In a city where weirdness reigns supreme, counterculture officially lost its cool when Orange was elected and activism became mainstream. If you’ve just moved to this city and are ready to grow beyond the “Black Lives Matter” sign you’ve staked in your yard, you’re in luck—there are myriad ways to get involved and make change.
While activism may conjure images of picket signs and protests, the Oxford Dictionary broadly defines it as, “The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” Beyond public demonstrations, activism can take shape in many ways, including letter-writing campaigns, direct lobbying (in Salem or City Hall, for example), boycotts, careers in the nonprofit sector, ethical investing and divesting, volunteering, and more.
In Armchair Quarterbacks, local zinester Charlie Birch offers a ton of avenues for people with disabilities to engage in social justice including signal boosting (retweeting and sharing), fundraisers, using image descriptions if you are sighted, writing to queer or trans incarcerated persons through the Black and Pink pen-pal program, and supporting businesses owned by people of color (POC) and other marginalized communities. (The Racist Sandwich Podcast has an excellent directory of Portland’s POC-owned restaurants and grocery stores on their website.)
All types of activism are valuable, but figuring out what type of impact you want to make and what communities you want to focus on can guide you in deciding how best to take action. As a newcomer to Portland, understanding the history of the city is crucial so you’ll have a foundation of what progress has been made—and know what work still needs to be done.
Portland has a long-standing history of displacing POC, folks from working class backgrounds, and queer communities. The city sits on Native lands belonging to several tribes, including the Multnomah, Chinook, and Tualatin, and people who exist at the intersections of marginalized communities often face greater barriers to access as a result.
To get your bearings, Know Your City offers walking tours that explore Portland’s history and peoples. Topics include Black-owned businesses in NoPo, Jewish roots, community-driven coffee, and LGBTQ history. The Oregon Historical Society offers access to archival footage, photographs, and more Oregon-related materials, as well as hosting the History Pub lecture series for those who like to drink local beer while learning.
If you’re interested in better understanding a community you aren’t a member of, prioritizing events led by the respective community members honors their autonomy and provides authentic insights into their experiences. Wisdom of the Elders is a Native-led initiative that preserves oral histories and uses a multimedia approach to honoring cultural traditions of indigenous communities in Oregon. The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center rotates exhibits in their Japanese American History Museum and hosts a wide range of community events covering topics like traditional dance, Japanese internment during WWII, and the relationships between the Japanese American and Muslim communities. Right 2 Survive empowers people facing homelessness to control their own narratives by engaging with housed people to eradicate stigma and advocate for their civil rights. The group offers tours of Right 2 Dream Too—which provides space for up to 100 people to sleep at their new Lloyd District site—and they also host a program on KBOO Community Radio Station discussing houseless issues.
Social Justice Fund NW offers community building cohorts through the Portland Giving Project, helps develop organizing and fundraising skills, and is a great way get to know local activists.
Despite Portland’s progressive politics, high school graduation rates for Portland Public Schools are atrocious, and Oregon’s graduation rates are the third-worst in the nation. Since education can be a pivotal determiner of economic and social mobility later in life, supporting youth improves their chances at closing inequity gaps and ensures our impact carries on into the next generation.
The Latino Network, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), and Self Enhancement Inc. all engage youth with unique, culturally specific programs to prepare them for futures in leadership and civic engagement. The Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC) provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth to create community, make art, and receive vital services like case management and advising. Organizations like YGB (Young Gifted and Black), DUG (Deep Underground), and Morpheus Youth Project honor hip-hop and provide opportunities for youth to get involved in music, dancing, and the arts.
Since Portland is a haven for creatives of all kinds, another form of readily available resistance is supporting independent artists, musicians, and media makers. If you find yourself at a strip club, that translates to tipping dancers generously. If you’re at a friend’s DJ night, that means paying the cover if you can afford it.
If you moved to Portland for a leadership role, think about your power to impact systematic change through equity advocacy and by supporting labor rights and unions. Invite people from marginalized communities to join you as a leader in the workplace, and know that there are a lot of capable candidates of all backgrounds in this city. If you’re new to town and currently looking for work, Mac’s List is like Craigslist but local and curated for the civic-minded.
At this point, you might be eager to jump right in. If you’re ready to take to the streets, the Portland Resistance, Milenio.org, Queer Liberation Front, Rose City Antifa, and Don’t Shoot Portland (among many other organizations) host protests and rallies with regularity. Snack Bloc provides sustenance for protesters and often joins forces with MoonShade Medics for physical and mental care for activists on the front lines. They both actively seek volunteers.
At the end of the day, true allyship isn’t defined by how many likes a Facebook post gets, but rather how you show up for your community. Reach out to organizations you might be interested in working with beforehand to make sure they have the capacity to take you on. Learn their mission statements, build meaningful relationships with other organizers, vote for measures that support access to education, the arts, information, and care. As Angela Davis said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”