March 11, 2013

The leering, the lewd comments and the inappropriate touching started when Katia Pahua-Lopez was eight years old. By the time she turned 11, she was certain a relative was preparing to sexually assault her.

 So she told the only people she knew would understand -- administrators at her school.

 "Due to certain cultural realities," Pahua-Lopez said, "I knew my own parents wouldn't know what to do or how to help."

By the end of that day, an extended-family member was jailed on allegations of abuse. Pahua-Lopez, meanwhile, felt frightened and alone, thinking it was all her fault. She returned home that night with nothing but a note with the name and phone number of a therapist on it.

Now 17 and a student at Clackamas Middle College, Pahua-Lopez has since learned volumes about dealing with harassment of many kinds. She plans to put that knowledge to work Saturday, March 16, when she joins hundreds of other teens for the second annual Rob Ingram Youth Summit Against Violence at the Ambridge Event Center.

The event, sponsored by the Multnomah Youth Commission, will focus on developing specific policy initiatives to curb seven forms of violence identified previously by area teens as the biggest potential pitfalls for youth. They are anti-gay and gender, cyberbullying, gang, school (bullying), home, police, and sexual and dating violence.

The latter is the topic Pahua-Lopez will tackle in a workshop she has signed up to lead.

"The common themes with all these aspects of violence is that they can have devastating effects on the lives of teenagers," she said. "What we are all doing is helping kids identify boundaries and put into place a framework to keep them safe."

Summit organizers say they hope participation at this year's event doubles the 200 teens that attended the daylong session last year.

"The whole goal of this is to let teens speak for themselves about the kinds of violence they confront every day and to explore ways and options of dealing with it," said Perla Alvarez, the commission's co-chair. "They will share their experiences so elected officials can see the impact and do something about it."

Adult policymakers and community leaders will take part in the event but primarily in a listening capacity. They will attend the summit's final two hours, helping decide where the effort goes next.

"The really great thing about the summit is that it is youth-driven," said Alvarez, 18. "It's one of those rare chances for community elders to hear first-hand what's on our minds."

In Alvarez's case, the threat of violence feels ever present. She got involved with the commission as a way to hone her leadership skills, but also because of the fear she experiences each night as she walks from her bus stop to her east Portland home.

"There are lots of shootings there, which are terrifying," Alvarez said. "I'm helping with this now because I want to live in a community where I can walk home and not have to be watching my back every step of the way."

Planning for the first summit was well under way when Ingram, then director of the city of Portland's Office of Youth Violence Prevention, died at age 38 of a heart attack. Youth commissioners quickly decided to name the upcoming summit in his honor.

Now, largely on the strength of a community safety grant of nearly $100,000 from State Farm Insurance, they have found a venue double in size from last year's location and are hoping to see their policies carried out by adult leaders.

"It's a way for young people to own the conversation," said Marc Fernandes, youth development coordinator in the county's Office of Diversity & Equity. "The people most impacted by these forms of violence are the ones driving the discussion."

The Multnomah Youth Commission was formed in 1996 as an advisory board. It became the area's official youth policy body for Portland and the county in 2007 with the signing of an intergovernmental agreement.

At least half of that sponsorship is now uncertain, since Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has yet to decide whether to maintain the city's financing of the group.

"This line item is on the table for discussions, along with everything else," Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, wrote in an email. "In the search for ways to deal with the $25 million shortfall, every line item has to be discussed."

Alvarez, for her part, has no doubts about how the decision should go.

"This work is really helping people," she said. "I see that first-hand every single day."

-- Dana Tims, Oregonian on March 08, 2013 at 8:00 AM