Those of us who work for social justice have certain moments— ones where we ask ourselves, “Is this conversation really happening? What year is this? Haven’t we moved a bit closer to our vision of justice than this?”
We have moments where we confront entrenched bigotry, hatred, and injustice in a way that leaves us wondering how much work there is left to do, and how long it will take to reach a just and joyful future where everyone in our communities can thrive.
I recently found myself in one of those moments. For a week, I moved through the highs and lows of seeking rental housing in Portland. After selling the family home of 56 years, I was in the housing market for the first time in a long time. I was aware of the current trends, knowing that rent is being driven unnaturally high in Portland by the lack of quality, affordable housing. What I didn’t expect was to be confronting housing discrimination and bigotry, in much the same the way my family did five decades ago.
One day, I contacted a homeowner for a tour of their rental. My inquiry was over the phone, and after sharing some of my information, the person I spoke to sounded quite pleased to show me her property. Unfortunately, things changed when I arrived.
Her expression was one of shock as I walked toward her door. She confessed that I wasn’t “what she’d expected.” After a nervous and awkward greeting, she said, “I’m not sure if I’m really going to lease out my house… and it’s probably not what you want, either.”
It was déjà vu. Not what she’d expected? Not sure if you are renting after all, now that we’ve met? The situation was all too familiar, a classic case of blatant discrimination, and I realized that I was again confronting the gap between my justice seeking dreams and the reality of these present times— which often borrow from the past.
I thought about stringing the conversation out, moving her out of her comfort zone. What I’d considered a mere formality in completing a housing transaction had turned into a one-on-one education session with another person who wants to resist change; someone who is shocked when they are presented an image of the “other” that doesn’t conform to myths and stereotypes; someone hard-pressed to confront their narrow visions of a rapidly-changing world, desiring to roll us all back to “the way things were.”
The irony wasn’t lost on me, as that was the same week I was preparing to speak at Race Talks, a monthly event at McMenamin’s Kennedy School, organized by my good friend, Donna Maxey. The theme was housing discrimination in Portland and across Oregon, a look back at the history of embedded racism in areas where African-Americans were literally “locked out” of neighborhoods by targeted racial discrimination. And here I was, in 2012, looking at the present: we’ve certainly got more work to do.
Just days after my meeting with the reluctant homeowner, I found myself driving home from another tour of a potential home. Only a few feet away from the house I’d just visited, I was targeted by another driver who hurled racial slurs and violent language at me, all because I was apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stunned by this verbal attack, I quickly jotted down his license plate number, reported the incident to law enforcement, and drove away.
It’s In Moments Like These…
I thought again about my story, the words I would speak at Race Talks a few days later, about my experience as a Black woman who was born and raised in Portland and my family’s experiences with racism and discrimination. I would speak about the disruption of families and our community’s sense of place when gentrification and “urban renewal” shoved large numbers of African American residents, homeowners, and socioeconomically diverse communities of color away from the city’s urban core. I would explain eminent domain and how this allowed local government and planning officials to disguise their disregard for established African American neighborhoods in the 1960s to make way for the building of Portland Public Schools administrative offices, the Memorial Coliseum, and other civic projects.
This was one of those moments where I had to ask myself, “How much further until we get there?” How much further until we have built an Oregon that is safe, inclusive, and accessible for all of us? An Oregon where we can live, work, and build community without fear of discrimination or outright attack for our race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or ability?
We all have our ways to deal with these moments, to muster up the energy, and move forward. But it’s in moments like these that I must remember our history, the alliances we’ve built, and the passionate organizing that is happening right now to confront oppression and injustice. I remember the work of brave allies in our struggle: for instance, the work going on out in Eastern Oregon, where LGBTQ folks at Umatilla Morrow Alternatives are courageously confronting intense bigotry just to be allowed to walk in a local community parade.
I think of the work of the Kommemma Cultural Protection Association in Southern Oregon, whose cultural preservation efforts are continually dismantling the entrenched anti-Indian beliefs and practices in their community.
I think of the dedication of farmworker women of Mujeres Luchadoras Progresistas in Woodburn who are organizing together to improve living and working conditions for their families and all farmworkers, and I recall the determination of human rights activists at Right 2 Dream Too in Portland, building and maintaining a space to facilitate the safety and survival of houseless folks.
I know there is so much work left to do, but I remember these organizers and the thousands of other progressives across the state who are at this moment, standing as allies and supporters, and I feel sure that we can build a just and joyful Oregon— and world— for all of us.
It truly takes all of us working together to move through the most difficult moments, to look honestly at the work needed, to remain strong, and to create change. I know that we’ll all get “there” soon.