rental fees.
“We could do pancake breakfasts, fundraisers for the Scouts,” he says. Family reunions, potlucks, a chance for people to get outdoors. “One thing that I jokingly suggested,” he continues, “was having a bake-off between the councilors and the mayor, or having us challenge Eugene City Council.” With his love of food and skills in the kitchen, Pitts might have an advantage here.
Pitts comes from a background where stuff like this happens organically, and it would be odd if it weren’t part of community life. “’I’m going to the park,” he says “‘You down?’ ‘Yeah!’” Granted, he knows this all requires planning, but the infrastructure needs to be there in order to allow the inclination, and that’s the idea behind the grills and pavilions: If you build them, people will come.
Less concrete matters: “I also need to seek out other people to be able to show up, put them in a position to share their story or to get to know other people,” he says. “I mean, that’s the thing, but it’s really hard here.”
He’d also like to see a more active engagement with the “sister cities” programs. Yes, Springfield has one, but the connection has gone so stale that Pitts – who sits on Council – couldn’t name it. No fault of his, it’s tough to find. Fairfield, California, has Niraskai, Japan. Clearwater, Florida, also has a connection to the East, to Nagano, Japan. All of this info is proudly part of each city’s website. One search of Eugene’s website turns up background on four sisterhoods, in Russia, South Korea, Japan, and Nepal. Springfield? Zip. That’s an unscientific search, of course, but Eisenhower’s 1950s-era program might not be such a bad idea these days, some small panacea to the polarized world in which we find ourselves. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for Springfield to take another look at its forgotten sister, in an effort to expand its own cultural intelligence.
“There are a lot of elements of culture that no longer exist here,” Pitts says. He notes that there used to be a principal lodge of an organization to which Pitts has long belonged, the Prince Hall Freemasons. No longer. “That’s serious history,” he says, noting that with culture and diversity, “sometimes it’s not about creating something new; it’s about bringing back what used to exist, or figuring out why something doesn’t exist.”
Don’t call him Mr. Pitts
“I have no desire to climb the political ladder,” Pitts says. “I don’t have the power to do big things.” But the man does want to make a difference.
“Whenever you are in a place, you always leave it better than when you first got there,” he says. That’s the plan, anyway.
Pitts talks about a conversation he had with a former advisee at UO, now graduated. She’s involved in cultural programming for Willamalane. “We need to talk,” he says he told her. “’Let’s figure some stuff out, you know, while I’m here.’” Pitts wants to be able to do something that will outlive his time on the Council and his time in Oregon. “I believe in passing the torch,” he says, but he knows it has to be sustainable. Someone has to be there to take up that torch.
“I’m not trying to be revolutionary, you know? And I don’t care if people know my name or not,” he says. “But while I’m here, while I’m alive and well, I’m going to support as many people as I can and never expect credit – ever. I’m not doing this to pad my resume.
“Like, that’s all I want. Pay it forward.”
Damien Pitts thinks about the Army again, that formative time in his life, where you’re sir or ma’am because everyone knows who’s who. But, he says, “I work for a living … I want people to feel that they can be themselves around me, be their authentic selves, and that even if we disagree on something, I’m not going to hate you.” He wants to be thought of as being himself, “100% of the time,” and that he operates without anger and based on experience. He says he’s always willing to listen.
It feels weird, he says, “when students call me Mr. Pitts, but I mean, I’m 40, so I guess I should get used to it.” Thinking it through, he says, “I’m just a Black kid from Memphis, and that’s enough. And I’m happy to be here,” he says. “I still want to be that person that when you see me on the street, you know, I’ll treat you as my equal, no matter what, no matter who you are.”
So, call him Damien. Just skip the frogs and mice. Oh, and please be specific in your requests for Twix bars, and we’ll probably all get along just fine.