Reclaiming Black Joy wraps up second year with more services, locations, and an abundance of health, heart, hope and joy

October 27, 2023

Photo Courtesy Antonio Harris of singers at Reclaiming Black Joy event at Peninsula Park in North Portland.

For the second consecutive year, hundreds of people came together for a series of "park-based, cultural activations" designed to infuse health, heart, hope and joy into the community. 

“Reclaiming Black Joy” celebrations serve as a cultural hub, radiating positive energy and vibes. They are meant to bring the community together in a space of creativity and connection, self-care, trust and belonging.

"When you give people a sense of hope, a sense of being a part of something, then it just grows and grows,” said Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, the founder and executive director of I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday).

Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, the founder and executive director of I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday).

“So we don't have to control everything. We just provide space for people to step into their own kind of power and whatever services that they offer. We just create space for folks to come and join us. And this is the way I think that we do acknowledge and create joy and community."

The Reclaiming Black Joy event series, held in different neighborhoods during the summer and fall months, is organized by I Am MORE, Multnomah County's Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program, and countless others. Each event is a labor of love. It’s the culmination of the efforts of numerous community partners, sponsors, and members who deeply care about Portland, Multnomah County and the historically rich cultural communities that are integral to their fabric. The events offer attendees free food, haircuts, braiding, face painting, art, giveaways, massages, music, dance and more. 

The events started last summer in North Portland's Dawson Park, a two-acre haven nestled in the heart of the Eliot neighborhood that has long served as a hub for Black culture and community. The surrounding community, like many adjacent neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland, endured the practice of redlining for decades and continues to face challenges stemming from displacement, redevelopment and gentrification. 

Residents of these neighborhoods have also faced disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 and many of the subsequent crises the pandemic exacerbated.

“Multnomah County came to us initially last year to see about reclaiming the park. People had stepped away from the park because we are not living in that neighborhood as prolifically as we were," said Mitchell. “I think it's important to recognize that when we start with a vision and we're committed to the possibilities of goodness rather than what is what we don't like, that's happening.”

This year, Reclaiming Black Joy has expanded, both in terms of locations — events were held at Southeast Portland's Ventura Park, North Portland's Peninsula Park and in Downtown Rockwood in addition to Dawson Park — and the range of services available.

Photo Courtesy Shawnte Sims: Reclaiming Black Joy Event Rockwood.

There are more vendors, services and entertainment. The events also include health and education services. The fact that the services are free has helped families, event organizers shared. For those who could not afford haircuts for upcoming school photos, the events are a relief. 

“We have folks giving out fresh vegetables and fruits,” said Mitchell, referencing the presence of Growing Gardens and Black Future Farms at Reclaiming Black Joy. “So we're trying to really not only just provide things but provide things that are healthier and make our community stronger."

In addition to the City of Portland and Multnomah County, many partners contribute to the success of Reclaiming Black Joy. That includes the County's Community and Adolescent Health and Healthy Birth Initiative programs, the Behavioral Health Division, the Department of Community Justice and Libraries, as well as Legacy Emanuel Hospital, Love is Stronger, Oregon Health & Science University Vaccine Clinic, Play Grow Learn, Rockwood Market Hall, Just Men in Recovery, Urban League of Portland, Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, and the PreSERVE Coalition, which empowers Black elders to improve their brain health.

"Everybody, all the different departments reached out because they want to be a part of it," said Stephanie Blume from the County’s REACH program. “They thought it was such a wonderful event, and they want to be a part of Reclaiming Black Joy. So we're so grateful that we have the support that we do from Multnomah County."

“What drives us is the passion, the work that we do, and the youth and families that we get to meet with regularly,” said Jamie Maggard, a Multnomah County juvenile court counselor who attended Reclaiming Black Joy for the first time with her colleagues at Peninsula Park, which has also been impacted by redlining policies and gentrification. 

“They are asking for help. They are showing up daily trying to figure out ways that we can support them.”

“We’re in the business of possibilities, not conclusions,” said John Ashford, also a Multnomah County juvenile court counselor. “I think that Multnomah County is going in that direction. What are the possibilities?”

“I think that's so important what we're doing here and we're able to see and kind of collaborate with other community partners and meet some new people," said Nicole Broadous, a corrections technician with the Department of Community Justice Adult Services Division. 

Photo Courtesy Antonio Harris: Reclaiming Black Joy Event Peninsula Park.

In what has become tradition, the events include a strong multi-generational presence, paying tribute to Black elders like Paul Knauls, known as the “honorary mayor” of Northeast Portland, and Dr. Mariah Taylor, a pediatric nurse practitioner known for opening the first Black-owned, community-based nurse practitioner clinics. 

Reclaiming Black Joy creates a space where community members of all ages feel safe and seen. This year, there was a particular focus on youth —  with a goal of hosting youth-friendly gatherings every month. 

“I grew up coming to these parks as a little kid,” said Sunshine Dixon, a Creative Strategist and Art Community Connector with I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday). 

“There were so many ways that youth were involved this year that fit into our vision of transforming places perceived to be unsafe into places to gather, create and socialize. We engaged youth in everything from event logistics to live performances. There were youths who were actively involved in I Am More, Play Grow Learn, Love is Stronger, Friend of Noise at every event.” 

There were various youth-focused organizations such as Reaching and Empowering All People (REAP) Inc. to African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO), to Black Parent Initiative (BPI). Even youth vendors from the Girl Scouts participated in the final event. 

Photo Courtesy Shawnte Sims: Reclaiming Black Joy Event Peninsula Park

The community fair format helps to promote and enhance community relationships, organizers shared. It can build empathy,  provide a sense of purpose and passion that can bridge generational gaps and contribute to the overall well-being of the community. 

“I've already heard stories from employees where they’ve been talking to people who didn't know that these services were here,“ said Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson

“It's been such an amazing, uplifting thing to be there for the community. And we’re here in a way that we haven’t been for so long because of the pandemic. And so just being a part of these, really focusing on how we can be present and how we can be a partner as we're celebrating Black Joy.”