Mother, daughter reflect on two generations of women’s leadership at PSU

By Sophia Crawford

Hey there. I hope you’re doing well. 
Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Leya Descombes and Rebecca Descombes on their personal experience with PSU’s Center for Women’s Leadership (CWL) and the NEW Leadership Oregon (NLO) program that the center offers. In this article, I cover what NLO looks like, what Rebecca gained from her experience, her influence on her daughter Leya, and how Leya views the CWL. Yaqing Li, our videographer, developed a touching video of the interview available below. Check out this article going more in depth on the center’s history and place in Oregon.

Leya is one of the programming assistants at PSU’s Center for Women’s Leadership where she supports her teammates throughout the office with various projects. She’s a first year student studying Criminology & Criminal Justice (CCJ) with the goal to protect her Native American community and other marginalized groups. 

Rebecca, Leya’s mom, attended the NEW Leadership Oregon (NLO) program at the Center for Women’s Leadership in 2010. She graduated from PSU in 2013 with a Bachelor’s in Political Science, and currently works with the Native community in Oregon to support and connect Indigenous people to crucial resources.

What I learned from our conversation:

The sun streams through the clouds and into PSU’s Urban Center Building (the home of the CWL), landing on both Rebecca’s and Leya’s hands. The light showcased how they each rested one hand on top of the other and I can’t help but notice that not only do they sit alike, but the way they use their hands as they speak are similar. At least, until one of them laughs and you see that Leya’s laugh is more exuberant while Rebecca has a hearty chuckle. 

Rebecca jokes that her daughter is always sending her mail from the center. 

“Yeah,” says Leya, joining in on the laugh. “I always update her on things to make sure she’s still getting stuff from NLO,” Leya says. “I work with previous participants of NLO and people who are connected to the center, so [Rebecca’s name] pops up a lot. Every now and then I’ll be going through a data sheet and I’ll see my mom; it’s like a little reminder of her.”

An Alaska Native, Rebecca found NLO (a CWL program) through a school email when she was dual-enrolled at PCC and PSU. At the last minute, she decided to apply. Rebecca describes NLO as an opportunity “designed for women, particularly young women, wanting to learn about leadership, how to use their voices,” network, “and excel in the adult world whether it’s for work or running for office … There’s so much packed into the six-day program, it’s like a crash course into leadership. I think one of the best things I learned how to do is how to get up and speak in front of people I don’t know.”

Rebecca graduated from PSU in 2013

Another thing that I learned was to be a little bit more assertive … We’ve had women leaders come and give examples of all the things that they’ve learned and done in their life and you’re like ‘Wow, I want to do that.’ But you have to be assertive; you have to have confidence in yourself.

What Leya learned about leadership from Rebecca

Leya emphasizes how the things Rebecca learned have rubbed off on her, such as “being assertive. I’m not very good at it, but [Rebecca] very much encourages me to be assertive even when I don’t think I should or I don’t want to.”

She explains how she initially had trouble exercising her confidence when preparing to testify for an Oregon House Bill in 2021. 

The House Bill 2052 got passed here in Oregon for Indigenous students to be allowed to wear [their own cultural] regalia to graduation. [Previously], you weren’t allowed to do that. You were only allowed to have an Eagle feather attached to your cap, but an Eagle feather is not a representation for a bunch of Indigenous tribes, it doesn’t have as much meaning to some people… I touched on a lot of the stuff that was probably really hard [to hear].” Only allowing an Eagle feather is like “saying to all the Indigenous people that no matter your culture, the feather is supposed to represent you when it’s not always a huge symbol in every culture. So the bill was to finally have Indigenous people wear what was culturally significant to them on a day that is very important because the statistics for Native youth graduating high school and moving on is very low, and the school system is not built for people who are not White.”

Leya dressed in her high school graduation Native regalia

Leya then turns to her mom and says, “You were one of my biggest supporters when I [testified] for that bill, and I was like ‘I don’t think I’m qualified to be speaking about this,’ even though I was and [Rebecca] was like ‘It doesn’t matter. You do it anyway.’ [Rebecca] is very encouraging of being, like, a strong woman leader, because even now it’s hard for women to be leaders. People still get backlash. There’s a reason why we don’t have a lot of women leaders everywhere. It’s mostly male-dominant, [but] she reminds me that it doesn’t matter. That probably rubbed off on me a lot more, because she’s like, ‘You need to be assertive and say what you want to say. You don’t need to think about those others.’ ” 

How the CWL and PSU take action to support diversity

Rebecca says: “What’s really great about PSU in general is that it’s so inclusive. I graduated in 2013 and it’s only gotten better since then. [The Native American Student & Community Center, or NASCC] hosts a bunch of events for Native students and that’s pretty amazing. It has its own space. At NLO… one of our guest speakers was working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the State of Oregon. I thought that was amazing because I think I was the only Native to participate that year, but it was really nice that they included all these women from different backgrounds and cultures to come and speak. That was so important because you want to hear from all the different ethnicities and races. I feel like PSU is just amazing.”

There’s so much packed into the six-day program, it’s like a crash course
into leadership.

It’s necessary for an organization that aims to uplift women of all ethnicities and backgrounds also encourages diversity and supports their employees on the inside. So I asked Leya how she feels about the center’s workplace atmosphere. 

“A lot of my team members are from a lot of different ethnicities and cultures, “ Leya says. “We have a lot of those kinds of conversations at work in our office about all of our cultures, abilities, and mental health. I’m currently working with the CWL on a project that’s super informative on topics that aren’t spoken about a lot and giving space for people to get educated on things that regular schools don’t want to talk about or recognize. I know some of the schools I’ve gone to or heard about from other people don’t touch on things that I hope my meeting will talk about … I think PSU is very good at making everyone feel seen and heard and having people to connect with.” She also emphasizes how the center works hard to make sure it’s a safe space for genderqueer people who identify as genderfluid, nonbinary, trans and all other identities.

Where they’re going from here

“I want to work in the law system,” Leya says about her aspirations. “A lot of the things that happened in my life … were unjust and not okay, but it’s just something you deal with, with people who are uneducated and have opinions about people of color… I want to advocate for the people experiencing the things that I did, and make it [so that others] don’t have to experience what I did. 

Rebecca reflects on her future and says, “Oh I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I still have a lot to learn. I’ve been through a lot of leadership programs to build my skills to be able to teach people, and I think that’s what I’m really good at … I can see myself teaching and organizing, putting together a program for the Native American Alaskan Native communities to become leaders in their own communities. There’s a program that I really love working with called the Oregon Lead and it does exactly what the Center for Women’s Leadership does, that NLO does. NLO is specifically for women and Oregon Lead is specifically for Native American Alaskan Native people to build their leadership skills.I can also see myself running for office someday [or] going back to school to get a Master’s in Public Health Administration. Right now, I’m working in the county health department, specifically on COVID-19, making sure that the Native American Alaskan Native communities have all the resources that they need … I can see myself building more leaders, whether it’s for women, whether it’s for Native American Alaskan Native communities. I think building leaders in general is very rewarding.”

PSU adapts to a changing world and to their students.

I ask them how they would describe the CWL or PSU in a word or two. I give Leya and Rebecca some time to really reflect on their experience with the center and the college. Leya is the first to speak, followed by Rebecca:

Adaptable. I also really just want to say Diverse because I’ve met so many people who have so many intersectional parts of their life and it’s cool to see.”

A growing city within a city. It’s pretty amazing how PSU has changed over the years.” Even when she graduated in 2013, “people talked about how things were changing. I liked Leya’s word of Adaptability.” 

“Like a growing community.” 

“Yeah. PSU adapts to a changing world and to their students.”

I ask one last question before our meeting comes to an end: “Do you see yourselves working with each other in the future?” Rebecca exclaims “Absolutely!” as Leya says, “Oh my gosh we work together all the time! … I think we probably will continue to be working together even though we don’t [plan it]. A lot of the stuff we do is…” Leya pauses and weaves her fingers together before saying, “… intertwined.” 

Don’t forget to apply for the 2023 NEW Leadership Oregon program and check out the Center for Women’s Leadership’s updated letter to the community

Thank you to Leya, Rebecca, and Yaqing for your support and gracious involvement.

About Sophia: I’m a Portland State Junior from the Portland suburbs, majoring in Economics & Social Science and in love with my college. I’m interested in economic reform and Scandinavian welfare systems, and am also a huge movie buff. FYI, everything I write on here is cryptically about Timothée Chalamet, so pls comment about it under my articles (but don’t tell my boss, I might get fired). 
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