One of the most dynamic and impactful artists in the Portland scene is 2019 Spirit of Portland award winner Dr. S. Renee Mitchell. Mitchell’s efficacy stems from always knowing why she’s doing what she’s doing, and those reasons are always about community, especially the Black community.
It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around all the stuff that Dr. Mitchell has accomplished and is continuing to accomplish. She’s a journalist, educator, author, playwright, actor, director, activist, and entrepreneur. For years now, a primary focus for her has been young people in the Black community. Dr. Mitchell has had some tough experiences in her life, and she’s determined to show up for young people in ways that the world did not show up for her when she was a young person. Young people, adults, elders, everybody trusts Mitchell and wants to work with her and be a part of whatever she’s a part of, because they know she’s real. She puts the work in. She puts the time in. She cares.
At the urging of Sunshine Dixon (another firebrand for the Black community, and all-around warm, loving, mightily energetic person) I stopped by the recently opened Soul Restoration Center a few weeks ago.
The Soul Restoration Center, at 14 N.E. Killingsworth St., is the brainchild, or perhaps more accurately, the heart-child of Dr. Mitchell and Darrell Grant, but it’s the crest of a wave that’s been building in the community. For years, starting in the 1960s, 14 N.E. Killingsworth was the Albina Arts Center. In the decades since, it’s had numerous other iterations.
Most recently, Grant – musician, composer, and professor of jazz studies at Portland State University – created the Soul Restoration Project at this same site, a project whose intent was to “explore how art can activate and renew our civic space.” His intent was to restore spaces that had been prominent significantly in the Black community – with art. One of those spaces was 14 N.E. Killingsworth St.
The project was so successful that its initial six weeks of programming turned into four months. At which point, recalls Dr. Mitchell, Grant said, “‘I need to go back to work. I have a full-time job. And I was like, ‘Well, I need a space.’”
Renee Mitchell had founded the I Am M.O.R.E. (Make Ourselves Resilient Everyday) project in November of 2018. I Am M.O.R.E.’s purpose is to counter the racism and trauma that Black children encounter in the public school system. “My job,” says Mitchell, “is to really try to get our youth to understand how amazing, how brilliant, how capable, how creative, how resilient, they really are.”
I Am MORE had grown out of Mitchell’s Black Girl Magic Club at Roosevelt. But as the program kept growing, it needed to find a home. Renee and I Am MORE had recently been awarded $950,000 from the city “to start a Black youth leadership leadership movement initiative,” says Mitchell. “Commissioner Joanne Hardesty decided I was the person who could run this new initiative.”
That this award of money, Darrell Grant’s need for someone to pick up what the Soul Restoration Project was laying down, and the space itself, a historically significant space for the Black community, all came together at once seemed almost too perfect. “The synergy is a little overwhelming,” says Mitchell, “in a good way – because it’s so heart-fulfilling and heart-centered.”
And you feel that. When you walk into the Soul Restoration Center you immediately feel its heart and its purpose. The Black community in Portland hadn’t had a multi-faceted gathering place like this since Reflections Bookstore that used to be on MLK. The vibe is very similar: warm, creative, fluid, and unabashedly Afro-centric. The week I went there, a hat show was celebrating the legacy of Queen Mother Johnnie Maxey and her hats. There was music by a young artist named RainEzra, there was cake, there was ice cream, there were a hundred hats being auctioned off, and there was this feeling of Community.
The Soul Restoration Center’s primary goal is to provide a space for Black youth to be their full, unfettered selves, but it is also to bring them into contact with their elders: to learn from them, be inspired by them, and reach out to them should the need arise.
I talked with photographer Richard Brown, who told me, “The Massai people don’t say ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ Their greeting is, ‘How’re the children?’ When the children are doing okay, everybody’s doing okay.” For him, the Soul Restoration Center is about reaching across generations. “When we talk about villages, about raising children,” he says, “we’ve got to have a venue where things go on and we help youngsters understand the meaning of it. That’s the reason for my support of the Soul Restoration Center.”
Within that overarching goal, the Soul Restoration Center is helping the community in other ways. Tomara Carter is a masseuse and yoga instructor who holds classes at the Center. “Renee put out a call to healers and artists and people that wanted to connect and build something in the community,” she said. For Carter, this was a fulfillment of something she had wanted to see happen for a while. “In 2020, I wrote a prayer to myself about having an Afro-Centric space,” she remembers, “an oasis of movement, meditation, yoga, self-care, self-love and wellness. If that doesn’t describe this place, then what does?”
RainEzra, a young artist and teacher at Ethos Music Center who was performing that Sunday, echoes this sentiment. “When you walk in,” says RainEzra, “you’re like ‘Is this a store?, Is this a community center? Is it a museum?’ It’s everything all in one. I come back whenever I can.”
Donna Maxey, Portland stalwart whose mother was being honored at the Soul Restoration Center that day, has a long and very personal connection with the space, dating back to high school, where she had been invited to take part in the Albina Arts Center. At one point her father had a single-chair barbershop in the building. Years after that, Maxey and her husband had their wedding reception there. “They had all kinds of art on the wall – just like they’re doing now,” says Maxey, “and they had different events going on – just like they’re doing now. This space has really good memories. It makes me feel so good to have the Black community have a space again.”
Marshall Goss Jr., a quietly intense man, is here for the children. “Dr. Renee Mitchell was reaching out to team members that she knew were sincere and genuine about doing the work,” says Goss. “I came on as a youth and family educator, to help organize, run and facilitate youth programming, mentorship and many other special events that are geared towards youth development and advocacy.” When he talks about the Soul Restoration Center, he speaks in warm, loving, terms. “It’s just a refreshing cultural space of love,” says Goss. “It feels like a hug walking through the door.”
Sunshine Dixon, longtime Portland mover and shaker and strategist and community connector for the Soul Restoration Center, is very aware not only of where the Soul Restoration Center is going, but from where it has come. “The Jefferson Dancers put in this wood floor that we’re standing on,” says Dixon. “Not only are we standing on the floor of creativity and ingenuity, but we’re standing on the shoulders of those that came before us. I’m happy to be part of the legacy holders of this space.”
Dr. Renee Mitchell, with more than a little help from her friends, colleagues, supporters, and community, is in the midst of creating something special. When she took over the space from Darrell Grant’s Soul Restoration Project, she decided to keep the name. “I said to him, ‘it feels like this needs to be the title of this place, the Soul Restoration Center,'” she recalls, “because that is at the heart of what we do.”
Mitchell is almost stunned at the way things have come together. “Everything felt right,” she says. “There have been so many serendipities that don’t make any sense other than that our ancestors were guiding our steps. For instance, we’d be sitting around here having a conversation about Kent Ford. Kent Ford would walk through the door. It became a series of magical interactions.”
In Mitchell’s mind, the possibilities of what the Soul Restoration Center can do are endless. Music, spoken word, summer internships, the aforementioned yoga classes will all happen there. The Vanport Mosaic had some of its events at the Center. Eldon T. Jones performed there. The art on the walls will change every month. “Black student unions from all over the Portland metro area come in and they have a place to meet,” Mitchell says.
At the same time, Mitchell knows it’s important to maintain a sense of equilibrium. It’s been a lot of success so far, happening very quickly. “I’m trying not to wear out my staff, so we’re also coming up with policies. We didn’t expect a lot of this stuff to happen, so we have to create policies so there is some fairness about it, so there’s some understanding about who can do what and who can’t.”
Purpose, vision, and heart will lead the way. “There are people who have this heart-centered approach to life,” says Mitchell, “and want to build community and want to help with the healing. They just needed a space.”
The Soul Restoration Project is not trying to do it alone. “There are so many needs out there,” says Mitchell “We can’t do it all. We call it R.I.S.E. (Radically Inspiring Spaces of Empowerment, at the time of this writing it had officially applied for nonprofit status). We want to connect with other organizations who are doing the work who shouldn’t have to be doing this by themselves. There are some smaller agencies who need a grant writer, a social media person, strategy guidance, and why is it that everyone has to have their own person, if they only need them part-time, for example? If we collaborate, we can share and still get the work done. That’s the gumbo thing, right? Everybody brings what they have and then they have enough. We had to learn that.”
When talking to Mitchell, it’s easy to feel why folks are drawn to her. She’s passionate and intense, but it is a warm passion, a generous intensity. She has a big laugh, easy charisma, and a driving energy. Her sense of mission clears each step along the path for her.
“I felt like the community needed a gathering space,” she says, “so that’s what we responded to. Even though this is primarily for youth, we had to make it for community. Because that’s what our community deserves, and it’s what we’ve been waiting for. The reason why the elders keep coming in here is because they’ve been hungry for a space where they belong, and they can gather and see other Black people.”
For mere mortals, this might sound like a daunting amount of work. For Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, it’s something different. “For me, it’s a spiritual thing,” she says. “When I’m centered on joy, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”