Jeff Dade, '11, '20, this year's Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, is proof that not all heroes wear capes.
The origin story is a common narrative device in superhero movies. Origin stories tell us how a character transformed into something else, often a hero, but not always. This involves a certain amount of backstory. We see the struggle and the setbacks. There’s usually a moment when the character is presented with a choice. They can continue to live their life as they have been or they can take a risk and embrace a new identity.
UW Tacoma alumnus Jeff Dade is familiar with the trope. He’s a fan of comic book movies. Dade also has something of an alter ego named “JD.” “JD was created at UW Tacoma,” he said. JD can’t fly or lift vehicles with one finger. He’s not invisible and can’t read minds. Think of him as your everyday superhero, the one who lifts people up and is there to keep them from falling.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves.
First, the origin story. Jeff Dade isn’t the result of a spider bite and his story didn’t happen in space after getting blasted by errant particles from the son. Dade’s journey starts in Maryland.
Dade is the oldest of two siblings. He is bookish and curious. “I was always determined to be a straight-A student,” he said. The young Dade developed an interest in music and took up the trombone. “I was always doing extra,” he said.
Dade’s father served in the military and the family moved a number of times. “We ended up at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” he said. Dade has lived in the area ever since.
The road ahead looked clear for Dade, but the future is often blurry. “There’s a whole parallel timeline where there is no JD,” said Dade. “I’m so thankful and blessed that I wasn’t a statistic, because I could have been.”
Dade’s home life was difficult. “I saw a lot of domestic violence growing up,” he said. “Most of the men I saw were not good and I knew I wanted to be different — I wanted to be a good man.”
Doing Too Much
Dade attended Rogers High School in Puyallup. “I was the only Black male in my graduating class of 611 people,” he said. While at Rogers, Dade got connected to the Afro Pageant. “The pageant brought in Black youth from all over Pierce County every Saturday for something like six months,” said Dade. “We would go to Tacoma Community College and study or we could go on field trips.” The pageant culminated with a talent show. “I ended up winning first-runner-up and the prize was a scholarship to Pacific Lutheran University,” said Dade.
The 17-year-old also received a music scholarship and an ROTC scholarship. “At the time environmental justice was a relatively new discipline but that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I took a lot of pre-med and pre-law courses.”
Dade had to attend daily physical training sessions as part of his ROTC scholarship. This meant waking up early. “I was trying to keep things afloat financially,” he said. “They had this thing at PLU where you could get free room and board if you worked campus safety, but doing that meant often staying up until late at night.”
The pressure started to wear on Dade. “Yet again, I was doing too much,” he said. Dade left PLU at age 19. “My dad was going to be deployed as part of ongoing post-war Army operations in Kuwait and he could be gone for up to two years,” he said. “My parents asked if I would consider moving back home and going to school. I decided that was a good time to take a break.”
Making a Life
Dade never went back to PLU. After leaving school he took a job at Sears and also worked some security jobs on the side. “I was doing whatever I could to get my forty hours,” he said. While at Sears a former coworker who had left to work at First Interstate Bank petitioned Dade to join him. “I wasn’t all that interested until he mentioned that I start out making $45,000 a year,” said Dade.
As it turned out, Dade happened to be good at banking and personal finance. “I ended up working in the finance industry for about twenty years,” he said. “At one point I owned my own mortgage brokerage and also did some contract work for the federal government.”
His career in good shape, Dade and his wife decided to start a family. “We have four daughters,” he said. Life was going well for Dade. He had a career and a family. Even so, something didn’t feel quite right.
Returning to College
The year is 2009 and the scale of the financial collapse is just coming into focus. People are losing jobs and homes. A few years before that, in 2005, Dade watched news coverage of New Orleans residents struggling to stay alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “By the late 2000s, I was troubled by the sheer quantity of Black folks I saw displaced by Hurricane Katrina and was dissatisfied with the inadequacy of the repeat mortgage refinances I was doing for clients,” he said. “I wanted to understand the underpinnings of uneven development, and the mechanisms that enshrine them.”
Around the same time a close friend of Dade’s decided to return to college. “I couldn’t believe he was doing that, but I was also intrigued,” he said. Curious, Dade started exploring his options. “I wanted something that would empower me to fix the social problems we face.”
Dade found what he was looking for in the School of Urban Studies at UW Tacoma (then known as the Urban Studies Program). “I didn’t know there was a body of study and these ways of knowing about culture, about fighting racism and discrimination, about applied elements of politics that were available to common folk like me,” he said.
Dade ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in urban studies. He returned to campus a few years later to complete a master’s in community planning. “The faculty in urban studies changed my life,” said Dade. “I met Dr. Linda Ishem during my first quarter at UW Tacoma. She has been an important professor, mentor, colleague and friend.”
Dade remained in banking after he finished his bachelor’s, but his focus changed. “I became really interested in how we help folks become self-sufficient, resilient and helping them build generational wealth,” he said.
The contract work Dade did with the federal government focused on personal finance coaching. He started to develop a reputation as someone who not only cared, but as someone who could also create positive change. The local non-profit Sound Outreach recruited Dade. “They ended up hiring me as their director of financial opportunity,” he said. I developed alternative financial models and programs to help folks get financing.”
Dade stayed in that position for a year. He went on to work as the director of family stability initiatives at the United Way of Pierce County before transitioning into the role of community development director at the non-profit Forterra.
Jeff Dade, “JD” or ...
“My friend, local artist Tiffanny Hammonds, gave me my favorite validating compliment when she called me “Jeff the Catalyst,” said Dade. “I’ve kept that title front and center ever since.”
The monikers are different but they refer to the same person. Clark Kent is Superman’s alter ego. Bruce Wayne is Batman’s alias. “JD” or “Jeff the Catalyst” is just Jeff Dade. There’s nothing to disguise. “JD, Jeff the Catalyst, were made at UW Tacoma,” he said. “In that environment I was able to commiserate with folks and discuss ideas in a way that had a lasting impact on the work I want to do.”
This experience is part of the reason why Dade is returning to UW Tacoma in June to start on his doctoral degree in educational leadership. “I wanted to be part of creating the conditions and the resources so that the leaders of tomorrow can continue pushing for equity and well-being for everyone,” he said. “I think getting my doctoral degree will help me with that.”
Dade’s four children are now grown. “I have three grandchildren,” he said. Lately, Dade has been thinking a lot about legacy. “I focus a lot on the racial wealth gap in my work,” he said. He had been working out ways to amplify his message when he got a phone call. “At first I thought I was being punked,” said Dade of the call notifying him he had been named this year’s UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumnus. He is the first Urban Studies alumnus to receive the award.
Among other things, the Distinguished Alumnus throws out the first pitch at the annual Paint the Park Purple, a fundraising partnership with the Tacoma Rainiers at Cheney Stadium. They are also invited to speak or make a guest appearance at various UW Tacoma events throughout the year. “There’s a lot of failure in this kind of work that people don’t see,” he said. “Receiving this honor is like a drink of water in the desert. I’m grateful to receive this recognition but I am not self-made by any definition. This drink has to be shared with the army of folks that have supported me and partnered with me over the years, most notably my wife of 24 years, Tressa, who has been my rock.”
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