By Gabriel Frayne Jr.
Neal Keny-Guyer has been one of SE Portland’s better-known residents since he and his wife, State Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, moved to Mt. Tabor in 1994, but you probably won’t find him raking leaves or walking the dog on any given weekend.
Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Portland-based Mercy Corps, estimates that he spends “70 percent” of his time on the road, travelling to crisis zones around the world that would be no one’s idea of a holiday destination.
Mercy Corps currently has aid and development programs on the ground in Bangladesh, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Colombia at the border with Venezuela, among other places. Days after he gave an interview for this article, Keny-Guyer was bound for Niger.
“The mission of Mercy Corps is to build secure, productive and just communities,” Keny-Guyer explains. “We exist to overcome suffering and injustice.”
Aside from providing food, water and other forms of economic assistance, Mercy Corps promotes grass-roots entrepreneurship in displaced communities.
Today Mercy Corps is a 400 million dollar non-profit whose reach includes the Pacific Northwest, where microenterprise programs aim to assist low-income current and aspiring small-business owners.
Keny-Guyer grew up in Tennessee during the civil rights era, an experience which put “inclusion and injustice” at the center of his career focus. He worked with inner-city youth in Atlanta and Washington D.C., and then enrolled in the Yale School of Management. “I didn’t always see the strategic and management skills that are necessary to achieve the change we aspire to.”
In 1980 those skills were put to the test when Yale sent him to Southeast Asia to participate in refugee relief efforts in the wake of the Khmer Rouge “killing fields” in Cambodia.
“Being there, being involved in a global crisis that had global attention, being inspired by so many of the people I met who certainly had tremendous needs but showed incredible heroism, just taught me a lot about what it means to be an authentic good human being,” he recalls.
Keny-Guyer joined Mercy Corps as CEO in 1994 and four years later, the organization established Mercy Corps Northwest, a separate 501(c)3. He speaks of a “seamless web of compassion that connects issues of poverty in our own backyard with issues of poverty on a global scale.”
Those issues may not be exactly identical, obviously, but programs such as LIFE Prison Reentry, which teaches business skills to inmates and former inmates, are Mercy Corps’ version of the global going local.
Then again, not all the challenges of poverty locally are within the reach of Keny-Guyer’s experience. Asked if he has any advice about attenuating Portland’s homelessness crisis, he carefully avoids making any political judgments, saying only “there are no silver bullets.”
“We have to approach it from a systemic standpoint and make long-term investments,” he adds. “Clearly, a piece of that is equipping people who are homeless, who are vulnerable of becoming homeless, with the skills to earn a decent income in today’s world.”
Keny-Guyer and his wife Alissa find mutual support in each other’s work. “The fact that we can somehow as a couple work together to address [global and local poverty] makes us both feel proud of the other,” he says.
At the same time, he maintains that there has never been any issue of conflict of interest as a result of his spouse being in a position to appropriate state funds for anti-poverty programs.
“She is the biggest stickler to make sure there is no conflict of interest,” he insists.
Most people might find Neal Keny-Guyer’s line of work a bit depressing. How does he maintain a sense of purpose and optimism in such a troubled world?
He offers this from his experience: “Last month I was in Yemen. It is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis… People will invite you into their homes and give you their last piece of bread. They’ve got the same dreams for their kids as we do.
“If they can keep hope in the face of their circumstances, surely we can.”