Says city official who wants to diversify Office of Neighborhood Involvement
A rare solar eclipse darkened Suk Rhee’s first day as director of the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement last fall. On her first visit to the coalition of inner Westside neighborhood associations last month, things also got dark suddenly.
Rhee talked of changing times and a new thrust for the once-cutting-edge, 44-year-old agency that she plans to rename. The change she anticipates owes partly to demographics, which have reduced the population of baby boomers to less than that of millennials, who in turn will be followed by the first American generation in which whites will likely be in the minority.
While assuring the audience of white and mostly older neighborhood activists that “our mission is not changing,” she recited a new mission statement touching few familiar notes:
“Promoting a culture of civic engagement by connecting and supporting all Portlanders working together and with government to build inclusive, safe and livable neighborhoods and communities.”
“I’m always skeptical of how lines are drawn,” Rhee explained. “We drew lines around neighborhoods in the 1970s. … Stay within your lines and look in was the approach. Now we’re saying, look outward.”
Rhee emphasized inclusivity as a central thrust of the agency and the reason for updating its mission statement.
“That’s not a commentary on the past; we’re just in a different time,” she said.
And then the time came for audience response.
“You have a serious messaging problem,” said Rick Michaelson, a Northwest District resident, activist, public official and businessman since the 1970s, when he began restoring old houses and sparking the district’s renaissance.
“The way this comes out is totally insulting to us gray-haired white guys who have been working through our neighborhood associations to make the city a better place for all for the last 40 years.”
Michaelson said diversity should be increased but asked that newcomers be added without pushing others out.
Michael Mehaffy, president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, author of two books on urban livability and an international consultant on public participation, admitted to America’s “shameful history of exclusion.”
“How do you deal with geographic neighborhood associations, and how do you bring in people who are marginalized into public process?” asked Mehaffy, who considers those as different goals.
“If we mingle them, we make a hash of both that will lead to watered down representation,” he said.
Mehaffy said greater participation by minorities in neighborhood associations must be encouraged. Advocacy on issues unique to their group, however, should happen independently through separate channels, and not in competition with neighborhood associations.
“That dilution would be bad for both—and worse, a betrayal of the principle of geographic representation that is currently at the heart of Portland’s neighborhood system,” he said.
Steve Pinger, who represents the Northwest District Association on the coalition board, couldn’t see why increasing diversity in the population warrants a mission change for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement.
Pinger joined the Northwest District Association in 1973, when it was blocking a proposed urban renewal area that would have leveled a swath of the district from Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center north to the freeway.
“They weren’t invited to do that; they beat the door down,” Pinger said, suggesting ONI’s current approach represents “a failure of perspective.”
Pinger called Rhee’s approach “a perfect recipe to atomize groups and make everyone equally irrelevant. … I do understand equity and social justice, but how we get there is a really different question than what I’m hearing tonight.”
To each of the harsh rejoinders, Rhee apologized to those offended.
“My mother didn’t raise me to disrespect people, and I understand your comments,” she said.
After one criticism, she affirmed, “I really hear that message” and invited neighbors to “call me out on it” if she evoked a disparaging tone.
Still, Rhee paid no homage to seniority.
Rhee said newcomers to activism feel as much of a stake in their communities as those who have been involved for decades.
“I will listen to everyone, whether they’ve been here for 40 years or four years,” she said.
Rhee advised neighborhood associations that forming coalitions with other organizations is the path to greater influence at City Hall.
“The real constituents are neighbors, whether they are in the neighborhood associations or other groups,” she said. “We can’t prioritize any type of organization.”
The plan involves a new, separate agency to promote inclusion and equity and a council of neighborhoods that would advise the City Council on a range of city issues.
“To be blunt,” wrote Mehaffy, “right now we have a system that serves no one well—except those who benefit from divide-and-conquer politics. Surely we already have more of that kind of politics than we need at the national level, and Portland can do what it often does well: It can show another way forward.”