'In My Shoes': Neighborhood tours with Portland's Black youth
Standing on the corner of Northeast Halsey Street and 132nd Avenue in Portland, Simon Abraha said TriMet's Line 77 bus stop was his gateway to the city.
"The 77 can take you anywhere," Abraha told a group of about 50 people through a megaphone on a brisk, overcast morning Saturday, Feb. 19. "North Portland, Gateway, Lloyd Center, anywhere, downtown."
With his parents working or looking after siblings, Abraha said riding the bus is how he and his friends, including Ted Woldeab, who stood next to him as he spoke, created memories.
"We had so many adventures," Abraha said. "We'd be at the bus stop at, like, 10:30 at night, you know Portland, it's raining, we're drenched, and we're just like singing songs. Those (are) the times that we can look back on and just laugh.
"This place taught me patience. Line 77 really did a lot for me."
Since early February, Black youths like Abraha and Woldeab have been leading people to important locations in Portland-area neighborhoods to share their experiences and hopes through personal storytelling and poetry.
The project, called In My Shoes, was created in celebration of Black History Month by the nonprofit Word is Bond. The organization seeks to change relationships between young Black men and police through dialogue and engagement. Word is Bond's programs predate the nonprofit's founding in 2018.
"There is an absence of Black stories in Portland and in this country," says Lakayana Drury, the nonprofit's founder and director. "We put on storytelling projects to elevate the stories and experiences of rising Black men."
Drury developed the idea for the project after watching youths go on ride-alongs with the Portland Police Bureau as part of Word is Bond's programs, Drury said.
"It feels like a one-sided story," he said. "You're riding through a neighborhood that also has community members in it who also have stories."
In My Shoes tours are flipped ride-alongs, with Word is Bond "community ambassadors" shaping the narratives of their neighborhoods by offering walking tours to police and other community members.
Leading the tour into the tall fir trees of John Luby City Park, Abraha and Woldeab said it was a place where they connected with their families' culture.
Both of their parents immigrated to the United States from Eritrea amid the East African country's decades-long war of independence from Ethiopia.
Committed to giving them better lives, particularly through education, their parents enrolled them in private schools.
For years, Abraha and Woldeab got up before dawn to make the Line 77 bus and commute more than an hour to La Salle Catholic College Preparatory in Milwaukie and Jesuit High School in Beaverton, respectively, where they're currently seniors.
Growing up, Abraha said he found himself in classrooms with mostly white students.
"I couldn't really connect a lot with my roots and who I was as a person," Abraha said.
The park was a place to gather for Eritrean barbeques and better understand where he came from.
"When I came here, I got to be with my friends and kind of reconnect with my culture," he said. "Just talk about our future and what we want to accomplish, and what our dreams are and aspirations."
The next stop on the tour, Gateway Church, is where Abraha said he and Woldeab bonded and first became friends.
Woldeab took the opportunity outside the church to read a poem titled "I'm Sorry," which he wrote while working as an intern for Word is Bond last summer.
by Ted Woldeab
"As we come together
The strangest year of our lives
We chant it's finally spring break
Little did we know our lives forever changed
We chant let us breathe
We want peace and justice so we believe
A man's life lost they let him die
Makes another mom left to cry
They say why me? why me?
The answer is cold
We protest out there to enlighten
But the picture portrays that we're violent
We say BLM
that creates discussion
We get in trouble
and have to face repercussions"
He said the largely negative presentation of racial justice protests in Portland throughout 2020 inspired him to write the poem.
"It was just a negative picture out there for everyone," Woldeab said. "We wanted a better picture. We were protesting for our lives, for our freedom. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, all those freedom fighters didn't fight for nothing."
A vision of progress
After walking along a stretch of road without paved sidewalks, Abraha and Woldeab urged tour-goers to get more involved in their communities and try to connect with their Black neighbors.
"I want to see Portland working with the Black community and building trust," Abraha said. "Right now, I see a lot of distrust. If we really started to work with the youth, building programs for the youth and people of color, we can see our communities be more tight-knit."
The two tour guides outlined a vision for their neighborhood, advocating for improved transportation infrastructure, more community-oriented programs and increased housing and services for homeless people.
Word is Bond's community ambassadors had to conduct an audit of their neighborhood to guide a tour. Part of the audit was to interpret data from local agencies about public safety, transportation and public resources, according to Word is Bond's website. Abraha and Woldeab said they also attended neighborhood association meetings.
"If you don't have a rec center or a library or X, Y, Z, where are the kids going to turn to? The streets," Abraha said.
Woldeab said he sees new buildings and roads being constructed in certain areas of North and Northeast Portland, but that other neighborhoods further away from the city center still get neglected.
Breaking the mold
Even in their own neighborhood, Abraha and Woldeab have had to face people misrepresenting them.
At the final stop on the tour — Glendoveer Golf Course just south of the Russell neighborhood — Woldeab described how he and Abraha were golfing one day when they saw a golf cart drive up behind them.
The man driving the golf cart asked whether they were lost.
"He was like, 'I got a call that you guys were creating a ruckus,'" Woldeab said. "Nonsense like that. Me and Simon, we were just playing golf. It struck a nerve. People when they see us, they don't think we belong here."
The incident was very important to them, he said, adding that it has helped shape their character.
They use golf as a way to break through racial stereotypes about who should play what sports.
"There aren't that many Black golfers," said Woldeab, who plays for Jesuit's golf team. "I tell my other people-of-color friends, and they're like, 'Oh, you play golf? You're whitewashed.' I don't really care, because we're just trying to break the mold. Why can't we play golf? Why do we have to stick to football and basketball?"
The two friends started to play golf after working as caddies at Waverley Country Club.
Abraha said it's first-come-first-serve to have a shift there as a caddy, so he would wake up at 3:30 a.m. to travel across Portland's east side to the country club near Milwaukie.
"That kind of developed our hard work and discipline. It gave me that mindset of being a go-getter," Abraha said, adding that it allows him to think about potential careers through networking.
With gratitude for their parents' sacrifices, both Abraha and Woldeab said they're planning to attend college.
Hearing their voices
The In My Shoes tours were quickly fully booked, said Drury, director of Word is Bond.
Local elected officials have been attending the tours, and some of them have attended more than one.
Woldeab said he was glad to see the Feb. 19 tour attended by several elected officials, including Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, and Portland city commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Mingus Mapps.
"They're the people making the decisions in our community," Woldeab said. "Hopefully they took what we said today."
Abraha said he hoped to see older community members attend, adding that there's a disconnect between what youth in his community experience and what older residents perceive about that experience.
"We're the future, and if we don't have what we need to succeed, what's going to happen 10 years down the line?" he said.
The target audience from the beginning was white residents, Drury says. The group on Feb. 19 was nearly all white.
But more conversations about who Word is Bond community ambassadors want to see attend the tours have come up since the tours began, Drury said, adding that they've talked about wanting to see more Black community members show support.
Attendance by the other main target audience, police, has been sparse since the beginning, Drury said.
Community ambassadors run their tours twice per day, and the first tour was originally intended to be exclusively for police. But there haven't been enough police attending to justify keeping that distinction, Drury said.
"I think there's a missed opportunity there for the officers, especially (for those) that patrol Parkrose, that patrol Cully," he said. "They should be there."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to show that Lakayana Drury is the founder and director of the nonprofit Word is Bond.
It has also been updated to say that Word is Bond's programs predate its founding as a nonprofit in 2018.
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