EDITOR’S NOTE: The City of Portland’s unexpected announcement in July that it will cancel its longstanding agreement with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to manage the funding of arts and cultural programs in the city and the tri-county area in summer 2024 has sparked deep controversy and protest. The news, delivered by City Commissioner Dan Ryan, the commissioner of culture and livability, breaks a relationship that has been in place since 1995 and represents an existential crisis for RACC: The city’s funding, which will now go into is own arts programs, accounted for about 83 percent of RACC’s budget.
In this guest opinion piece, Dr. S. Renee Mitchell – artist, journalist, community organizer who has received RACC and other city funding, and leader of The Soul Restoration Center, which is resident at the Albina Arts Center – weighs in on how the city’s arts funding process has played out and what the changes mean for Portland artists and cultural groups.
On March 2, 2022, Commissioner Dan Ryan was one of five unanimous votes to approve $950,000 in funding to create the inaugural Black Youth Leadership Fund (BYLF). The proposal initially put forth by then-City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty previously had been shelved for more than a year before Hardesty selected me as the BYLF’s program manager.
After a 25-year career as a newspaper journalist, including a stint as an award-winning Metro columnist for The Oregonian, I worked as a high school teacher and founded a youth-development and leadership-building initiative, called I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday) in late 2018. Months after founding my program, youth of color were publicly sharing their personal stories of triumph over trauma at local and national conferences; being paid to train educators, administrators, and support staff in Portland and other cities; and expanding their impact they were making on other youth and adults.
In spring of 2021, I completed a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Oregon, and Dr. Joy DeGruy, author, speaker, and developer of the seminal theory “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” which explains how the multigenerational oppression of Black people has led to adaptive and dysfunctional coping techniques, was on my dissertation committee. My upcoming book based on my dissertation, social commentary and my personal experiences overcoming racial and generational trauma will be published this year. It is titled: In My Power, I Empower: Moving Black Youth from Spirit-Murder to Emotional Emancipation.
“The hope of our future is resting on her shoulders, but not by herself,” Hardesty said in 2022, introducing me just before the unanimous BYLF vote. “As a community, we’re going to do this together.”
Ryan — whose Portland City Commission campaign page touted values of promised “stability, collaboration, and decision-making grounded in equity, inclusion, and justice” — gushed platitudes of praise for the budget item’s co-sponsors: “I just want to start off by saying: Commissioner Hardesty and also Mayor Wheeler, thank you for your vision, for your wisdom, for bringing this forward at a time when it took courage from the heart to do the right thing. And this collaboration was truly beautiful.”
Ryan added: “Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, you’re at the right place at the right time and I know that you know that because it came out loud and clear.”
To stabilize the programming, I moved out of a co-working office building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and rented a nearby space on North Killingsworth that had been abandoned on and off for 30 years. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the building was called the Albina Arts Center, which provided a cherished and safe community hub for Black youth, and has just entered a new phase as a creative hub. Later, it was the home of In Other Words, a feminist bookstore which received national attention after it was featured in the sketch comedy show “Portlandia.”
When I Am MORE moved in, though, the space had little more than a wood floor and built-in bookshelves along a back wall. Within a month, I had transformed the space with color, oversized furniture, African art, Intisar Abioto’s award-winning photographs of Black Portlanders, and other cultural artifacts that allowed Black youth, adults, and elders to experience a sense of belonging, safety, and cultural affirmation. We collected dozens of written first impressions: “In this space, we are all seen, loved and supported.” “This feels like grandma’s house.” “This place feels very warm and inviting in cold and lonely Portland.”
The Black Youth Leadership Fund eventually received $500,000 of the $950,000 approved by the City Council. The rest was divided between the Oregon Community Foundation and the Black United Fund. With the help of that money I quickly organized a summer-long Rite of Passage internship, where I Am MORE introduced Black youth to yoga, deep breathing, sound baths and other strategies to calm their nerves. We partnered with Ethos to give away $7,000 worth of instruments to Black youth, and with AT&T, who donated new Chromebooks. Our interns sold their original art at street fairs, learned how to operate state-of-the-art video and audio-production equipment, which led to a group releasing an original album. Our youth performed with professional, award-winning musicians, volunteered at community events, and stretched the bounds of what they thought they could accomplish. In evaluations, youth noted they now have more happiness, focus, confidence, and meaningful relationships with themselves and others.
“I was able to connect with elders and youth who taught me things I could never learn in a classroom,” wrote former 2022 intern Laya Rajee. She added that what she learned in our internship “changed the way I perceive the world around me and the way I perceive myself.”
At the end of the first year of city funding, I also prepared an impressive, 28-page impact report that outlined my approach, my doctoral research, and my documented impact on youths’ lives and on the greater Black community. But after Hardesty lost her seat to Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, a conservative Democrat, no one seemed to pay attention to what I had accomplished or the commissioners’ previous commitments to support Black youth, which research identifies as THE most prodigiously traumatized adolescent group.
I then started to pay closer attention to Ryan’s inconsistency in other issues as well. He once collaborated with Gonzalez to make changes to the voter-approved ballot measure which expands City Council to 12 members and divides Portland into four political districts. A week later, after the public found out about their proposed changes, Ryan backed away from two of the three changes he and Gonzalez had proposed. Ryan also voted in favor of Commissioner Mapps’ proposal to revoke nearly $5 million in funding set aside for a Black-led, anti-racist advocacy group. Then, a week later, Ryan joined Commissioner CarmenRubio in reversing Mapps’ amendment.
During the BYLF voting process, Rubio had noted that my programming “reminded us about the love and joy and healing experiences that all Black children deserve to have.” So, when I saw her at a downtown Portland event in July, I asked her when the BYLF renewal vote would finally be brought to a council vote. She insisted that Ryan had taken the issue from her office and put it under his purview. During the last year and a half, though, Ryan has shifted from offering me gushing praise for my award-winning work with youth to seemingly ignoring an opportunity to renew the BYLF for another year – all without explanation, clarity or conversation.
A few months ago I was invited to be a member of a newly organized Cultural Planning Steering Committee, which Ryan tasked to update the regional arts plan for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. But my participation waned after complaints that the consultant group didn’t take concerns about a lack of authentic engagement with artists and communities of color seriously enough. In addition, Ryan had undermined the yet-unfinished visioning process when he announced that he would gut the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s funding next year and build a city-run, arts-grant distribution program starting in 2024. And he made the announcement without even first sitting down with RACC’s two newly appointed co-administrators.
For more than 20 years, RACC had played such a significant role in my development as an artist, librettist, actress, producer, and grant writer. I was loyal to RACC as its employees and its practices reflected that the organization authentically cared about thevalues the late city Commissioner Nick Fish exuded and ones Ryan once said he also cared about: Equity, inclusion, and justice. Then, in early August, the members of the Cultural Planning Steering Committee were forwarded a letter, which was signed by five well-connected women and undersigned by 246 others, including community-based artists and RACC employees. The five primary signers are: a strategic consultant who worked a long time in philanthropy; an arts consultant who took the strategic consultant’s former job; a representative of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts; the project director for the Keller Auditorium restoration project; and the dean of Pacific Northwest College of Art. The letter demanded the Cultural Planning Steering Committee support a “visionary” investment in the arts that puts significant government funding into “leading-edge programs,” because this suggestion is “a critical part of the region’s recovery and growth.”
The letter, I later discovered, had been written months earlier under a different context, but only recently was forwarded to committee members by Jeff Hawthorne, the city’s arts program manager who had worked for RACC for almost 20 years. Hawthorne also had served as interim RACC director when Fish asked for the first audit of RACC because he was concerned that too much public money was going to the more influential and large arts organizations. Fish wanted more community artists to benefit from the money. Interestingly, the timing of the recent letter emailed to steering committee members skewed the intention of why some of the community artists had signed it.
ENOUGH! I call “foul” on all the unnecessary pressure to willingly conform to those with political influence, and the undermining tactics that are intended to shift more of the arts taxes and other public money from the hands of community artists – where Fish intended it to be – to the larger arts organizations who believe they deserve it more. On Monday, I resigned from the Cultural Planning Steering Committee – one of its few Black members – because I refuse to allow my name – as a community artist, a nationally respected trainer and consultant, and a local community servant — to be construed as endorsing this political foolishness. Ryan’s behaviors are undermining RACC’s stability; emasculating the collaborative efforts of the Cultural Planning Steering Committee that he created; and disavowing his supposed campaign commitments to equity, inclusion, and justice.
My steady allegiance to Fish’s vision’s for RACC is resolute. In 2019, he handed me a Spirit of Portland Award just months before he died of cancer. He said: “We live in a time of such negativity and divisiveness that to have an opportunity to come together to thank someone who has brought such beauty and such joy and such depth to our community is a privilege.” I will carry Fish’s words of praise in my heart forever, and it is evidenced in my actions; in my advocacy for those who are not speaking up on this issue for fear of retribution; and in the multiple ways I create space for those who often feel left out and overlooked.
So, in spite of the city not yet – and possibly never – renewing the BYLF funding, I will continue to provide my nationally award-winning programming that is undoubtedly making a noticeable difference in the lives of the Black youth that I Am MORE works with and for. We recognize the path out of multigenerational trauma that is nurtured by institutionalized racism does not exist by just giving Black youth something to do. Instead, we help them discover whom they can become. And whether my organization has $1 or $1 million, I will continue to do the work that is necessary to help Black youth engage in their own internal healing process, tell their own stories, and resist engaging in negative, self-defeating behaviors that get interpreted as culture.
So, to the community artists, I implore you: Keep pushing back and don’t allow politics to steal your joy or your purpose. To the politically connected: I have shaped a space that exudes caring, comfort and cultural connection, but have never felt any of those things entering any of your buildings. To the general public: Pay attention to inconsistent patterns of behavior and not just someone’s sweet-sounding words. Even silence can tell you a lot — if you’re listening closely.