Elevating Black Youth

City approves outreach for healing

In a ground-breaking move that could become a model for cities across the country, the Portland City Council has earmarked $950,000 to improve the lives of Black youth while giving the young people of color themselves the ability to decide where the money goes.

Financial support for the program can be traced to months of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland following the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, when Portland City Council Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty vowed to find funding to uplift and empower Black youth in Portland and help them heal from the trauma of racism.


“It is rare sitting on this seat on the council that you have an opportunity to get to see a dream come to life,” Hardesty said, describing the effort and outreach led by long time social justice activist Dr. S. Renee Mitchell.


The funding will create a Black Youth Leadership Fund in partnership with the Black United Fund of Oregon and the Oregon Community Foundation and taps appropriations from the Portland Police Bureau, officials said. It was approved unanimously at the council’s meeting on March 2.


Plans call for using “evidence based and culturally grounded engagement processes to raise leadership and entrepreneurial skills of Portland’s Black youth and offer them access to empowerment from inside-out, which can potentially influence their trajectory for generations,” states the city’s resolution.


The fund, according to the resolution, will help make amends for racist practices in Portland’s past, which included redlining, residential segregation and disinvestment in areas like Vanport, Albina and other neighborhoods, undermining the social and educational equality of Black Portlanders for generations.


Mitchell, who will be program administrator, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, educator, poet and artist with a doctorate in education from the University of Oregon. During her presentation on the program to the City Council, she recounted the trauma from her own youth and how important healing from the effects of racism is to young Blacks of Portland.


Regarding the persistent shortfall in graduation rates for Black students, Mitchell made a pointed observation.


“It’s not that their heads are not working, it’s that their hearts are broken,” she told council members. “We do not have to tell seeds what to become. We know that the potential for resiliency, for creativity, for brilliance is already within them, and it’s what we do to nurture the ground to bring that out.”


In a subsequent interview with the Portland Observer, Mitchell said the fund would form a Youth Advisory Council “to help us in creating youth programs that the youth want,” and the young people will be an integral part of the decision making processes.


The Youth Advisory Council will collaborate with the Oregon Community Foundation in determining youth-led grant making opportunities and make recommendations on training programs, funding opportunities and planning events. Contributions to the program can also be made through the Community Foundation

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That effort will include training Black youth to become entrepreneurs. “Our intention is to create a fund that youth who are prepared and ready to be able to get seed funding for their business,” Mitchell said.


The activities will be based at the former Albina Arts Center on Northeast Killingsworth and Williams Avenue, now called the Soul Restoration Center, which will be a center for arts and activities and make connections with other organizations for a more cohesive effort to eradicate racism and elevate Black youth.


The city’s funding will also allow the establishment of the RISE program, which stands for Radically Inspiring Spaces of Empowerment for Black Youth, Mitchell said.


“RISE is for Black youth and allows people to understand our intention, that we are not a single organization or person to try and make things happen, but a collaboration with other organizations and individuals who are committed and have an intention to be healing centered in their programming and to open a research-grounded way of impacting the lives of Black youth,” she said.


Mitchell has already done the research in her doctoral dissertation, “In My Power, I Empower: Moving Black Youth from Spirit-Murder to Emotional Emancipation,” which will be published as a book in the next month. 
She is also founder of I Am M.O.R.E. (Making Ourselves Resilient Every Day), which has received national awards, she said, and is based on her dissertation and will collaborate with other organizations, including Friends of Noise, which provides exposure to the music industry and Stitching Hope, which teaches sewing skills to young people.

Many other organizations have also gotten involved in the short time the Soul Restoration Center has been open.
Mitchell said the potential for additional impact is incredible.


“We’ve only been there for a month and are amassing a number of opportunities including soulful meditation, yoga, a mental health support group for Black women, and I’ve just met with librarians, along with Nikki The Brown Clown,” a black literacy advocate and inspirational children’s entertainer, Mitchell said.


Partnerships have been forged to help Black adolescents, the most traumatized group, she said.


The Black Youth Leadership Fund is a unique effort, Mitchell said, for collective organizations to do this healing work, and the “whole intention is for it to be replicated.”


The effort is already getting attention from national groups like the NoVo Foundation, established in 2006 to support “initiatives that promote a holistic, interconnected and healing vision for humanity” that is in the middle of a two-year pilot project to serve Black youth, Mitchell said.


“I’ve heard from people with their national website and they will have a story coming out in April, but our sights are on more than just Portland and Oregon,” she said. “The same thing that’s happening here could be happening around the country and I have it in mind this will become a national project.”


Hardesty agrees and said the program will spread and says it will have two basic parts, a Black youth leadership development program, and the opportunity to invest resources to benefit youth.


“They can give grant money up to $250,000 a year to other organizations that will help youth be successful in our community,” she said.


Hardesty said the program will be ongoing and the city council would have to take proactive action to stop the funding, which she doesn’t see happening.


“My hope is for this to be an example for other cities throughout the country,” she said.


--Beverly Corbell