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Phi Beta Kappa cites community's strong arts and sciences

COURTESY RIGHT BRAIN INITIATIVE - Sixth graders at Quatama Elementary in Hillsboro worked with Oregon Ballet Theatre through The Right Brain Initiative to demonstrate their understanding of the water cycle with movement. Portland might be known for its weirdness, but the city’s dedication to its arts, culture and sciences is getting noticed, too.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society, a 240-year-old academic honor society, has named Portland a City of Distinction, which shines a light on metropolitan areas considered to have “exceptional artistic vitality, cultural vibrancy and scientific engagement.”

Generally speaking, Phi Beta Kappa is known for recognizing outstanding college students at graduation — but their overall mission is to champion education in the liberal arts and sciences and freedom of thought. The society’s CEO, Frederick M. Lawrence, says at a time when there’s “so much polarization, we represent a non-politicized, non-polarized recognition of excellence ... in civic life and culture.”

“I think to have a city be recognized not for any political reason, but for the depth of its cultural life, is a very significant thing,” Lawrence added. That depth amounts to more than $253 million — the amount generated by the nonprofit arts and culture sector in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, according to a national economic impact study called Arts & Economic Prosperity IV.

COURTESY ANDREA LONAS - Eloise Damrosch, executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, accepted the City of Distinction award on behalf of the city of Portland. To celebrate the distinction, a reception, followed by a series of “(En)Lightning” talks by professors and others working in academia, was held last week at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Awards of $5,000 were given to four nonprofit programs in Portland that infuse the arts and sciences.

Accepting the award on behalf of the city was Eloise Damrosch, executive director of the local Regional Arts and Culture Council, who also was a member of Phi Beta Kappa while she was a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

“For a city the size of Portland to be playing in the leagues of a city the size of Chicago is always a wonderful thing,” Damrosch said. Chicago was the first city to be named a City of Distinction by the society in the spring.

“It means they’re not just (basing selection on) the largest size of cities, but they’re actually looking at the quality of what happens in all kinds of cities.”

Damrosch pointed to the city’s arts tax as a noteworthy innovation in Portland’s arts and sciences scene. Revenue from the tax, which was introduced in 2012, is disbursed to six school districts in Portland as well as to the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

“The fact that voters agreed to tax themselves is not something you find very often. I think that kind of innovative policy making and its impact on the city itself is something (Phi Beta) was looking for,” Damrosch said.

Under the Regional Arts and Culture Council umbrella is The Right Brain Initiative, created nine years ago. It trains educators to “weave creative thinking into core subjects,” and enables collaboration between the arts community and K-8th grade teachers in regional school districts. It boasts that 27,500 students in 67 Portland metro-area schools in seven school districts are exposed to activities by The Right Brain Initiative.

One of the initiative’s programs lauded at the ceremony was the BodyVox Outreach program, which helps students learn by integrating core academic subjects into dance.

“Science and art come together to teach a lesson, and a teacher comes away with new strategies to teach core lessons,” Damrosch said.

Nonprofit efforts recognized as part of the City of Distinction award included:

• The Right Brain Initiative

• Literary Arts, which engaged more than 13,500 writers, readers, teachers, and students each year through Portland Arts & Lectures, Writers in the Schools, Delve, and the Oregon Book Awards & Fellowships.

• Lewis & Clark College’s Community Engagement and Leadership in Science, which aims to strengthen pathways into math and science education for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

• Portland State University’s Archaeology Roadshow, which aims to introduce the public to archaeology and instill a sense of stewardship for cultural resources.

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