Reclaiming spaces and 'Reclaiming Black Joy'

July 20, 2022

Hundreds of people flowed through North Portland’s Dawson Park on Friday, June 24, amid music, laughter, food and performances that made up the first of four summer celebrations focused on bringing joy to the Black community.

The event series, called Reclaiming Black Joy, is a “park-based, cultural activation” focused on countering negative experiences and hardships with opportunities to experience and share joy. It’s one of many local summer events that are leaning into people’s desire to return to activities and places they know and love despite countless crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the uptick of community violence happening both locally and across the country.

Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, director and founder of the youth-development organization I Am MORE
Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, director and founder of the youth-development organization I Am MORE
“A lot of times, we do events in parks that are maybe [focused on] anti-violence or put[ting] the guns down,” said Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, director and founder of the youth-development organization I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday). “We can decide to put our energy somewhere that helps us grow or put our energy toward negativity; what we think about, it grows in our minds. But, when we counter the negative with events like this, opportunities to smile, play dominos, paint, balance it a little bit; it doesn’t allow the heaviness to overwhelm.”

“Reclaiming Black Joy” takes place at Dawson Park, a two-acre haven in the heart of the Eliot neighborhood, complete with a gazebo and surrounding performance space, and a playground, a fountain, basketball courts and more. During June’s inaugural event, activity filled the park: from singing and dancing performances and DJs at the gazebo, to dancing, food trucks, face painting, art stations, card games, hair braiding, haircuts and more. All food and activities are free. I Am MORE also passed out free kente cloth printed scarves and lanyards and free Spreading the Black Joy Virus t-shirts, made in all sizes.

The next event, organized by I Am MORE, is set for Friday, July 29. Residents can join the festivities every last Friday of the summer, through September, from 4 to 8 p.m. at North Williams Avenue and Stanton Street, which will be closed during the Reclaiming Black Joy events.

Attendees of the inaugural Reclaiming Black Joy event

Community partners include Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH), Community and Adolescent Health (CAH), and Behavioral Health Programs, Legacy Emanuel Hospital, the Urban League of Portland, PreSERVE Coalition, which empowers Black elders to improve their brain health and Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church.

Many of these organizations set up booths and provide items like free cooling kits, health packets and library books, as well as other resources, including information on community events. Just as important, they contribute to a sense of connection for community members who’ve longed for and needed it. 

“We are reclaiming this space in a positive way and not excluding any of our people — showing that we have love, spreading joy and love,” said Cherrell Edwards-El from the Multnomah County Health Department. “Just let everyone know they are welcomed. That they are worthy. They are valuable and they deserve to be happy.

“And so we want to bring the different components that really uplift Black humanity. That’s music, that’s dancing, that’s healthy habits and just community.”

Even the site of the event, Dawson Park, holds historical significance to many Black Portlanders. For decades, the park has served as a hub for Black culture and community. Portland Parks and Recreation describes it as the “epicenter of many political and social movements” — where civil rights marches have started and where leaders like Robert F. Kennedy have addressed the community.

The surrounding community — like many adjacent neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland — endured the practice of redlining for decades and now struggles with the fallout from redevelopment, gentrification and displacement. Yet, despite the displacement of countless Black households in recent decades, Dawson Park has retained its role as an important gathering space, continuing to host generations of Black families.

June’s event was no exception, paying homage to several pillars of Portland’s Black community. Event planners honored Black elders and youth, including Paul Knauls, the “honorary mayor” of Northeast Portland and the now-retired owner of Geneva’s Shear Perfection salon on Northeast Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“There are people who have a legacy of impact and a legacy of joy,” said Sunshine Dixon, an I Am MORE event organizer and community connector with the nearby Soul Restoration Center on Northeast Killingsworth Street.

The center is located in the former Albina Arts Building, which also served as a significant creative hub for the Black community. Today, the once-empty storefront is now a comforting space for Black elders, artists and community members. Renamed The Soul Restoration Center, the gathering space holds Black-focused events for a pandemic-fatigued community and is hosting dozens of Black youth during a leadership-building, paid summer internship.

Attendees of all ages enjoyed a range of recreational activities at the Reclaiming Black Joy event.
“This is what I’m talking about. It’s the legacy, it's the thread, it’s the cloth,” said Dixon. “It’s the way we were born and the way we were brought up. It is who we are, and it just doesn’t make the news. But we’re glad that you get to see what we see on the regular.”

Next door to the Soul Restoration Center are the offices of FaithBridge, another organization offering space for healing, hope and joy. FaithBridge helps women emerging from trauma and/or a life transition to reconnect with their faith in a deep and life-transforming way. Multnomah County has partnered with and supported the program as part of its investments aimed at promoting safety and healing, strengthening the community, and protecting individuals.

“We believe that healing is possible and that joy is what our life was supposed to have,” said Dixon. “That’s a positive and powerful way to move forward.”