Harry R. Olsen
1950 – 2022
We are sad to announce that PHOENIX Rising Transitions founder, Harry “Musa” Olsen, recently passed after a short illness and hospitalization.
Harry’s vision of PHOENIX began in the sweat lodge at Oregon State Penitentiary and included talks with several of his incarcerated friends. When he got out in 1991, he used his own experience of incarceration and transformation to create projects that he felt would benefit people who wanted to make genuine change. He sifted through many spiritual and psychological traditions, including studying with notable adepts and taking a pilgrimage to Turkey, for ways to talk with a variety of people about how to make deep and lasting change.
Harry saw the relationship between individual prisoners and members of the community as a cultural interaction. He searched for a way to ease those cultural differences and found that the community organizing practice of one-on-one conversations was the perfect solution. These conversations bridge all kinds of divides between people and help humanize the other. So, Harry brought those principles, and lots of community folks, into the prison and watched as stigma and barriers broke down on both sides. This included an ongoing partnership with OHSU School of Nursing that brought scores of students in to talk one-on-one with prisoners. Together they were able to influence public policy and community attitudes that would help prisoners have a better chance at succeeding as community members.
Harry learned to train others in community organizing-style leadership and brought that training into the prison environment. He also served as a Certified Peer Recovery Mentor for folks when they came home from prison.
In addition to his work with PHOENIX he served as the circle leader for Sufis incarcerated in Oregon prisons. (Sufism is Islamic mysticism and includes the poet Rumi.) Harry was awarded the Outstanding Citizen Award for 2002-2003 by the Oregon Department of Corrections for leadership in volunteer activities. He also assisted several other religious and community organizations in launching their own programs and classes in Oregon prisons.
Harry served on the board of the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good (MACG). He was a member of the Oregon Islamic Chaplains Organization. He was also a member of the Portland O.T.O. lodge. Harry was a founding member of Reentry Organizations and Resources (ROAR) and its Reentry Transition Center (now closed) to connect recently released prisoners with much-needed support. He received a general studies degree from Mount Hood Community College in 2000.
On a more personal note, Harry was a poet and a long-time fan of Bob Dylan. He studied poetry with Joseph Millar at Mount Hood Community College, refining his own innate gifts. His poetry focused on themes of incarceration, spirituality, and truth. His style turned his subjects on their ear so you could see them more clearly. Harry also loved music – whether the Beatles, Cream, the Doors, Metallica, Itzhak Perlman, Wynton Marsalis, Zakir Hussain (most of whom he saw in concert) – or the beautiful illahis (hymns) of Sufism. Harry loved animals, and animals loved him. He was a modern-day St. Francis who had as much affection for snakes as puppies, and they realized quickly that he was their friend. They felt safe with him. He recently rescued a pandemic stray, a cat named Merlin.
Harry is survived by his wife, Karen Meurer; his sons Bob Olsen and Jeremiah Olsen; grandsons Devin, Bailey, and Cameron; niece Jocelin; aunt Thelma; and several cousins.
Celebration of Life Memorial Service for Harry R. Olsen
Sunday, October 30th, 2022
Salt and Light Lutheran Church
5431 NE 20th Avenue
Portland, OR 97211
Memorial gifts may be made to:
PHOENIX Rising Transitions
PO Box 723
Gresham, OR 97030