Goals of the Lideres Verdes program are to activate the inner organizer in participants — to educate them on the inner workings of politics in Portland so that they can speak effectively for themselves. Programming is aimed at helping community members to become effective advocates for their own needs to city government. It teaches participants how to give testimonials, how to educate others on issues important to them, and how to organize their community around shared concerns.
Participants graduate from the program ready to contribute to advocacy discourse on issues important to them. Many of the participants in Lideres Verdes in Cully wanted to improve the poor pedestrian and cycling infrastructure that prevented residents from safely walking or biking to local schools and parks. Resident leaders formed the Andando en Bicicletas en Cully (ABC) neighborhood group and began hosting community walks and bike rides to map out the safety challenges. The Cully Walks program became embedded in the local culture.
ABC and Living Cully partners began working with Hacienda’s Expresiones After School Program to educate resident youth on mapping, safety, and advocacy for public infrastructure. After several years of community walks and bike rides in an effort to celebrate these collective efforts and to make the issues more legible to public officials from whom Cully needed infrastructure investments, the community collaboratively designed and installed a series of bilingual wayfinding signs. Living Cully leaders installed the temporary wayfinding system in 2015, and after a year of collective editing and refinement, they sent the permanent version for installation in 2018.
By investing in the leadership development of local residents, a grassroots effort transformed a common tourist tool into an advocacy platform for safe, active transportation and park infrastructures. The wayfinding initiative materialized the resident-led Cully Walks program and contributed to a broader campaign for equitable community change. The Living Cully coalition’s successes illustrate the power of social capital generated through investments in resident leadership.
How It Worked: The Lideres Verdes of Living Cully
Led by Lideres Verdes graduates, the Living Cully Walks program began in 2012 “to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access to Cully’s open spaces through community-based planning (access to such open spaces decreases obesity rates, improves nutrition status, and increases exercise).” Living Cully Walks is a formal program managed by the Living Cully coalition; it can accept grants from agencies like the Metro Regional Travel Options program, but is confined by the formal confines of the Verde nonprofit structure. The Andando en Bicicletas en Cully (ABC) group, alternatively, is a resident-led initiative formed by Lideres Verdes alumni “to unite the community with activities and events to spread awareness about the benefits of cycling … and to inform and support the community regarding pedestrian and cycling safety, and infrastructure issues.” This coordinated effort resulted in a positive culture change for participating residents and an effective advocacy strategy to pressure municipal and regional agencies to mitigate the infrastructure disparities.
In the past four years, ABC and Living Cully Walks organized regular group pedestrian, bicycle, and transit trips to neighborhood parks that included hundreds of participants of all ages. During these community outings, participants noted any impediments to a safe, enjoyable walking or biking experience. Resident leaders documented the best pathways to each of the green infrastructure assets in the community. After amassing an incredible amount of local knowledge through the walks, community leaders knew the work needed to be officially documented through both local and municipal channels. To physically make this organizing and advocacy work manifest in the built world, the network developed the Living Cully Wayfinding System. During a wayfinding workshop in June 2015, residents identified proper placement for 20 signs over a three-mile area to introduce a temporary signage system to prototype the concept. With help from the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University, the community mapped this vision for this first phase of wayfinding.
Cully residents volunteer in the community garden. (Credit: Verde)
Residents hung the temporary signs in December 2015 and continue to solicit feedback on the design, effectiveness, readability, and location from their peers and other major stakeholders. In addition to resident feedback, Living Cully invited municipal staff and leaders to tour the area and provide their input as the team works toward the permanent signage system.
Residents Design Good Parks
Although adults are a major contributor to this effort, the school-age children benefit through increased physical activity, and also by engaging in projects that improve their neighborhood while providing hands-on learning and exposure to career paths. The Hacienda Community Development Corporation’s Expresiones After School Program became a critical partner in this aspect of the effort. Living Cully partners host an active transportation class every summer for the youth, and the wayfinding signage is featured prominently in their learning experience. As Expresiones teacher and Cully resident Ana Mendoza explains, “We have done many Living Cully Walks up to the parks, always taking different paths, and ask the children, ‘What needs to change?’ At the end of the active transportation class last summer, we took the children around to the wayfinding signs that we created as a community — they learned how to read a map, they learned how to read a legend. We want our youth to be able to see it for themselves.”
Youth designers also feature prominently in other Living Cully projects. Since 2010 Living Cully has stayed focused on a signature project, aptly named Let Us Build Cully Park! As Verde worked to win development rights for the transformation of a former dump into a new public park, youth from multiple local schools and Hacienda Community Development Corporation’s Expresiones program led the design of the 10,0000-square-foot play area at Cully Park. For the playground design, students worked with Verde, Vigil-Agrimis, and EarthPlay (a Cully-based business) to learn basic design concepts, map reading, scale, and area calculation using an architect’s ruler. Each group developed an initial play area design, combining typical playground features with nature play elements. Middle school students from Scott School also designed the community garden at Cully Park in six design sessions, working with the landscape architecture firm Terrafluxus, to consider park layout, amenity provision, accessibility design techniques, and connecting to the larger park.
NAYA, along with partners at the Portland Youth and Elders Council, Native American Youth & Family Center, Native American Community Advisory Council to Portland Parks, and Portland State University’s Native American Student and Community Center, led the design for the 36,000- square-foot Inter-tribal Gathering Garden highlighting indigenous food and cultural practices in the center of Cully Park.
An early prototype for the Cully’s Wayfinding program (Credit: Verde)
Living Cully raised more than $6 million to implement this plan and entered into a public-private partnership with the Portland Parks and Recreation Department to develop phase one of the park themselves. The Living Cully Works program ensured that more than 18 percent of those hired to work on the development of the park were lower-income Cully residents who had come through the Verde social enterprise training programs.
In 2013, as market pressures began to rise considerably in the Cully neighborhood, Living Cully invited the Habitat for Humanity Portland/ Metro East chapter in as a core member of their network. Habitat for Humanity wanted to pilot a new approach to their work that paired their new, single-family home construction foundation with a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative (NRI) that acknowledges existing community needs for a diverse set of tactics to increase the supply of high-quality, affordable housing for lower-income families. Portland Habitat’s first NRI site was the Cully neighborhood; Living Cully partners identified weatherization and critical home repair as essential needs for Cully’s lower-income homeowners. Although Habitat’s credit and deed restrictions initially slowed the NRI’s impacts, Habitat remained a flexible partner to find workable solutions to these problems while also lending its bank sheet to Living Cully signature projects. In 2015, Living Cully bought a former strip club with the help of Habitat for Humanity’s considerable equity as leverage, and are turning what was once the Sugar Shack into the Living Cully Plaza Community Center.
This more robust Living Cully network continues to sharpen its focus on anti-displacement efforts, and the group is now contributing to such networks across Portland. An important sibling to ABC is the Cully Housing Action Team! (CHAT!) Group, which includes both residents and allies and is also convened by Living Cully. CHAT!, another group driven by Lideres Verdes alumni, draws from its leaders’ community-organizing skills to bring large groups of lower-income residents for targeted, but much more ambitious, campaigns. For instance, in 2016, the Oak Leaf mobile home park, which houses 25 low-income families in the Cully neighborhood, was up for redevelopment. CHAT! organized its membership to help save the mobile home park, which Living Cully then cooperatively bought through a loan from the Portland Housing Bureau (fig. 6.9). Although Portland has 62 mobile home parks, this was the first time a nonprofit had bought it for the purpose of affordable housing preservation. This victory was significant, not only because resident organization played a major role in convincing the City of Portland to act, but also because it models a community-driven approach to affordable housing preservation in that rapidly gentrifying city.
Cully residents speak out to save the Oak Leaf mobile home park. (Credit: Verde)
CHAT! also contributed significantly to campaigns needed to advocate for a first-ever citywide affordable housing bond that will provide more than $250 million to mitigate displacement in Cully and other vulnerable communities. CHAT! organized 129 volunteers to knock on more than 1,300 doors and do outreach at community events. All three of Cully’s precincts supported the measure at the November 2016 election, and CHAT! was honored by a citywide coordinating coalition for their tremendous effort. The results of these compounding resident-led efforts in the Cully neighborhood are astounding.
What Does Success Look Like?
Living Cully continues to identify ways it can monitor progress and hold itself accountable to coalition goals. Successes can be counted through the 36 residents trained through the Lideres Verdes program, the temporary and permanent installations of the community-designed wayfinding system, the municipal and regional leaders educated on Cully resident needs through their engagement in these design and advocacy projects, the hundreds of local people trained and employed, the substantial square feet of community-designed parkland created, the green infrastructure implemented, the considerable public and private economic capital committed to these goals, the homes weatherized, and the policies changed.
But less quantifiable metrics include the increased adaptive capacity of resident leaders engaging in these organizing and job-training efforts, the culture change beginning when a generation of youth see walking and biking as important to their community, and the impact of young leaders actualizing many new professional techniques to better their community as part of their middle school skills set. Resident leaders are proud of their work, and they intend to continue fighting for the right to stay in this community as it becomes the safer and greener place they envisioned.
Nonetheless, challenges exist in any urban initiative. Verde is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with a traditional governance structure that gives more power to the board of directors and staff leaders than to resident leaders. But Verde has been working to address this imbalance by inviting Lideres Verdes alumni to join in both board and staff positions. The focus on Latino-serving residents by Hacienda and on Native American residents by NAYA risks alienating other racial minorities, but this is also remedied by the citywide efforts and substantial wealth-building programs available to all lower-income Cully residents. Finally, staff continue to self-critique the focus on job creation more so than on wealth creation. Microbusinesses are a part of the Living Cully service provision, but a small part in comparison to the job creation platform Verde provides. Staff leaders ask themselves, with genuine concern, “Is this enough to prevent displacement?” Only time will tell.
Adapted from “Resilience for All,” by Barbara Brown Wilson. Copyright © 2018 Barbara Brown Wilson. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.