Neighborhood involvement: useful or exclusionary?
"We think by ignoring," my friend and teaching colleague, the late Bob Fulford, liked to remind his students at the University of Portland.
I believe he meant two things. In order to think clearly, we must ignore the irrelevant. But he also meant that we often ignore counterarguments or, as George Orwell called them, "unpleasant facts." And we often ignore the perspective of others.
I recently recalled Bob's challenging, two-edged observation while I was pondering our haphazardly evolving city and its increasingly diverse communities. The communities, it is worth noting, are mostly "real" in shared locales or identities, but also "virtual" and certainly internet-inspired, provoked and, at times, addled.
In my thinking, I found it helpful to ignore, for the time being, how the alarming state of the nation played into all this.
"We think by ignoring" became a refrain as I grappled with the maze of issues — inequality, crumbling infrastructure, congestion, soaring rents, homelessness, civic fragmentation, beleaguered schools, etc.
Since the 1970s, the city's interest in community involvement has relied heavily on its patchwork of roughly 100 neighborhoods, each with its own neighborhood association. Southwest Portland has 17 designated "neighborhoods," but I'd wager that most people living here have, at best, a vague idea of which one they live in.
Without that awareness, "neighborhood associations" become, literally, meaningless to most.
"We think by ignoring."
Neighborhood associations tend to be reactive. Until there is a well-publicized or blatant crisis of some kind, the associations consist of small clusters of older folks who meet monthly to hear police reports, discuss community eyesores and review modest proposed construction projects. The associations can comment officially and even influence unofficially, but they have, with rare notable exceptions, no actual power to speak of.
Significantly, a common topic at the meetings — which may, on a good night, attract two dozen people — is how to get more people to attend. I have mused that a manufactured crisis or two might help.
What swells attendance are tone-deaf actions of Portland's city bureaucracy or the overreaching plans of politically well-connected developers. Add to the list disruptive street or sewer repairs, graffiti, a new homeless encampment or a headline-grabbing local tragedy.
The rare, packed neighborhood association gatherings often have to do with property rights (and values) and threats to "the character of the community."
"We think by ignoring"
In recent years, the city and our neighborhoods have come to be homes to numerous "communities." And most of them don't send representatives to neighborhood association meetings. Renters, an increasingly beleaguered group, are notably absent.
Recently, the neighborhood associations' exclusivity has become a concern of new City Commissioner Cloe Eudaly. She has been charged with overseeing the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) and has vowed that under her watch, "involvement" will extend beyond neighborhood associations.
For too long, civic thinking and urban planning and policy have ignored whole segments of the city, Eudaly and ONI's interim director, David Austin, have pointed out. They aren't alone in their concern. The city's new comprehensive plan states: "Particular efforts must be made to improve services for, and participation by, people of color, immigrant and refugee communities, people with disabilities, renters, low-income Portlanders, older adults, youth and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community."
That's all well and good, but what are we all ignoring even as these groups become more involved?
Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. (SWNI) is Southwest Portland's coalition of neighborhood associations. It also supports a host of volunteer groups, committees and projects. As its long-time Executive Director, Sylvia Bogert, has pointed out, community involvement is and will continue to be participatory, NOT representative. That's her answer to critics who pointedly ask neighborhood association boards, "Who elected you?"
The answer is "whoever showed up to vote." The number showing up is minuscule in neighborhoods that can be home to thousands. Southwest Portland, by the way, has a population in excess of the 65,000 count from the 2009 census.
But lest we ignore it, the same "Who elected you?" question also applies to all of the organizations representing groups mentioned in the comprehensive plan.
It should come as no surprise that responsibility, leadership and action resides with those who have (or make) the time to show up. Some are wise and truly do represent their communities; others far less so.
"We think by ignoring."
Finally, the success of community involvement relies on communication and knowledge. We need to be knowledgeable beyond our own "ignore-ant" thinking. Success also calls upon communicators (be they journalists, bloggers or tweeters) to question their own "ignor-ance."
Here my old friend Bob Fulford might ask us, "What are we ignoring?"
Our feelings, perhaps? And could one of those feelings be a nagging one that we might be ignoring the valid feelings of others?