A Disquieting Legacy: LULI Reflects on Race, Privilege, and Oregon's Future

In April, our Land Use Leadership Initiative met for a frank afternoon discussion of a conflicted history of race, discrimination, and exclusion in Oregon. In this post, participant Aaron Brown reflects on the intersection of this history with his personal history and advocacy passions.

When I applied to participate on 1000 Friends of Oregon’s Land Use Leadership Initiative, I was most excited by the opportunity to learn about how land use policy and advocacy intersects with affordable housing, clean energy and environmental justice. I was eager to spend time engaged in deep discussion with citizens and organizations from across the region and the state to learn more about the role that prudent land use can play in helping us achieve our desired environmental, social and economic outcomes.

So I was excited for the session on diversity, equity and cross-cultural dialogue that the LULI fellowship shared a few weeks ago. 

The discussion was led by Jeri Williams, a longtime social justice advocate and community organizer who also works for Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Her presentation focused first on Oregon’s torrentially racist past; our state’s history includes notorious laws prohibiting African-Americans from living here, providing support for the largest Ku Klux Klan organization west of the Mississippi, and the disproportionate impacts that urban renewal, freeway construction, and gentrification have placed on African-American neighborhoods in North/Northeast Portland.

Williams’ presentation and her personal story highlighted the ways in which many of these policies from our past continue to shape and impact who has access to our neighborhoods, to our natural resources, to our communities. With this background, Jeri encouraged us to talk openly about the ways in which race, class, gender and other facets of our identities impact the way we experience and use the landscape.

The varied backgrounds of the 2013 LULI leaders generated excellent dialogue about how our own histories led us to Oregon. Growing up in Washington County, I can still remember my shock and unease when a high school friend uncovered a covenant in the title of their Cedar Mill house that stipulated that it was illegal to sell the property to African-Americans. 

Now, as a young white male living in North Portland, I find it impossible to think critically about how much I love my neighborhood without remembering that the benefits of a safe, livable community were systemically withheld from the residents of this neighborhood only a generation ago. Our landscape is marked by institutional racism that continues to impact the form and composition of communities today. 

And yet, for all of our discomfort thinking critically of our problematic past, I found the afternoon inspiring.  The reason: LULI members discussed many opportunities for 1000 Friends of Oregon to work with allies across social causes for equity and opportunity for all Oregonians. 

At an earlier meeting of the 2013 LULI members, 1000 Friends Policy Director Mary Kyle McCurdy spoke warmly about the sense of serenity she felt while visiting the Astoria Column at the mouth of the Columbia River after years of successful advocacy for conservation in the watershed. I’ve always found 1000 Friend’s mission – cogent, prudent stewardship of our precious landscape – as a particularly noble undertaking; while there are a litany of environmental nonprofits with laudable objectives, few organizations can point to policy outcomes with such explicit, tangible implications.

The Metolius River, Willamette Valley vineyards, the Urban Growth Boundary – 1000 Friends of Oregon has been remarkably successful standing up for “Oregon Exceptionalism": fighting for what Governor Tom McCall considered the moral responsibility to be stewards of our sacred landscape.

Yet now, when children in Portland are statistically likely to be people of color, perhaps 1000 Friends can use their position to not only protect Oregon but to redefine and broaden the state’s exceptionalism to include all of our population.

It is reaffirming to see 1000 Friends of Oregon partner with groups like the Community Alliance of Tenants to work to repeal Oregon’s ban on Inclusionary Zoning; to connect with migrant farm workers to ease the burdens preventing new Oregonians from owning and farming the land, and to host this 2013 LULI program to strengthen ties between the organization and groups like IRCO, CIO, OPAL and APANO.

I hope that this was the first of many conversations in which we as land use advocates, social justice supporters, community organizers, environmentalists, and (above all) as Oregonians can find the intersections in our work and plan for every community and natural resource in the state to be more welcoming, more accessible, and more equitable.

Jeri Williams’ work and presentation demonstrate that cross-cultural discussion and policies for inclusionary planning require a long-term, concerted effort, and demand continued self-reflection and commitment.

I, for one, left her presentation excited to make this commitment, and I hope that the allies, members, donors, staff and friends of 1000 Friends of Oregon are willing to say the same.

Learn about the Land Use Leadesrhip Initiative here.

Follow Aaron Brown on Twitter.