By ERIKA TOWNE, Contributor —
With the election day just a few days away at the time of this publication, there will be a lot of changes in Gresham. Voters are being asked to choose a new mayor and three city council seats need to be filled. Depending on how the election goes, it could mean a significant change in the way the city of Gresham is run.
However, the one thing that will not change after November 3 is the Gresham-Barlow School Board. None of the seats on the board are on the ballot this election this November and the chair of the board is already set.
For more than a year now, Blake Petersen has led the Gresham-Barlow School Board. He and the other members of the school board have helped the district manage last spring’s sudden closure of schools because of COVID-19. Recently, they have worked with district administrators to manage the return to school in a completely new, distance learning environment.
It’s not something Petersen envisioned when he took over as chair of the board, but it’s something that his colleagues and friends say he has handled admirably.
Fellow board member Matt O’Connell has seen Petersen work. “As Board Chair, Blake has the unenviable position of being the spokesman for the board. Even during the current political climate, he works very diligently for consensus on board action and this can be difficult with such a disparate group of board members,” said O’Connell. “I admire his ability to navigate tough issues and still keep his composure and his neutrality. Having been Board Chair a number of years ago, this is not an easy task.”
Long-time friend Jared Tjaden concurs. “I’ve known Blake since our time at Gordon Russell Middle School. As a young man, he was the kind of competitor in baseball you just didn’t want to face. He was a talented ballplayer who could single-handedly change the course of a game,” said Tjaden. “Today he has grown into the kind of leader most people want to see. He is calm, thoughtful, and decisive. The people of Gresham are lucky to have him on the Gresham-Barlow School Board.”
A Life-Changing Event
Petersen’s ability to manage and bring together a wide variety of personalities to work toward a common goal is something he started cultivating when he was a teen. He grew up in Gresham and attended Gresham-Barlow schools. Like most teens his age, there was one event that truly shaped him and the path that he decided to take in life.
“I was a junior in high school, just started my junior year, when September 11th happened. That was obviously a pretty galvanizing moment for me,” said Petersen.
“9/11, I think it took some [of my] boundaries and really shoved them together,” said Petersen. “It was a pretty linear focus from that point forward. I ended up applying to only two schools, West Point and one other.”
Petersen was accepted to West Point and three weeks after graduating from Barlow High School in 2003 he reported to cadet basic training.
A West Point Education
What Petersen learned at West Point didn’t happen in a specific class or training exercise, it happened during his everyday life and it helped shape the kind of leader into which he developed.
“I was surrounded by people who were better than me in almost every way. I went from having an ego to having to process my identity,” said Petersen. “I had to go through the identity searching of who I thought I was and who I would be. That’s not always negative and it wasn’t for me.”
Petersen will tell you he was never the smartest person in the room, but he continued to impress his instructors. During his final year at West Point, he was sent to study engineering at Ecole Polytechnique, an elite university in France. He was one of two Americans in an exchange class filled with students from around the world.
“This would have been 2006 and I was in classes with Russian students, Chinese students, Iranian students, French students. The geopolitical environment at the time, it wasn’t just pure peace, so [there were] some really challenging conversations,” said Petersen. “[I] experienced being out of my element a little bit, in a good way, having to represent values that I cared about.”
Building a Family
Petersen’s time in France wasn’t just challenging mentally, it was also emotionally challenging. Not only was he thousands of miles away from his friends and family, but he was also very far away from the woman he would later call his wife.
“[Stephanie] was studying chemical engineering at Oregon State, and I was in France. That was basically all of our dating years, or dating months, which was about four months long,” said Petersen. “Then I came home and proposed to her. She said ‘yes,’ which is a good thing. I went back to New York and she went back to Corvallis. That was our engaged time. Then I got home and we got married.”
While it sounds like a whirlwind romance, it was actually years in the making. Petersen and Stephanie started going to school together in the second grade, though they didn’t officially meet until sixth grade at Gordon Russell Middle School. They were not high school sweethearts and didn’t start dating until their senior year of college, but that was enough for both of them.
“Steph and I moved all over the country for the first several months of our marriage. We just went to all the Basic Officer courses,” said Petersen.
He was eventually stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington and the couple started their family. Their eldest son, Jack, was born in 2009. Just months after Jack’s birth, Petersen was sent to Iraq.
Coming Full Circle
“I was deployed to Western Baghdad for a year. I was actually part of the last combat brigade in Iraq,” said Petersen.
“It was meaningful work. We were there to support an election. Our impact extended beyond that, but our unit deployed specifically to support an election in Baghdad. I was grateful to be a part of it,” said Petersen. “The resilience of people to vote, facing threats that we can’t even comprehend, is pretty neat.”
Petersen spent a year in Iraq working closely with Iraqi officers and civilians to support the election. For him, working in Iraq felt like he was coming full circle.
“9/11 happened my junior year. So when I had been accepted to West Point, [I] knew I was going, [even] before we really invaded Iraq. So, March of my senior year, we invaded Iraq. I remember sitting in my living room watching Saddam’s statue get pulled down. I guess a month after that was the mission complete banner, it was when we found Saddam,” said Petersen. “In a way, my growing up in the army and at West Point kind of coincided with the Global War on Terror as it applied to the Iraq effort.”
Returning to Civilian Life
Petersen returned home from Iraq in August 2010. The next year, his son Samuel was born, but his service prevented him from being there as much as he would have liked.
“I spent probably six months of that first year of Samuel’s life doing training missions in Korea and locally,” said Petersen.
While he gives all the credit to his wife Stephanie for taking on the tough job of parenting two young children alone, he knew he wanted something different.
“I had a lot of peace about just getting out,” said Petersen. “I felt like I had redeemed the education that taxpayers had given me and wanted to look at different avenues of building a career and a family and getting home. Getting home to Gresham was optimal.”
The Good News
Petersen left the military in the spring of 2012. Like many people who transition from military to civilian life, it was difficult for Petersen to find a job. He looked everywhere from Sacramento, California to Seattle, Washington to Eastern Idaho, all to stay close to home.
“It was still a pretty timid job market. It was tough to get an interview. It’s hard to translate military skills to a civilian job force,” said Petersen. “I had a nonprofit organization take a really, really blind shot at me, which I was very grateful for.”
Petersen was hired by Good News Community Health Center, located in Portland.
“Predominantly, we served uninsured people at the Good News,” said Petersen. “Serving low income—not just low income as a broad statement—these are folks who had really fallen through the cracks of the social safety net.”
For six years Petersen served as the director of the nonprofit. While he has since moved on and now works as a budget analyst for the City of Gresham, he will never forget the way Good News founder Dr. Bob Sayson gave him a shot right out of the military.
Creating a Home
During his first few years back home in Gresham, Petersen and his wife, Stephanie, grew their family. They had two daughters, Alice and Eleanor, and then decided to start fostering local youth as well. They are currently fostering three siblings and Petersen gives all the credit to his wife.
“This is what she is absolutely called to do and she’s really good at it. So, I try to not be terrible at it,” said Petersen.
It also helps that they’re not doing it alone.
“Stephanie’s parents are here. Her siblings are generally close, most of them are anyway; my siblings,” said Petersen. “Our siblings, Stephanie’s and mine, are raising families at the same time and with similar ages, and so that opens up a world of friends to our foster children and a sense of belonging.”
“This isn’t just Stephanie and me on an island. This is an incredible community of support that we have both within our families and within our church community,” said Petersen.
Their community at the Gresham Bible Church not only offers moral and emotional support, but it also offers shared experiences.
“Our church has a number of foster families and adoptive families that have seen everything under the sun,” said Petersen. “There’s experienced foster families and adoptive families that are not surprised by the little and big challenges that you face.”
A Return to Public Service
Despite the intense demands of work and family life, Petersen still wanted another way to serve the greater Gresham community. Three years ago, he found it when he decided to run for a seat on the Gresham-Barlow School Board. He says the decision was one that seemed to happen naturally.
“[Public service has] been a common theme in my career. First, it was uniformed military service, and then it was nonprofit service. It’s been working as an employee of the city that’s got a different brand of service and stewardship,” said Petersen.
Something to offer
While he had never worked in public education, he felt that he had something to offer because of his experiences as a product of the system; as a parent with children in the system, and with his experiences as a nonprofit director.
“At the time, I did not know a ton about how public education worked… but I did know that people were missing out on opportunities that I had had,” said Petersen.
Petersen was elected to the school board in 2017 and has worked closely with fellow board members and school administrators since then.
Gresham-Barlow School District Superintendent Dr. A. Katrise Perera said, “From the beginning, Chair Petersen has impressed me with his insightfulness, his desire to sincerely see each student thrive, his thoughtfulness for the inclusion of all voices, and his ability to communicate candidly and effectively on behalf of Gresham-Barlow School District students, families, and teachers.”
“I’m really honored that my colleagues on the board gave me a shot at it,” said Petersen. “The chair is different than a mayor or anything like that. All your job is, really, is to facilitate the perspectives and the conversations that the board is going to have and then if there’s ever a moment that needs a decision, to help mobilize toward that decision collaboratively and not to dominate a discussion or an agenda.”
Fellow board members say he’s performed the task admirably.
“I believe his ability to build consensus has been a valuable asset,” said O’Connell. “He also has the ability to dissect an issue down to its core. This ability helps bring a deeper understanding of issues, allowing for more coherent and logical solutions.”
Becoming a Small Business Owner
As if Petersen doesn’t have enough on his plate, he also works with his older brother, Drew, running PDX Eastside Training, a facility they opened up together earlier this year.
“Drew and I always wanted to start something together, do something together. This has been, in a lot of ways, a perfect outlet for it. We love baseball; coaching.” said Petersen. “It’s just something we love to do. There is just a dearth of opportunities for young ballplayers on the east side of Portland. On the west side, there’s quite a few.”
While Petersen is sad that COVID-19 has slowed the business down, he’s still excited that he has the opportunity to work with someone who has done so much to support him through the years.
“I think other folks can look to their childhood, and find just tons of stories of sibling rivalry. I just don’t have that. Drew was always, always a champion of everything that I pursued,” said Petersen.
Throughout everything he does, whether it’s work, his role on the school board, or with his family, Petersen is shaped by the ideas that he learned long ago at West Point. He says there are two common ideas that he applies to virtually everything he does.
“I think real champions find common ground, and they work from common ground, and they don’t look for what is different about them,” said Petersen. “They look for what binds them and galvanizes around a core mission. You can bring people from all kinds of disparate backgrounds, and galvanize them to a common mission.”
He also understands that he’s not always the one with the answers.
“Not ever falling for the delusion that you’re the smartest person in the room,” said Petersen.
He says he has learned that constantly through the years and it has served him well when it comes to working with a diverse group of people. HVN