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Race & Community on Portland’s NE 14th Place, Part 3

(Race and Community . . . )

Each of us faces the menacing spectre of racism in our own way—but we face it alone, and it’s too big to fight alone.

It seems so complicated, so confusing, and in the end, it’s so hard to take action. I refuse to be a racist. I want to reach out, to share my struggle, but how can I? Black and white people haven’t yet created a forum where racism can be openly discussed. The opposite of racism is community— how do we build it?

It’s easy to be caught in guilt. I feel like I, as a white person, must be part of the problem. Didn’t white people cause it? What have I done about it? It’s difficult to assert my need to talk with my neigh-bors about racism. Guilt keeps us apart. We must come together, somehow, to take action.

Some people are in the neighborhood to make a difference. Two young black parents, Bill and Sylva, grew up here. They have moved back to help clean the place up. Avoiding a pack of careening 3-year-olds, I ask them how they feel about the neighborhood.

“I love it,” says Sylva. It wasn’t a response I’d heard before, or expected to hear. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. This is where I grew up, and I know these kids,” waving at the youths in their black sweat-jackets outside her window. “I used to be in the gang, and I want to do something for them. Living somewhere else wouldn’t help the problem. I want to be right here.”

“That’s right,” adds Bill, “People want to believe this is just a NE problem, but it’s not. It’s a community problem. It’s not even just in Portland. It’s a world community problem. The kids come to the gangs looking for love, for family, because their own families are not giving them what they need. To solve this problem, we have to be a world family.”

“Mentors got me out of the gangs,” says Sylva. “People that respected me for who I was. That showed me another way to live. Like at the Albina Ministerial Alliance. That’s what I want to do. Me and seven other women that used to be involved in the gangs are starting our own agency to help girls get out. We’re going to call it ‘Reconstruct.’ ”

Black people, then, can take action for the black kids, and some are. But what can white people do? As long as we take no action, we are paralyzed by guilt.

The Portland Common Economy was founded by one neighbor determined to act. It’s an idea that has worked elsewhere: a neighborhood system of trade, with its own currency. People get together to trade goods or services for “talents.” Karl, the founder of the system in Portland, has organized parties and get-togethers. He’s visited every house in a ten-by-ten block area, many of them several times, delivering newsletters, signing members.

“There’s a critical mass at which the system takes off. People will realize that this is an important resource, something they can use to meet their needs, and they start to depend on each other for a whole variety of things.” Karl sees it as a way to bring black and white together, to deal with the isolation and conflict which racial barriers create. The project is just getting started, but it gives each of us the opportunity to take a chance and talk to a neighbor.

It’s a spiritual calling to Karl. We talked late one night, and he confided in me that he had been spoken to by a power greater than himself.

“What did it tell you?”

“Build an ark.”

Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman carrying the lineage of Hungarian sound shamanism. He will be opening a healing and community center in April. Reach him in Portland at (503) 335-8761 by email.

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