S. Renee Mitchell - 2021 Gladys McCoy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

August 4, 2021

The Gladys McCoy Lifetime Achievement Award was created to honor the legacy of former Multnomah County Chair Gladys McCoy. Each year a community member who models the ideals of McCoy is awarded the distinction.

A survivor of trauma both inside and outside of school growing up, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist, a teacher and a creative revolutionist, S. Renee Mitchell and her I Am MORE (Making Ourselves Resilient Everyday) initiative give at-risk youth of color “experiences I never had.”

2021 Gladys McCoy Lifetime Achievement winner S. Renee Mitchell
S. Renee Mitchell remembers her first time meeting Japhety Ngabireyimana. Ngabireyimana was raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania and moved to the United States when he was 8.

“I would always see him with his hoodie tied up to his chin. He was quiet and he was clearly a very insecure young man because he’s tall, but he tried to pretend like he was invisible,” Mitchell recalls.

Ngabireyimana had been bullied so relentlessly in school because of his African heritage that he was ashamed of his ethnicity and who he was.

But after joining Mitchell’s I Am MORE initiative — a strength-based program designed to cultivate resilience and a culture of belonging in traumatized youth — his demeanor shifted. Mitchell and Ngabireyimana’s family helped him re-establish a connection with his African roots and transform his trauma into a passion for fashion and clothing. 

“He was getting so much love and nurturing and also support from his parents, that he started smiling more and even walking differently,” she remembers.

Mitchell, herself, is a survivor of adolescent trauma and bullying, which she experienced both inside and outside of school. She is also a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. Now, Mitchell helps young people heal the wounds of their past traumatic experiences by finding and using their inner and ancestral resilience. Tapping into this resilience allows the youth to move past their trauma and discover their unique sense of purpose. 

“I was just like Japhety at his age,” Mitchell remembers. “Being a very lonely, bullied child, I was not given direction on how to figure things out, so I would use writing to process different situations and try to make sense of why people could be so mean and intentionally hurtful. I always wished I had a mentor, someone to guide me and help me to see my own potential. That never happened. But now, I’m committed to offering Black youth what I never received at their age.”

Mitchell describes herself — as well as the other adults who work for I Am MORE — as master gardeners who aim to help young people harness their inner strength and creativity so that they may blossom into the best versions of themselves. Mitchell believes she is helping to achieve that goal every day. 

“A whole lot of youth organizations give youth something to do,” she says. “What I Am MORE does is give them someone to become.” 

With support and guidance from I Am MORE, Ngabireyimana and other Black youth are sharing their stories of resilience across the country — in person and virtually — to inspire other youth experiencing similar situations.

With his newfound confidence, Ngabireyimana, now 21, developed a clothing line with his 18-year-old cousin. The idea for the business sprang from Ngabireyimana’s own journey toward self love. His “bproud” fashion line is intended to encourage others to embrace who they are — just as they currently are — and to actively celebrate what makes them unique. 

Ngabireyimana is just one example of the tremendous impact Mitchell’s I Am MORE initiative can have on Black youth, who comprise, according to research, the most traumatized adolescent group. For Mitchell, Ngabireyimana’s story is a reminder of why the work of I Am MORE is so important.

“Now he’s so proud of who he is that he wants other youth and anyone else to understand that they need to be proud of however they show up in the world — that they should not be ashamed of who they are just because of someone else’s smallness,” she says. 

Since founding I Am MORE in late 2018, Mitchell has transformed the lives of many young people like Ngabireyimana. The initiative helps those experiencing trauma to understand and reflect on the hidden wisdom that trauma can reveal, and then find creative outlets that encourage youth to be paid to publicly share their personal stories of shifting from trauma to resilience.

Mitchell’s own traumatic childhood experiences helped her understand the need for Black youth to be mentored by culturally specific and powerful role models. She also understands their need to have nurturing spaces where they can learn to embrace their inner worthiness, creativity and potential without judgment, suspicion or deficit-based thinking. 

As a middle child with eight siblings, Mitchell says her most influential role model was her father, who died unexpectedly when she was age 11. He was a dedicated community advocate in the 1960s and early 1970s, rallying his low-income neighbors to pressure the city of Santa Rosa, Calif., into dedicating more than five acres of land into that community’s first park.

Newspaper clippings also document how his leadership led the post office where he worked to pass its first union contract. Mitchell’s father also helped spur the first Head Start locations in Mitchell’s ethnically diverse neighborhood 

“He was just this amazing person who cared a lot about empowering those around him to make the best out of not so easy circumstances,” she says.

It was his legacy, which she learned about decades later from a collection of weathered newspaper stories, that she said inspired her current work as a Creative Revolutionist™, a title she gave herself to describe her breadth of creative talents and community-based empowerment projects.

As a child, Mitchell turned to writing to help process her traumatic experiences, unconsciously building skills that eventually led to an award-winning, 25-year career as a newspaper journalist, including a stint as a columnist for The Oregonian. She was once named the top columnist in five Western states by the regional Society of Professional Journalists. 

Throughout her career, Mitchell pursued and excelled at several other creative endeavors including publishing a novel; writing and illustrating a children’s book; and self-publishing numerous poetry books. 

Her efforts to educate the Black community about domestic violence led to the creation, in 2006, of the culturally specific Healing Roots Program, which still operates as a part of Bradley Angle House’s program offerings. Mitchell’s play, poetry book and CD about domestic violence, all titled “Tangoing With Tornadoes,” grew into a one-woman play that she performed across the country and as far away as Saipan. 

Mitchell’s unrelenting creativity and dedication to uplifting her community have not gone unnoticed, Locally, she has received a Spirit of Portland Award from the City of Portland and a Josiah Hill Public Health Hero Award from Multnomah County. And she was selected this year as a nine-month Legacy Fellow for Portland-based Senior Advocates for Generational Equity (SAGE). 

Mitchell’s community engagement awards include acknowledgements from the White Bird dance presentation company, the World Arts Foundation, Delta Sigma Theta, PassinArt: a Theatre Company, and Sistas Enterprise. She has also received a Community Freedom Fighter Award from Roosevelt High School and the Yolanda D. King Drum Major Award from Portland’s Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church.

Nationally, Mitchell won three social-emotional learning (SEL) awards from New York City-based NoVo Foundation, and she was selected as a Community Weaver from the Washington, D C.-based Aspen Institute. She was also named one of 21 Leaders of the 21st Century from a New York women’s organization. Later this year, Mitchell will receive a Liberty and Hope Award from the Portland-based League of Minority Voters. 

Despite Mitchell’s many creative pursuits, I Am MORE is where her heart lives now. She founded the organization after finishing her successful career as a journalist. After working for years as a teaching artist in schools, she was recruited to work as a journalism teacher at North Portland's Roosevelt High School, the most racially diverse high school in the state.

In her first year, Mitchell revived the Black Student Union and the school’s Black History Month assembly, where she invited community members for the first time to witness the cultural programming. Mitchell also founded an inaugural Black Girl Magic Club with money from the city’s Office of Youth Violence Prevention, then under the leadership of Antoinette Edwards. 

Mitchell came up with the idea for I Am MORE after three members of her Black Girl Magic Club each received a $16,000 “Beat the Odds” scholarship from Oregon’s Stand for Children organization. Each of their applications documented several forms of trauma, such as homelessness, poverty, sexual assault, hunger and bullying. 

During the 2018-19 school year, Portland had only four “Beat the Odds” winners. So Mitchell decided to extend the acknowledgment of her three Black Girl Magic mentees into an opportunity for them to empower other youth of color. 

“I said I need to put a flag in the ground, because this is a big deal; we need to figure out a way to celebrate that and see how we can replicate it,” Mitchell says.

The initiative quickly gained steam as more youth heard about the program. The combination of listening circles and mindfulness practices with artistic integration methods helped many of the youth, like Ngabireyimana, find their passion.

By January 2019, just months after its creation, I Am MORE held its first performance at the World Arts Foundation’s annual tribute for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., where four youth publicly shared their personal stories of trauma and resiliency.

“Nothing was memorized or from scripts, as these were all their personal stories,” Mitchell says. “There were some tears, even from the young men, because it was the first time they’d shared this intimate part of their lives.” 

What was really transformational about the performance, Mitchell said, was how the audience reacted to the youth. 

“Adults were coming up to them in tears, wanting to hug them, wanting to give them money, wanting to praise them, saying ‘I found myself through your story,’ or ‘I wish I was as brave as you,’” Mitchell says. 

“That’s the first time these students — who had once been ashamed of their trauma — started to recognize the power of personal storytelling and its impact on other people, and started to have a sense of their own agency. Where else are they getting an opportunity to celebrate their stories and their resiliency and then afterward get treated like a superstar?”

I Am MORE became the basis of Mitchell’s dissertation at the University of Oregon, where she graduated in June 2021 (despite the fact, she notes, that her high school teachers told her she was not college material). With Mitchell’s Doctor of Education degree, I Am MORE is now one of very few evidence- and-research-based, leadership-development programs in the country that serve Black youth.