By Midge Pierce

Under new leadership, Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) is steering its seven neighborhood coalitions that include SE Uplift (SEUL) to look beyond neighborhood self-interest toward support of citywide goals of equality and social justice.

During a presentation at SEUL (which has its own new director and expanded board), new ONI director Suk Rhee called on neighborhood associations (NAs) to ensure they are inclusive of marginalized communities such as the disabled, people of color, renters, the houseless and New Portlanders.

Calling for greater engagement and cooperation, Rhee suggested redefining what it means to be a Portlander by replacing the word citizen with the more inclusive term resident to help “lift up and prioritize” principals that “accelerate change”.

She said that NAs need to bring democracy – “those good, loving standards” – to everyone by doing something region-wide that results in “desired change as it relates to relocation ordinances, divestment and environmental pieces. What do we collectively think?” she queried.

“Some neighborhoods are already leading the way,” she told the SEUL board, while others may be slow to reform. She and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s policy advisor Polly Anne Birge referenced the Overlook NA’s reluctance to add houseless campers to its board. ONI posits that all neighbors, including those experiencing houselessness, should have a voice at the table.

Later, in an interview, Rhee said her goals are still non-specific broad strokes as she learns more about neighborhoods. As for SEUL, she praised it for the addition of some dozen members from at-large and community-based organizations.

SEUL seems to be far along in the process of creating “beautiful missions” that add different perspectives, she said, adding that those who once were a majority, may be uncomfortable as they experience what it’s like to be marginalized.

For longtimers witnessing Portland’s seismic construction and densification, the new focus may be jolting. Yet, a former SEUL chair and self-described “oldtime” board member, Scott Valan, was encouraged by the call for greater unity. Critics need to remember that the board is comprised of volunteers, he said. Those who show up have the most say.

Whose say will dominate remains to be seen, given the Board’s shift away from stakeholders to special interest groups.

[The Southeast Examiner reported in the last issue, that outreach to a number of nonprofit and community organizations has resulted in a younger, more activist board that includes new members from under-represented groups such as ethnic minorities, renters and experts in community organizing.]

As SEUL Director Molly Mayo said,  “There is a dire need for community building.”

How to balance community building with community balance will be a litmus test. A member of an NA that is majority homeowners says seats at the table must include long-time stakeholders who have spent their lives investing in the City.

SEUL’s call for respect for differing views may be difficult in a City in which self-proclaimed pro-growth YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard) are pointing accusatory fingers at those they characterize as NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard).

Alan Kessler, a member of Richmond Neighborhood Association, called NAs, “Megaphones for the privileged.” Rather than listening to the “landed gentry”, Kessler said the City should post “yellow sticky notes that this (document) is from six white dudes,” when they review comments from certain (unnamed) NAs.

By and large, the City’s progressive focus is reaping results. Birge cited the effectiveness of the City’s emergency rental policy that requires landlords to pay relocation costs for no-cause evictions or rent increases of more than 10%. The policy has reduced rent hikes and emboldened tenants to make complaints about sub-standard living conditions, she said.

Portland Tenants United Board member Soren Impey distributed petitions to extend the relocation policy beyond its current emergency designation and expand it across all Multnomah County. The state failed to pass meaningful tenant protections in the last legislative session, he said, “due to the power of the landlord lobby.”

Largely missing from the discussion were issues of crime, drug use, needles in parks and playgrounds, densification without infrastructure improvements, and preservation.

A group poised to oppose the City’s decision to build a $350 million water filtration plant was shut down. New co-president and filtration proponent Terry Dublinski-Milton declared there was no time for nonboard member questions.

Whether this first meeting with the new board under new leadership represents a radical shift in direction or merely a change in style, the meeting began in a spirit of cooperation as Board members and guests were asked to declare their spirit animals.

At this writing, the SEUL board was heading into a retreat that Dublinski-Milton said would focus on advocacy training.