On July 11, just days after two Portland homicides and the shooting of a 5-year-old boy, nearly 100 people, including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Mayor Charlie Hales, gathered in McCoy Park.
Chair Kafoury and others stood in a grassy field at the park, their mouths covered with white duct tape inscribed with positive messages like “Peace” and “LOVE conquers all.” They then formed two rings, with the people in the inner circle facing those in the outer.
They stood in silence as Multnomah County community health worker Valerie Salazar shared inspirational messages along with facts about youth violence, ending every sentence by saying “one love.” At each pause, the people in the circles shifted one direction, like giant gears in the afternoon heat. With every rotation, a new set of strangers locked eyes and read the silent messages scrawled onto each other’s strip of duct tape.
“It was really powerful to look at people in their eyes and not speak a word,” Chair Kafoury said. “I’m just really thankful to the youth for their commitment to ending violence in our community.”
STRYVE (Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere) is a three-year Multnomah County Health Department effort to treat violence as a public health issue. Community health workers work with young people in North and Northeast Portland to build leadership skills and complete community-building art and literacy projects. The program, led by the department’s Community Capacitation Center, is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This year, Health Department workers reached out to four neighborhoods in Multnomah County: Albina/Killingsworth, Cully, Rockwood/Rosewood, and New Columbia. Young people and community members at each began weekly meetings in January and are currently working on place-based projects designed to inspire an end to violence.
“The idea is to involve community members in place-making and peace-building and really bring their voice into the process,” says STRYVE Program Director Rebecca Stavenjord.
That’s exactly what happened after a July 8 shooting in New Columbia, the latest in a string of gun violence around Portland. Members of STRYVE’s New Columbia group met the next day and organized the July 11 rally.
“It’s not the first time that something like this happened in our community,” said 15-year-old Diana Rios of STRYVE’s New Columbia group. “We organized this event to take a stand and say that we’re not gonna keep quiet about it anymore. We’re silencing the violence.”
Salazar had gathered the STRYVE youth to talk about gang violence the day after the shooting in New Columbia. She asked the group if they wanted an event that promoted peace. Tarvon Randolph and Daniel Dominguez, co-chairs of the STRYVE site in New Columbia, took the idea and ran with it.
“I actually gave them the option to opt out,’’ Salazar said. “I said ‘You don’t have to do something like this.” But Randolph and Dominguez were determined to make their voices heard.
During the meeting, the STRYVE youth from New Columbia quickly organized and promoted the demonstration, led by Randolph and Dominguez, both 14 years old.
“We’re just trying to make this a better community for people,” Randolph said. “We want people to feel safe out here and not worry about a shooting happening.”
The movement stretched across social media, reaching local news stations as well as catching the attention of area leaders, such as Chair Kafoury and Mayor Hales.
“This is a good neighborhood. I mean it’s a neighborhood that has had bad days, and we’ve had a few lately but it’s a good neighborhood,” Mayor Hales said after the demonstration. “We also have a lot of positive things going on here every day and we’re here to celebrate that, too.”
During the meeting, the STRYVE members discussed what message they wanted to send.
Everyone at the demonstration was to wear black and white. A symbol, according to Randolph, of peace.
“[They’re] regular colors...Not gang colors,” he explains.
The goal was to create a moment of silence for the victims of the shootings, but also to encourage the community to come together to stop the violence.
“I hope that people realize that there’s a lot of kids around here and people that love the community,” says Dominguez. In addition to the media outlets, public figures and STRYVE members in attendance, several community members took the time to show their support.
At the rally, young people spoke to reporters about how the demonstration evolved and to spread the word that violence is not the answer.
Randolph spoke passionately about how violence affects residents of New Columbia, saying he wants to be able to walk outside with his friends without the fear of being shot. It’s a simple wish that most people take for granted, and Randolph dreams of a neighborhood his community can enjoy peacefully. “I’m hoping that...we can hang out outside with no shootings,” he said. That “you don’t have to worry about people shooting at you and dodging bullets.”
The demonstration left a lasting effect on participants. While some took the opportunity to pay their respects for victims of violence, all were inspired to become part of the change.
“I think it’s really crucial to ending violence in our communities to engage the youth. I mean, youth will be the leaders of tomorrow,” says Chair Kafoury, adding that it’s essential to empower, respect and foster an appreciation for the community among young people. “The earlier the better,” she says.