As I alluded to last week, volunteer activism is at the foundation of Portland’s livable streets movement. At Oregon Walks‘ annual Weston Awards fundraising party on Friday night, two of the award winners epitomized that fact: citizen activist Steve Bozzone and the Brentwood Darlington Neighborhood represented by Meesa Long, Lesley McKinley and Chelsea Powers.
With an impressive crowd of advocates, electeds, city staffers, and fellow citizen activists looking on, Bozzone and McKinley shared memorable acceptance speeches that are worth sharing.
Long, McKinley and Powers were up first. This amazing trio led an effort that garnered over $5 million in grants to improve streets in their southeast Portland neighborhood. That’s a big number for a grassroots campaign! And in the process they set records for highest public participation Metro had ever seen by rallying their fellow residents to send in hundreds of postcards, fill in online comment forms, and sign petitions (over 1,000 signatures total).
With a chance to address many of the people who hold city and regional pursestrings, McKinley’s comments were brief; but fierce.
When she said, “We just got two streets of sidewalks [funded],” everyone broke into cheers, but she quickly stopped them and added, “That’s it. I mean, no, don’t clap for that because it’s not enough!”
“We were annexed into Portland 30 years ago and we have just not gotten our due. And so we’re coming for you. And I think we’ve proven how absolutely skilled we are in this work. So be afraid…
This was driven by women. This was driven by underserved people, blue-collar people, of which I am one.
We’re very, very grateful, but we’re coming for your money. Do not forget these faces. We’re going to be at every meeting, we’re going to be at every budget, and we should no longer have to send 400 postcards from underserved children begging for their rights. Don’t make us do this again.”
Steve Bozzone received the Legacy Award from Oregon Walks Friday night. A member of the organization’s board of directors, Bozzone is a fixture in local activism circles and is a strong voice for social justice across many issues, including transportation. Bozzone used his opportunity to remind the room full of mostly white, mostly powerful and mostly privileged people to work harder to lift up all voices.
After going through a list of thank-yous, he recounted his involvement with the City’s North Williams project — that began as a bicycle access update, but morphed into a much-needed discussion about racism and gentrification.
Here’s an excerpt from his speech:
One of my most memborable experiences involved representing Oregon Walks on the Williams Avenue Safety project. In the beginning of those meetings I was pleased to see a good amount of folks from the pedestrian and bike advocacy world in the room. I thought we had a slam dunk and would get to design the best active transportation corridor in Portland. I was seriously pumped.
What I am now ashamed to admit is I didn’t notice who was not in the room. In the historically black community of Albina, you could count the number of Portlanders of color on the committee on one hand. As much as I claimed to care about fair public process, I was not personally bothered by the lack of representation of residents of color.
It took the work of dedicated community leaders to help the city, the committee, and myself realize this was not OK; and it happened to be the way things have always been. My white privilege was protecting me from seeing the injustice in front of me.
Over the course of many months of listening, I learned about the history of the city neglecting the black community, displacing neighbors through the construction of I-5, Memorial Coliseum and Legacy Emanuel [hospital]. I learned about racial profiling and police shootings. I learned that these communities had their own set of priorities, if only the city would listen and act upon them. I learned that our work in transportation is inextricably linked with racial and economic justice.
I’m sharing this story with you all now, admittedly a mostly white audience, because I do not think we have fully embraced the importance of racial and regional equity in our work. It is easy to support the concept of equity while actively resisting it in our day-to-day lives. It is critical that we identify and manage equity concerns early and proactively.
There are so many opportunities to integrate this work into the public works of this city and I think everyone in this room has a role to play. What does this mean for our city and transportation advocacy?
It means looking around the room you’re in, any room, and wondering why certain folks are not there, and not being satisfied until they are. It means when frontline community of color organizations oppose cetnral city projects and demand equal investments in outer neighborhoods, we take a deep breath, listen, and come together to figure out a path forward. It means organizing real coalitions built on meaningful, trusting relationships. It means showing up for each other, even if it means our ideas get put on the back-burner. It means sometimes stepping back and creating space for others to lead. It means learning about our white privilege, and figuring out ways to use it to challenge white supremacy in our institituions, our social groups, and within ourselves.
This award is for all of the folks that have never shown up to a public meeting because they are working multiple jobs and there’s no childcare provided. It’s for those folks who cannot afford to live in Portland any longer, displaced by no-cause evictions and skyrocketing housing costs. It’s for those folks who spend half their day waiting for the bus to come. It’s for the thousands of Portlanders who are forced to sleep outside each night, who have no place to go. It’s for you and me to remember there is so much work to be done, that we must work together, and our work goes well beyond bike lanes and crosswalks.
As the author Virgina Burden puts it:
Cooperations is the thorough conviction,
that nobody can get there,
unless everybody gets there.
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