My view: What if Portland is possible?
Last Friday, just before sunset, a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside a squat eggplant colored building off SE Belmont to see Oregon's poet laureate, Anis Mojgani, read poems out of a window as promised on Instagram. It had been advertised as a BYO chair event, and a yard sale assortment of picnic blankets, camp and folding chairs slowly spread along the sidewalk. One couple pulled a rattan sofa from their van. Orange traffic cones appeared as the crowd edged into the street.
A small woman arrived sporting a hat knit as a bright red strawberry with a leafy green hull. She turned dials on a dilapidated suitcase speaker, and gently sang "I'm a little tea pot" to test the mic while the crowd continued to grow. "Those might not be the words," she admitted. We laughed, uncertain too.
Maybe you've had this feeling in the last few weeks — giddy disbelief in something as simple as gathering among strangers to eat, pray, volunteer, hear music, or take in the cherry trees. This feeling of renewed possibility and promise was palpable among us.
Mojgani leaned out from his aluminum clad slider to get things started, noting that all this had begun when his friend Jennifer had walked by a few weeks prior and knocked on the window instead of coming through the door to say hi. "I didn't know if anyone would come," he admitted, before inviting his friend Haley Heynderickx to share a few songs. The woman with the strawberry hat returned, offering a performance not listed on her North American tour site.
"I mean, this is why we came to Portland," whispered a man to a woman in a matching camp chairs.
• • •
You've seen the billboards and have likely had the conversation. The one about Portland dying. Last summer I started talking about this with activist friends in more jargon-rich terms: Evaluating how we might address the signals of civic distress in our city.
The challenges we face are real, and we won't argue that more impromptu poetry readings will house or heal or hold us. However, in one conversation about whether or not Portland had flatlined, I was surprised by the observation of a small business owner who had grown up here: "Part of the problem is that so many people have moved here recently believing Portland is perfect." As she saw it, this belief in a perfect Portland resulted in an attitude that "Portland" was something provided to Portlanders, rather than created by them. Add to that the yawning chasm between "perfect" and name-your-civic-heartbreak, and you have a recipe for an unhappy community.
"What if, instead, we propose that 'Portland is possible?'" I asked.
In the last several months I've been asking this question of a lot of people. Building an optimistic vision for the future is fundamental to building civic strength. As one veteran civic leader, David Yaden, recently put it, "Trust and optimism are the top civic assets." But we live in a moment when they can be hard to come by.
By Portland is Possible, I mean that our most hopeful vision for our future is possible. And, a hopeful vision for our future is actually more possible now than it ever was before. Because if the vision only works if we ignore poverty, racism, climate chaos, broken trust and failed systems … what kind of vision is it?
We have begun to see the real context in which we must create and work for any vision of a hopeful future. In climate chaos, Portland is possible. Out of a humanitarian crisis of homelessness, Portland is possible. By healing the traumas of past and current racism, Portland is possible. But it won't be delivered.
• • •
Between poems, Mojgani talked about a boat. The boat we're in, a long way from the shore we left … and also some distance from the far shore. Do we know where we're rowing to?
What I see is this. Portlanders are hungry to get to work on "the future of Portland" — whether they define that as reviving downtown, changing the structure of Portland's government, housing people who are sleeping in tents, planting trees on streets with no shade, or re-imagining our riverfront in partnership with Tribes that have long called the Multnomah home.
A small group of us started meeting on Zoom last summer. We were struck that our professional experiences — movement building, civic education, political campaigns, fighting anti-Semitism and white nationalism — seemed both necessary and insufficient to move the needle. A new approach might be needed, something experimental.
We believe that how our communities come together now will likely set the course for where we arrive in five, ten, twenty years. So, it's important to do it in a way that builds civic strengths that we know we'll need throughout that period — and in a way that identifies, cultivates, tests, and supports people who can work together as leaders now and in the future.
We wonder, in particularly, how the next generation of leaders will build trust in governing bodies to reflect their values and to bring about changes in our city and region that will improve quality of life. We view young leaders as essential to our shared work to strengthen democratic institutions and healthy democratic governance.
But it's not just about young people. Established leaders need to be part of this work as well — and not as mentors, but as co-equal partners in the collaborative approach to problem solving. The moment we're in is a "learning edge" for both new and established community and civic leaders — a space to learn about new ways of thinking about the place we call home, develop shared visions for a hopeful future, and build and act on strategies to achieve shared goals.
• • •
Throughout April, our group is hosting a series of conversations with more than fifty civic organizations — from community advocacy groups to business associations and theater collectives to foundations. We're asking leaders of these organizations to reflect on where we are now, and how we might hope to strengthen our work into the future. In the summer, we plan to host "Civic Summer," a gateway to trainings and leadership development activities for people who want to make a difference in the community. And we've design a board game that families and neighbors can use to imagine fun, preposterous, and possible futures for the region. (Vouched for as "actually kind of fun" by at least one 15 year old.)
Portland is Possible continues to be an experiment, asking: What if we invite people into a more positive way of participating right now? What if we bring people together across difference? What if we try a bunch of hopeful things, and some work?
Over the next six months, we'll report on what we're learning in this column. And we'd love to hear from you. What positive vision for the city inspires you?
Portland is Possible is a project of North Star Civic Foundation, Western States Center and Oregon Humanities.
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