What makes us Oregonians? What does it mean to belong? What are the characteristics of belonging?
Kerani Mitchell hopes the discussion she's facilitating will answer these questions and more when she brings Oregon Humanities' Conversation Project to Lake Oswego as part of the 2019 Lake Oswego Reads speaker series.
The event, which is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26, will take place at the Arts Council's ARTspace (510 First St.). The goal, Mitchell says, is to break down preconceived ideas about what it means to be an Oregonian.
In 2015, Oregon's population exceeded 4 million people, and the state's demographics continue to change as new residents pour in from all over the world. Considering Oregon has a well-known history of racial exclusion, these changes prompt questions about our collective identity and values, Mitchell says, particularly in relation to how minorities and underrepresented populations are included and treated today.
It's a topic that has impacted Mitchell firsthand. A woman of East Indian descent, she was adopted by a white family and lived in Cannon Beach as a child and Sisters as a teenager.
"Pretty much everywhere I go, there's an assumption that I don't belong, and that I'm from somewhere else," Mitchell says. "So we'll talk about assumptions based on appearance or perceived race. What does it mean to belong? I'll ask questions around those themes."
Mitchell wants her audience to think about concrete examples of how they feel they belong within their community, as well as times they've felt excluded. The goal is for people to look inside themselves and analyze their own identity and relationship to place, she says, in an effort to understand the fears or preconceived notions that often surround racial issues.
"I really try in these conversations to have compassion. My whole family is white, so I have a lot of empathy for people who might come with preconceived ideas about people's color or coming from a place of fear," Mitchell says. "I try to create an environment that allows people to be vulnerable, to feel safe exploring questions around identity and belonging and history, while also relying on facts to frame the conversation so it's not just me saying, 'Here's how things have been,' but rather presenting data and statistics about where we've been and where we're going."
Stephanie Johnson, the Arts Council's public art and program manager, says the partnership with Oregon Humanities came about when the council began planning their exhibitions for the 2019 season. The exhibit currently on display, "Here Now: Art Inspired by the Immigrant Experience," features work by nine artists from across the country, all of whom are immigrants.
"Their backgrounds reach all over the world, which is really exciting. This exhibit offers many different narratives and lots of really interesting art," Johnson says. "I hope that people can step back and look at something using someone else's perspective. It's not a lecture, it's participatory and open to everyone, no matter how you see yourself or where you're from."
Mitchell's presentation is one of more than 40 planned throughout February as part of Lake Oswego Reads, a communitywide reading program that is now in its 13th year. The selection for 2019 is "The Book of Unknown Americans," by Cristina Henriquez.
As with all good things, though, this year's program must eventually end — and that finale is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center (505 G Ave., Lake Oswego). Organizers have planned a fiesta of Hispanic culture — a sharing of family, color, music, dancing and food featured in the book.
The event will feature Costa Rican foods prepared by Casa del Pollo and entertainment provided by Ballet Folklorico Mexico en La Piel.
Casa del Pollo is a long-established Lake Oswego restaurant that has encouraged diners to "eat like a Tico" (a person from Costa Rico) for many years. The restaurant recently move to a new location at 15088 Bangy Road in Lake Oswego.
Ballet Folklorico Mexico en La Piel is a Mexican folk dancing group comprised of community leaders and elementary, middle and high school students from the Forest Grove School District. The dancers will showcase each area of Mexico, with costumes that are unique to particular regions.
The fiesta begins at 6:30 p.m., with entertainment commencing at 7 p.m. Those who participated in the Lake Oswego Reads passport program can bring their stamped passports to the fiesta to enter a drawing for prizes. The drawing will take place at 8 p.m., and winners must be present to win.
The event is free and open to all. Complimentary wine, beer and appetizers will be available.
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