Sisters from Sisters making a difference
Last updated 3/15/2022 at Noon
Jenna and Laura Curtis are sisters, and they’re close. Seeing them together, it’s obvious how much they admire each other.
“But we also fight,” said younger sister Laura, laughing.
Most of their fighting spirit is reserved for social justice issues and the people they support both professionally and personally. They’ve shown, when they are committed to a cause, there’s a good chance things
will change for the better.
Jenna graduated from Sisters High School in 2007. Laura graduated in 2009. They moved to Sisters with their mother, Tracy Curtis, during an extremely difficult time in their lives.
“When we moved to Sisters, our parents had just gotten a divorce, my mom didn’t have a job, and we were really in a vulnerable position,” said Laura.
Jenna recalled watching her mother work incredibly hard and keep pushing for a better life.
“Our mom picked up our family while we were grieving from a really challenging time,” she said. “She was cleaning houses and just making ends meet.”
Tracy’s heartfelt, caring nature and determined attitude has passed on to her daughters.
“We saw her get creative and start several businesses,” said Jenna. “Now she has a very successful floral company (Woodland Floral Design). We’re so proud of her!”
After graduation Jenna and Laura excelled academically and professionally. Jenna received a bachelor’s degree in American Sign Language (ASL)/English Interpreting from Western Oregon University in 2011. After working as an ASL interpreter for seven years, she returned to Western Oregon University to get a master’s degree in teaching interpreting studies. Currently, she works for Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) as the manager of language services. Her job entails managing administrative operations of interpreters and supporting language services across the OHSU health system.
Jenna was introduced to ASL because of her mom’s friendship with a deaf family.
“Our mom taught us how to finger spell at a young age,” she said.
In high school, Jenna was struggling with Spanish and thought ASL might be easier.
“I found my passion for ASL in Sarah Dempsey’s class at Sisters High School,” she said. “I remember vividly being in class when she was talking about deaf culture and discrimination that deaf and hard-of-hearing people experienced just because they used another language. Dempsey taught us about the misinterpretations and misconceptions about their cognitive abilities because they don’t speak. That got to my core of justice principles, and I thought, that’s not right.”
Dempsey told Jenna’s class that being an interpreter was really hard, took a lot of training and skill, and that she personally never wanted to become one because it was such a challenge. That was just the spark Jenna needed.
“I remember sitting in class thinking, I could do that,” she said. “I really enjoyed the language and wanted to be fluent, so I went to Oregon State for a year because that’s where my friends were going, to get my prerequisites out of the way. I decided I’d do ASL later. But I took different courses in that first year, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and realized my language piece was unfinished.”
Jenna transferred to Western Oregon from OSU and started taking ASL classes. She got good feedback from people in the deaf community as well as deaf teachers who were native language users.
“I applied for the interpreter program, which was very competitive. I didn’t know if I’d get in, but I did,” said Jenna.
While Jenna was in college, coincidentally, Sarah Dempsey had left Sisters and was an ASL teacher for the Gresham-Barlow School District.
“I’ve gone into her classroom a few times as a professional interpreter and talked about the profession. It’s fun meeting up with her. She even came to my college graduation in 2011,” said Jenna.
Laura and Jenna both live in Portland. Laura’s office is in Tigard, but like Jenna, the pandemic has her working from home a lot of the time. Laura is a lobbyist and government relations consultant for NW Public Affairs.
“I get to talk to legislators about the importance of funding for public systems and the importance of substance abuse treatment and mental health treatment,” said Laura. “I spend a lot of time on Basic Rights Oregon and also represent the Northwest Health Foundation and the Forensic Justice Project, working on issues like closing the health equity gap and criminal justice reform. This session, I am working on a bill to allow the state to provide compensation to people wrongfully incarcerated… we’re trying to get Oregon to join that movement. The Deschutes County DA endorsed it.”
Laura credits Jenna with awakening her call for social justice.
“Jenna has always been an advocate.
I grew up seeing her strong sense of justice and injustice.
She’s very vocal with her feelings about those things.
Seeing her become an interpreter and working on behalf of communities that have been historically excluded and denied access, and hearing her talk about those things inspired me.
Even before I was out of college or a lobbyist, I had a lot of respect for that and saw it as something really intrinsic to who she was.
And for me as well,” said Laura.
“I’m someone who feels passionate about things.
We’re both driven people who want to do good work.
We get to bond over that in our professional lives.
We talk a lot about work with each other.
I think Jenna has a good mind for policy, so it’s good to talk with her about those things.”
Teenage years were sometimes tough for both women. Moving to Sisters and finding support and community in their new hometown was instrumental in helping them navigate those times.
“We really did find a good community in Sisters,” said Jenna.
“I found a great friend group and had a lot of support from a lot of people.
In middle school after we moved, I was really angry and dealing with some depression.
I was suspended a couple of times in middle school for fighting.
I had these justice principles, and didn’t have a direction.
I was really angry at my parents and the system, and was struggling a lot.
I was on a variety of anxiety and depression medications throughout my childhood, and through high school and some college.
One of the things that really helped was the idea that things really do get better.
There’s so many emotions and dynamics happening when you’re a teen.
No matter where you are, growing up is hard.”
Jenna had a hard time with adult authority figures who she felt wouldn’t take the time to really listen to kids. She felt frustrated because she had a lot to share and a lot of opinions.
“I knew I didn’t have all the answers, but I was pretty sure I knew better than some adults, even in high school,” she said. “Getting frustrated when I wasn’t being listened to and heard was challenging. I think that propelled me into wanting to be in spaces where decisions are being made, because collectively we have more knowledge and input if we work collaboratively. Then we can come up with solutions that are impactful on people’s lives.”
Laura is grateful for the close relationship she has with her sister.
“We get to be close to each other in Portland, and we have each other in this world,” she said. “I feel grateful our mom moved us to Sisters when she did. I don’t know how things would have turned out if she didn’t. I try never to take that for granted. I brag about Jenna all the time about how smart and amazing she is.”