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Aly’ce Brannon-Reid—a cheerful, impassioned 25-year-old North Portland woman with light brown skin, curly black hair, and a master’s degree in nonprofit leadership—insists that she not be identified as an “expert in parenting” for this article. Fair enough. However, for many parents in Portland, she’s provided expertise that has fundamentally changed their relationships with their children.

Brannon-Reid is a home visiting specialist for Portland’s Black Parent Initiative (BPI), providing support services to young African American parents. She acts as a doula, housing advocate, therapist, coach, and education specialist—among other roles. In short, she is a professional friend and mentor.

“I don’t call them my clients,” she says. “I call them my mothers. I see their successes; I’m there through their crises. It’s a very intimate and sacred relationship.”

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Brannon-Reid was in her office with one of her mothers, 21-year-old Jazzsmin Pullom, and Pullom’s two-year-old daughter, London, who sat on her lap.

“Don’t worry, that’s normal,” Brannon-Reid murmured reassuringly to Pullom, who looked slightly annoyed with her toddler reaching down her shirt to paw at her breasts. “It’s a normal part of breastfeeding.”

Two years ago, Pullom was 19, eight months pregnant, and homeless. (“I knew I couldn’t bring my baby home to my living situation at the time,” she explains. “It was toxic.”) She was referred to BPI through the Department of Human Services and met Brannon-Reid. The two women, just a few years apart in age, have together navigated birth, breastfeeding, and the hous- ing and employment crises. Now in a reliable rental and bringing in a regular income, Pullom has “graduated” from the BPI program, but still often takes her toddler to meet Brennan-Reid for lunch. She’s planning a move to Las Vegas to pursue a career in the beauty products business.

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Pullom credits the home visiting program with helping her find this stability—and with something less tangible, but also fundamental to the program’s design.

“It’s changed my whole parenting game,” says Pullom. “My mom—she whooped us. After this program, I decided not to whoop my child.”

Called Together We Can, BPI’s program has three phases, combining relationship-based home visiting with group-based support, education, and community engagement. Parents like Pullom have the option of staying in the program for a year. This extended timeline and comprehensive “wraparound model”—in which BPI delivers multiple services, rather than requiring families to access them at multiple locations—is one of the program’s many unusual features. Another is its emphasis on cultural identity.

“We believe you need a good, healthy sense of self in order to be successful in other domains of life,” says Chuck Smith, the program director at BPI and one of the primary architects of the program. In their first few months of the program, participants learn about African American history and culture. They’re also paired with relatable mentors like Brennan-Reid.

“When you have to give up your culture to be part of the larger culture, it becomes an acute issue of identity,” says Smith. “And it’s probably greater in Portland than other places, where there’s a more grounded African American community.”

According to the most recent census data, Portland is nearly 76 percent white; a recent Washington Post headline called it the “whitest city in America.” Oregon is also a state with stark parallels between race and class. The most recent “State of Black Oregon” report from the Urban League of Portland reflects that 62 percent of black children in Oregon live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, and 75 percent of African American children in Oregon schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Black children in Oregon are significantly more likely to be unemployed at the age of 19 than white children, and face higher incarceration rates as adults.

By reaching pregnant mothers and their young children in the earliest days of children’s lives, when research shows they can have the greatest impact, the staff at BPI is trying to move the needle on these statistics.

“We looked closely at the research. It wasn’t just a matter of young moms dropping out of high school,” says Kimberly Porter, the program manager for Together We Can. “It was health issues, asthma, dyslexia—all things that affect confidence levels. That’s why the cultural identification piece is so important. Because we are culturally specific, they are more comfortable sharing their vulnerability.”

For young mother Jazzsmin Pullom, the cultural component of the program was critical. Growing up in Gresham, she says, she only knew a handful of other minority students, and didn’t have a good understanding of her own identity or place in the world.

“I had a lot of self-hate passed on from other people,” she says. “This program helped me understand that.”

In the first months of her participation, Pullom learned about African American parents in American history. She credits her motivation to breastfeed her own baby in part to a history lesson she received about breastfeeding among African American slaves.

In fact, Aly’ce Brannon-Reid’s passion for her work came, in part, out of her own confusion about identity growing up as a middle class black kid in North Portland.

“I was constantly trying to figure out where I belong,” she says. “My mother is biracial and my father is black. Nobody looked like me.” In elementary school, she went to a school mostly attended by black students, where, she says, “my black peers were like—‘no.’” At the mostly white high school she eventually attended, she says, “The white people there were like, ‘Oh no. You’re too black.’”

Brannon-Reid headed south after high school to Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college where, for the first time, she met African American people of all shades, incomes, and professions. And yet, this motivated her to come back to Oregon.

“I wanted to come home and yell out to everyone, ‘You guys, we can fit in anywhere! We can be lawyers and doctors and teachers!’” she says. “Honestly, what Atlanta did, it gave me confidence. I realized that I am who I am. And that made me feel successful.”

It’s this confidence, Brannon-Reid says, that she wants to encourage African American parents to embrace as they raise their children in Oregon.

Together We Can is one of three BPI programs focused on empowering African American parents, and the staff estimates they’ve served fifty families since its inception nearly two years ago. The program is paid for through a combination of public funding and awards from private foundations. BPI staff is currently working to expand funding to double their reach of eligible families in Multnomah County.

“It’s funny because Portland seems so progressive,” says Brannon-Reid. “But I think we’re still figuring it all out. I look at our history—it hasn’t been that long since it was illegal for us to even live here—and with all the gentrification recently... we’re still growing up. This whole part of the country is like a toddler just learning to walk.”

To learn more about the Black Parent Initiative, go to thebpi.org.