Dear Friends and Neighbors,
Earlier this month, I participated in an In My Shoes walking tour hosted by Word Is Bond and in celebration of Black History and Future Month. The walk was an opportunity for the young Black men in Word Is Bond’s community ambassador program to showcase their stories and dreams for their neighborhoods. It was enlightening and inspiring.
Our tour was led by Iman, Mohamed, and Ahemed. Each moved to the United States from Africa when they were young. Mohamed and Ahemed, who are twins, shared their experience of developing a community at Rigler Elementary, where they served as school crossing guards and learned to play basketball. Now seniors at De La Salle North Catholic High School, Mohamed and Ahemed will be off to college next year. Iman is currently studying social work at Portland State University.
The three shared what it was like to grow up in Cully, with Iman evocatively describing it as a “beautiful struggle.” Like many neighborhoods in northeast and east Portland, the residents of Cully have persevered in a neighborhood that lacks the investments and opportunities that all residents deserve. Cully is a neighborhood I know particularly well after serving as the interim executive director of Hacienda CDC, a Latino Community Development Corporation headquartered in Cully and focused on providing affordable housing, homeownership support, economic advancement, and educational opportunities.
At each tour stop, Mohamed, Ahemed, and Iman spoke about the significance of the place and its impact on the community, read a poem, or shared more about themselves. We learned about the steep decline of the number of Black residents in Cully in the last 10 years, the urgent need for more affordable housing to fend off displacement, and a lack of community space like a recreation center or pool. We heard our guides describe gun fire that occurs in their neighborhood so often that it is often mistaken as fireworks. And we walked along car-centric, multi-lane streets with poor pedestrian infrastructure, narrow sidewalks, and few safe points to cross.
Mohamed, Ahemed, and Iman showed us these places to help us envision what it was like for them to grow up as young Black boys in a neighborhood that hasn’t received adequate investment or provided longtime residents with the support they deserve. They didn’t gloss over the hard parts. Instead, they embraced nuance when talking about Cully. Many times, they shared how proud they were to be from this neighborhood and the positive aspects of their neighborhood in addition to the negative.
As a resident of Hazelwood, I can empathize with the “beautiful struggle” of living in a neighborhood that simultaneously presents many challenges, but also instills pride. Neighborhoods like Cully, Hazelwood, and others seem to be grappling with critical issues that unduly burden the people who live there, which are overwhelmingly made up of communities of color, new Portlanders, and middle- and low-income residents. Houselessness, gun violence, transportation safety, climate impacts, and many other systemic issues are plaguing our most vulnerable residents citywide–making it near impossible for them to experience a standard quality of life.
But steps are being taken. We stopped in front of a 50-unit affordable housing development being built to welcome families that would otherwise not be able to afford Cully’s rising housing prices. We stopped in front of Hacienda CDC’s new office building, which brought a smile to my face. We heard of organizations like POIC+RAHS and Latino Network who are engaged in quelling the gun violence epidemic by working directly with communities impacted by gun violence. And I’ve visited beautiful parks and new small businesses in Cully.
On the way back to Rigler Elementary School, we walked on a path along NE 60th to the intersection of NE 60th and Alberta. According to the guides, this path and a 4-way stop intersection had only been installed in the last four years. Ahemed, Mohamed, and Iman shared how they were glad the path and intersection had been installed, but lamented that it had come many years too late and remarked that the timing seemed to coincide with growing gentrification in Cully. One could easily overlook this smaller detail on the tour, but to me this was one of the biggest takeaways: we need to make haste on investments in safety and community in underserved neighborhoods, and simultaneously keep those residents from being displaced.
I am grateful to Iman, Mohamed, and Ahemed for sharing their experiences and for their fierce advocacy for their neighborhood. What they are advocating for are community investments: housing to provide stability and a sense of place; a community center for recreational opportunities and a welcoming space for kids; transportation improvements to allow people to move freely and safely in their neighborhoods; and strong cultural organizations to help give people a sense of belonging.
These are smart investments, and ones that we are making. I’ve fought successfully for pedestrian safety improvements throughout our region; we are bringing desperately needed affordable housing online in Cully and elsewhere; and I was proud to secure funding to bolster our non-profit gun violence prevention partners, enabling them to expand.
But we can do more, and we must. These young men and others deserve as much.
P.S. The wonderful photos from this tour were taken by Multnomah County photographer, Motoya Nakamura. You can see more photos from this tour and the other In My Shoes Tours at the County's Flickr page.
The 2022 short legislative session is well underway, and I have advocated for important bills to expand overtime protections to farm workers, phase out the use of petroleum diesel in Oregon, and provide transparency around the Oregon State Treasury’s investments in fossil fuels. I’ve also advocated for better planning and preparation around the emergency preparedness of the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, and for funding to combat gun violence. I’m also advocating for additional state funding for affordable housing, to help address our homelessness crisis and to pay our childcare workers better wages.
If you support any of these measures, I urge you to contact your legislators and share your views. You can learn who your legislators are and how to contact them here.
Short legislative sessions move very fast -- they last no more than 35 days. In the coming weeks I will be sharing additional ways that community members can advocate for our community’s policy and budget priorities.
Taking Further Action on Air Quality
Last week, the Multnomah County Board unanimously approved changes to the County’s wood smoke curtailment policies, strengthening our efforts to address harmful wood smoke pollution. This work is the result of the work group that Commissioner Susheela Jayapal and I convened last fall and builds upon my long record of working to address air pollution, which includes my work as a state legislator to eliminate coal-fired power plants in Oregon and working to phase out dirty diesel engines.
The action we approved last week did three things. First, it removed the term “green day” from the code to create a system that consistently discourages burning, while continuing to issue “yellow day” advisories for voluntary curtailment or “red day” advisories on which wood burning is banned. Second, it extended restrictions year-round from the previous curtailment period between October and March. Third, the changes eliminated the exemption for EPA-certified wood stoves, since they pollute more than previously known. Exemptions remain for low-income residents, situations where wood burning is the sole source of someone’s heat, religious purposes, and emergency situations.
Wood smoke is a major source of air pollution in Multnomah County, and exposure to wood smoke particulate matter can lead to increased risk of respiratory illnesses, exacerbation of asthma and other lung conditions, and lung disease and cancer over longer periods of time. Exposure to the pollution caused by wood smoke has also been linked to increased COVID-19 mortality rates.
Our fundamental message is this: There is no healthy way to burn wood, wood smoke is always detrimental to public health and air quality, and Multnomah County does not encourage wood burning on any day of the year.
I had the opportunity to join Multnomah County’s public health director, Jessica Guernsey, on OPB’s Think Out Loud to talk about these changes. You can listen to our interview with Dave Miller here.
And if you want to learn more about wood burning or sign up to receive alerts about yellow and red days, you can do so here.
For this month’s constituent spotlight, we spoke with Steph Routh, community advocate extraordinaire, about her passion for walking*, community engagement, and finding solutions to some of Multnomah County’s most complex issues.
Steph is an energetic and caring community activist who has spent much of her career developing ways for community members to become active in the planning and development or preservation of the places where they live, work, and find belonging. Walking is a huge part of how Steph conducts community engagement, motivated by the Latin phrase “solvitur ambulando,” which translates to: “It is solved by walking.” Steph believes that stepping foot in a neighborhood and seeing a place through the eyes of its residents is one of the best ways to examine issues and potential solutions, as well as improve one’s ability to connect with a space.
To her core, Steph believes that complex issues, such as homelessness, transportation safety, and climate change, can be addressed and mitigated. One way to do this is by encouraging community members to be an agent of change to solve the issues that occur in their neighborhood. Steph’s recommendations include addressing accessibility barriers to important tables, such as City and County committees or neighborhood forums, and of course embracing a Housing First approach to our region’s housing shortage.
You can read more of our conversation with Steph Routh here.
*Walking is used in this context to include both walking and rolling.