A place for all
During a busy campaign season, the candidates vying for a spot on Gresham City Council learned of the political unrest happening among those who call West Gresham home.
It's a feeling incumbent Councilor Mario Palmero is intimately familiar with, as he has worked to represent the oft-forgotten neighborhoods during his time with city leadership.
Palmero, 42, spent much of his time during the election knocking on doors in West Gresham, where he lives, works and sends his son to school. Palmero is Hispanic, one of the few minority faces holding a seat on a city council in East Multnomah County, is dedicated to building bridges between the neighborhoods in Gresham that historically have been siloed from each other.
"I represent an area that is normally underrepresented," Palmero said. "The community wants to be more involved, take an active role — so we need to find ways to help them."
And while historically the western portion of the city, including the Rockwood and Centennial Neighborhoods, has not seen a large number of voters, the most recent Oregon General Election in November marked a change. Not only was Palmero successful in his bid for reelection, fending off five challengers, he is now joined on council by a second minority politician.
Eddy Morales won the Position 2 race after knocking on more than 15,000 doors in the community to motivate the voters and hear their concerns. The Nov. 6 election delivered 32,476 votes from Gresham, or 59 percent of registered voters.
But the stirring activism isn't planning to die down with the conclusion of the election, as voices from communities traditionally outside the limelight said this is just the beginning. Despite time Palmero and Morales spent during the election in West Gresham, and the willingness of city leadership to lend an ear, many diverse groups in Gresham said more can be done to make the city an actively inclusive community.
On a cold Friday morning in November, Slavic Family's radio station KXET-AM 1130 in Rockwood, hosted a famous musician visiting the region.
Gerbert Morales, a Russian native and Rastafarian reggae musician, was touring the West Coast and stopped by Gresham to broadcast some of his unique sounds. In a perfect world, the local organizers from the Slavic community who enticed him to visit would have been able to set up a concert to allow fans to hear him live. But because of a lack of space in which to meet, the best they could do was broadcast the music over the radio.
"In Gresham, there is no place for (the Slavic community) to come together," said Timur Holove, creative director with Slavic Family. "We keep outgrowing our spaces. The Russian-speaking people want to be active and participate, but it's hard without a dedicated space."
In East Multnomah County, KXET serves as an informal gathering place in lieu of better options. Slavic Family, based in Rockwood at 17235 S.E. Division St., connects the Slavic community — comprising people from the former Soviet Union who share similar languages and cultures — across Oregon and Washington through a magazine, newspaper, multiple websites, several radio stations and a YouTube channel.
"We use our platform to talk about what is happening in the political world," Holove said.
According to the radio station, the Slavic community would love a space in the community to host events, provide a safe place to gather and celebrate the art and culture of their people. Events currently are being held in various spaces with varying results.
Last year, an event to showcase the resources available for low-income residents was held at a rented church. Almost 1,000 people tried to attend, wanting to learn about what is available to people in need. But because of the lack of parking and seats, many were forced to turn away.
Representatives of the Slavic community have looked into renting rooms at Gresham City Hall for events, but were told it's a difficult process.
"There is no place where people can come together," Holove said.
A similar discussion is going on at a spot down the road at the edge of a chain link fence that marks the future site of Rockwood Rising, the corner of Southeast Stark Street and 185th Ave. The complex is expected to revitalize the neighborhood and provide opportunities for business owners and community members.
Anthony Bradley and Germaine Flentroy, community advocates and Rockwood residents, are working on ways to support the African-American community in Gresham. Their concern is that warning signs could signal another forced relocation because of gentrification that pushed the black community out of North Portland. The two friends believe forming partnerships with the city can allow Gresham to truly become home.
The way to combat a similar case of what happened in Northeast Portland is through investment in the community, Flentroy said. That looks like black-owned businesses thriving, black developers helping shape the footprint of neighborhoods and black organizations hosting events and workshops. Flentroy wants his son to be able to look up to him, and other strong black leaders in Rockwood, and see an avenue for success.
"Right now the black community is just waiting for the next push to send us somewhere else," Flentroy said.
Both Flentroy and Bradley are part of Beyond Black Community Development Corporation, a group that works to strengthen Rockwood's African-American community by providing resources in economic advancement, political action, community safety and educational opportunities. One of the biggest issues the group faces, similarly to the Slavic community, is a lack of a gathering place.
Traditionally, churches have served that role within the community, but many of the faith institutions remained in Northeast Portland, leaving a dearth of viable spaces in Gresham.
One option that could fill the need for the African-American community, according to Flentroy, is the old Knova Learning charter school, also known as the Rockwood Preparatory Academy. The school at 740 S.E. 182nd Ave. already plays host to many yearly events and has been used by Play Grow Learn, a program run by Bradley and Flentroy, for weekly gym nights for homeless and foster kids.
"It's bigger than just a building," Bradley said. "It's giving us the tools to represent our people. We need to have an opportunity for our culture to express itself."
Before the recent election, Slavic Family sent out emails to all the candidates running for positions in East Multnomah County. The goal was to allow the Russian-speaking voters, who may not be very proficient in English, to learn about the issues and people hoping for their vote.
The group received few replies, with no one from the Republican Party responding.
"The Slavic community supports Republicans, but the party doesn't want anything to do with us," explained Andrey Nekrasov, Russian language broadcaster. "Both parties need to pay attention to the voters. It shouldn't matter what language they speak."
Palmero was one of the few to get in contact with the station during the election, and went on air to talk about what he was hoping to achieve if reelected.
"I honestly think (Palmero's) appearance here made a difference in the election," Holove said.
Estimates place Gresham's Russian-speaking population at about 15,000 people, with a voting base that has both liberal and conservative views — though the majority lean right. Only a small section of the recent Oregon Voters Pamphlet was in Russian, with little information on what was being debated. Without the work of the radio station and other organizations, many Russian voters would struggle to navigate the political scene.
Holove said the city, and other official groups, could implement more pamphlets and information in Russian. They also could help promote events that happen within the Slavic community, something the Multnomah County Library has been doing for years.
"Older people don't speak English that well. They rely on places like us to know what's going on," Holove said. "The city just reaches out to people who speak English and expect everyone else to know what is happening."
Though voter turnout and engagement was a step in the right direction, Flentroy and Bradley said more can be done.
They explained the difficulty in motivating people to become active voices in the community, especially when it feels like the rest of the city wants nothing to do with neighborhoods to the west. That is why, come the 2020 election, the black community in Rockwood will push to find qualified candidates to run for positions on City Council.
"The elected officials don't connect with me as an African American," Bradley said. "The candidates have to reflect the community, and there is no excuse for the city government not to include us in the conversation."
"Our intent is to have more people from West Gresham run," he added.
But the city is willing to listen. The pair spoke about their concerns before Gresham City Council during its weekly meeting Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 20. They discussed the issues facing the black community and what they believe the city can do to help, and both left optimistic about where things are headed.
"We (at the city) are focused on embracing diversity and how to embrace it as a community," Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said during their testimonial. "I'm glad you are here, because there is an opportunity for all of us. We can come up with a plan, and we are happy to help and support any way we can."
The black community also isn't waiting around for things to happen. They are organizing a return of a Farmers Market to Rockwood, are supporters of the annual Rock the Block celebration and are looking to get a foothold in the Rockwood Rising complex.
"We would like to continue working with the city," Flentroy said. "We want to put roots in the community and help it grow."