The pandemic and Black Lives Matter combine to create a new business opportunity
Photographer Jacobsen Valentine was shooting some models behind the Portland Storage Building — a former John Deere factory nestled next to the Morrison Bridge.
It was a cold day in May, 2020, and he asked the manager if they could take shelter from the rain under the awning. The manager went one better invited them inside to keep warm. Valentine had discovered his new safe space.
He came back two days later for a tour and rented a two-room photo studio. Both windowless, one is painted all white, the other all black. There he shoots product photography and fashion, although his specialty is natural light portraiture, outdoors.
He told the Business Tribune it's getting harder to do his work outside because, as a person of color, he feels likely to get harassed, challenged, or made to feel unwelcome.
For example, he was doing a shoot on the nearby train tracks in the central eastside industrial area when someone called the police on him.
"They were like, 'Hey, you can't be on the train tracks.' I'm like, 'Literally, there's an entire Instagram page based on taking photos on the train tracks. It's interesting we can't do it.'"
Valentine calls 2020 the time of "Karens gone wild" — the propensity for (particularly) white suburban women to call the police for any perceived threat.
He added, "This is not uncommon for photographers of color or any creatives of color. If they're in someplace that people feel they shouldn't be, they get the cops called on them. I got fed up with it."
Valentine's girlfriend, Daynelle Bibb, who runs the Helen Rose skincare line, was also looking for a brick-and-mortar retail store. She is renting a space on the first floor. Bibb has young kids, and the COVID-19 pandemic had already made one thing clear to the pair: neither of them wants to work from home. Both of their businesses need more than room for a backpack and a laptop.
"Right now, people who have the privilege to work at home are staying home, and people like me who don't really have the privilege of working at home are looking for a place to work," said Valentine. "We've already seen Starbucks is not 100% a safe place to work, and working on the streets, that's not safe.
"If you're a black person. You, you have this thing right now where you can't breathe, you can't relax, you can't be safe. And when you're like that all the time, anxiety rises," he said.
After shooting a collection of BIPOC women wearing masking tape on their mouths with I CAN'T BREATHE written on it, Valentine's mentor, Cole Reed, asked him, "Photos do great, but how can we make a bigger impact?"
Looking around the building, which has several empty units, Valentine had an idea. He was inspired by Reed, who runs a coworking space called openHAUS (formerly NXT Industries) and an art gallery/boutique called greenHAUS.
Suspecting that there were plenty of people like him who didn't want to work from home, and people of color who wanted a space safe from racism, Valentine decided to open a BiPOC (black, Indigenous and people of color) coworking space for digital creatives. The build-out has begun, and the space, called Empowerment Central, opens for registration July 6.
"Literally, as soon as George Floyd happened, it was just like, we have to have a space," he added.
Empowerment Central is taking over the space left by a tech company, Wipster, that moved out because of the pandemic. The Wellington, New Zealand-based company makes "Review and Collaboration Software for Creative Teams" and has a Portland sales and marketing presence. However, Valentine says they found it easier to have everyone work from home and give up their space, which has a fun, tech-den feel. There's a soundproof room with an oval door, dubbed the Submarine. In a large, echoing space right next to the freight train tracks, it was used as a soundproof meeting room. Valentine plans to install microphones and have a mixing desk on the outside, making it suitable for recording podcasts. Another part of the office has a loft made of two by fours, accessed by the type of rope grid found on assault courses. Another room has a large boardroom table and is furnished with deep, blue carpet.
Another space will be yoga and drum circle friendly. His girlfriend, Bibb, also runs Om Thrive, which offers yoga for survivors of domestic violence, and Valentine's contact Chuck Barber needs a space to provide drumming workshops to school kids.
Valentine stresses that safety is a factor that BIPOC thinks about a lot. He likes the fact that the doors are secure, and there are several surveillance cameras in the halls.
"It's always going to be recording to make sure there are no other problems. So, it's hard to break into this place. That was one of the major features I love about the space."
The Riveter, a women-only coworking space a dozen blocks to the east, closed permanently in May because it couldn't make it during the pandemic.
Opening a shared office in a time of coronavirus social distancing could seem counter-intuitive, but Valentine thinks the demand is there.
"This is unprecedented waters right now, and the privilege has shifted. People who are able to work at home, they're working at home. The people who can't afford to work at home? I think that's an opportunity that can't be overlooked — especially when we talk about safe places for people of color, most people of color don't have a safe space at home."
Social distancing means desks at least six feet apart and tubes of sanitizing wipes everywhere.
People could bring their children and all chip in for a nanny.
"It's just all about creating realistic solutions. We're not here to make a bunch of money. We're here to be successful together.
He says he would be happy to break even, charging from $250 to $400 a month for a desk, on a need-based scale.
"We understand (people of color) are hustling at home. Maybe shift to a place where you can work together and still be profitable?"
Valentine has been involved in nonprofit work, particularly with feeding the hungry through Feed the Mass. He expects a similar, community-minded spirit to pervade Empowerment Central, where no one "jacks" other people's ideas and cooperation elevates everyone.
"If there's a graphic designer office, then use that graphic designer. If you work with someone already, then that's cool. But if you're like I don't have a graphic designer and you're looking outside our office, are you there for it? So that's kind of the point."
The pandemic and the George Floyd reaction mean that white people have spent the spring of 2020 discovering that 'We're all in this together' and 'Black lives matter.' For Valentine, those feelings already existed long before 2020. They became intensified, and he wanted a refuge.
He is starting the enterprise by trying to raise $20,000 on the BIPOC Creators Fund to subsidize some of the first tenants. In an age where raising money is as easy as clicking twice, this is not unrealistic.
He stresses that the space won't exclude white people. It just means they will have to deal with people of color.
"We are not saying they have to be BIPOC, we are saying this is a BiPOC centric Safe space. We'll treat you nice. We encourage you, because that means you're willing to tolerate black people, you're willing to support black people, you're willing to share your resources, and you're willing to collaborate. If you're willing to do those things, you're always welcome here."
Valentine sees efforts, usually by well-intentioned white outsiders, to help people of color. Growing up doing track and field (hammer, discus and shot) Valentine went to the Police Athletic League. He often found when there was free swag the white kids got first dibs and the black kids got "janky" and used stuff. And he has grown used to people making a show of their charitable work and their diversity initiatives. He fears the Great Awokening of 2020 might be forgotten when sports comes back on TV and people return to work.
"We're in a situation a very unique situation where we have to stay home and watch these things. What happened to George Floyd during a pandemic opened a lot of people's eyes. When you can't be distracted by football, basketball and your work, all you can see is the truth, which is racism is alive and well. It's not fair and it's all a systemic problem. How do we fix these systems that we are stuck in?"
Jacobsen Valentine Studios and Empowerment Central coworking space
ADDRESS: 215 SE Morrison, suite 2007, Portland 97205
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.