After moving from Somalia to Portland 30 years ago, Musse Olol made a commitment to help the city’s burgeoning Somali community feel well-represented by their local government.

Olol began by attending neighborhood association meetings, one of the best ways Portlanders can get the ear of city council.

“But every time I tried to participate, it felt like all of the chairs were taken,” he says. “The system existed only to serve the groups of people it was initially designed for—and those people didn’t look like us.”

Decades later, little has changed.

“We still don’t feel welcome in those spaces,” says Olol, who helped found the Somali American Council of Oregon in 2010. He now serves as the director.

“I know we’re not the only ones who feel this way,” he says. “If people feel uncomfortable, they’re not going to show up.”

The city is aware of this concern as well, which is why, in 2018, Olol was asked to join a volunteer committee tasked with rewriting the 40-year-old guiding principles for the Office of Community and Civic Life (OCCL), Portland’s bureau that oversees civic engagement. The committee’s goal was to update city code—a document defining the function of each bureau—to reflect the needs of all Portlanders, not just those in upscale neighborhood associations. In mid-July, the 25-person committee finalized these updates, and revealed a set of OCCL guidelines that barely resembled its predecessor.

Most notably, the committee erased any mention of the longstanding special privileges the city grants neighborhood associations and neighborhood-based business districts.

For many Portlanders who have felt ignored by the city’s outsized focus on neighborhood groups—organizations whose memberships are often dominated by white, home-owning, middle-class residents—this is good news. But for those who believe neighborhood associations are the backbone of civic engagement, the sweeping changes feel like government censorship.

It’s too soon to know how Portland City Council will vote on the proposed code update, which will be considered during an October council meeting. But their upcoming decision has forced Portlanders to reconsider how civic engagement is measured in a rapidly diversifying city.

“Portland is changing,” says Kristen Gallagher, a local small business owner who sat on the committee to rewrite the code. “This code language expands the privilege to all Portlanders to have a say in how the city changes.”

The decision to rewrite OCCL’s code was the result of a shakeup that began after a 2016 city audit concluded the office was relying on outdated and inequitable rules.

The audit was particularly critical of the bureau’s code, which currently includes details on the ways neighborhood associations and business districts can influence city decisions—whether that’s through appealing the construction of a new building, making recommendations for the city budget, opposing a transportation decision, or giving feedback on proposed parks and public facilities. The city also gives annual budgets to neighborhood associations to fund events, outreach, or special projects.

The 2016 audit noted that the OCCL code doesn’t promise this kind of influence to any other community group, “creating the risk that some organizations or residents do not have the same access to city decision-making.”

It’s that risk that the OCCL committee worked to eliminate. In their final draft, committee members axed any mention of neighborhood associations and business districts, and instead expanded the bureau’s mandate to serve “all forms of groups, including, but not limited to identity-, affinity-, business-, community-, issue-, and neighbor-based groups.”

Suk Rhee, director of the OCCL, says the rewrite simply allows other groups the same privileges that neighborhood associations currently hold. While these groups aren’t explicitly listed in the proposed code, Rhee gave examples of community organizations like Anti-Displacement PDX, Living Cully, Portland United Against Hate, or Albina Vision that could fit into the new model.

“This is not a referendum on neighborhood associations. It’s asking, ‘What other groups haven’t been invested in by our city?’” says Rhee. “When communities have not been named in policy and others have, that has had devastating impacts on their ability to be represented in this country. We have a moral obligation to remedy this.”

“This is not a referendum on neighborhood associations. It’s asking, ‘What other groups haven’t been invested in by our city?’”

Along with the ability to influence city decisions, Portland neighborhood associations are allowed access to grant funding, technical support, help with filing grievances against the city, and notifications about pending policy decisions that affect neighborhood “livability.”

That means that, traditionally, neighborhood associations have almost single-handedly decided how “livability” is defined. But in a rapidly changing city, the decisions of some neighborhood associations don’t necessarily represent the realities of all its residents.

“Crime prevention and safety looks different if you’re talking to a Black community instead of a white community,” says Winta Yohannes, policy advisor for Chloe Eudaly, the city commissioner who oversees the OCCL. “The same goes for a group of houseless people, renters, or the disabled community. All communities deserve livability.”

Yohannes points to a contentious debate that took place earlier this year over where to place a bike route in Northeast Portland. After the Portland Bureau of Transportation opened up the conversation to bike advocates and the Black community—along with local neighborhood and business associations—the city was able to draft a plan that catered to the entire community’s needs.

Many Portlanders, however, insist that neighborhood associations already represent their communities fairly.

In July, during a public comment portion of a committee meeting about the proposed code change, John Laursen, a board member of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association, put it bluntly.

“Neighbors might not know they are being represented by us,” he said, “but they’re being represented by us.” Laursen, an older white man, was one of many neighborhood association members in attendance who expressed indignation over associations being erased from OCCL’s code.

Stanley Penkin, the president of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, also believes his board accurately represents his neighborhood.

“We are a neighborhood of owners and low-income renters,” says Penkin, who has sat on the board for nine years. “There are very few people of color in the neighborhood, so that’s reflected on our board.”

He says the 17-member all-white Pearl District board includes at least five renters. But while Penkin believes his board reflects his neighborhood, he agrees that any policy that’s been around 40 years should be subject to review.

“But they could have come to us and asked our opinion,” says Penkin. “Instead, they’ve created a contentious environment where it’s us versus them.”

OCCL held a series of listening sessions and workshops over the past year to gather the public’s input on a new code. They invited all neighborhood associations to participate. Penkin said he wasn’t aware of these meetings.

Timothy Crawley, president of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, thinks the code update will actually worsen the city’s equity issues. Crawley says his neighborhood’s board accurately reflects the East Portland community’s diverse population, which includes people of color and low-income renters.

If the city financially divests from neighborhood associations, spreading funds among a wider number of groups, Crawley fears his current neighborhood association won’t be able to function.

“Those who don’t have discretionary time or money won’t be able to help,” he says. “It will become less inclusive if you have groups competing against each other for money. And those with bigger incomes will rise to the top.”

Portland’s neighborhood associations are currently funded through “neighborhood coalitions,” seven city-funded organizations that oversee regions of the city. Neighborhood associations can request funding or apply for specific grants through their coalition and can use these dollars to bankroll numerous projects—anything from organizing an annual street fair to printing a monthly newsletter.

The OCCL’s Rhee has stressed that the neighborhood coalitions’ current annual budget won’t be impacted by the code change. But she’s unsure if conversations inspired by the code change will impact the next budget cycle. Rhee wants to guarantee that any changes won’t impact the city’s financial support of the changing bureau.

“We have to ask, ‘Is what we’ve built capable of doing more and different things?’” Rhee says. “We’re asking coalitions those questions right now.”

Some neighborhood coalitions are already expanding their budgets and financing more groups than just neighborhood associations. Since 2013, Southeast Uplift has offered grants to non-neighborhood groups like the Portland Street Art Alliance, Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project, and the Laurelhurst Queer Students Alliance.

These are the types of groups that could see equal representation under the OCCL code change.

Not all Portlanders who’ve sat on neighborhood association boards believe the current model is without flaws.

Sam Stuckey, a member of the Mill Park Neighborhood Association, says that including other groups in OCCL’s code won’t only improve inequality issues, but will also help strengthen neighborhood associations like his.

Stuckey points to his board’s recent attempt to get the city to improve Mill Park’s crumbling sidewalks. He says it would have helped to have other community groups, like pedestrian advocacy group Oregon Walks, to join the neighborhood association in advocating for safer sidewalks.

Stuckey, a white man who owns a home in the Northeast Portland neighborhood, says it’s “silly” to think a neighborhood association could fairly represent an entire geographic swath of the city.

“It worries me,” he says, “to see seven people that all look like me sitting around a table and making decisions for 10,000 people living in Mill Park.”

The fact that neighborhood associations have been the most vocal opponent to the code change is unsettling, Stuckey says.

“I think when the city provides evidence that there’s inequity in neighborhood associations and suggests bringing more voices to the table,” he says, “and the response from neighborhood boards is ‘You’re killing us!’ that should be enough for the mayor to understand something’s wrong with the current setup.”

Chrystal Brim joined the Richmond Neighborhood Association board in 2018. She was intent on helping the Southeast Portland neighborhood embrace the city’s newcomers, many of whom are young families who lack the financial means to own a house. She quickly realized, however, that this ideal wasn’t shared with longtime board members.

Brim says she watched those board members use the neighborhood association’s appeal process to delay the construction of apartments and condos—which are often more affordable options than renting or buying a single-family home—and file petty grievances against board members who supported plans that prioritized bike and bus lanes.

“It was almost like they were a homeowner association,” says Brim. “They were so focused on delaying projects for their own benefit that we couldn’t get anything substantial accomplished. That kind of power struggle didn’t serve our neighbors.”

Earlier this year, Brim and ten other members of the Richmond board resigned in protest of their fellow board members’ tactics.

“I realized I couldn’t waste my time trying to change the neighborhood association,” says Brim. “We need to be able to share, not shut people out. That’s why I strongly support the code changes—so other groups can have a voice.”

“It worries me to see seven people that all look like me sitting around a table and making decisions for 10,000 people living in Mill Park.”

Katy Wolf has no interest in leaving her position on the Boise Neighborhood Association board but is discouraged by the city’s lack of engagement with her dwindling group.

“My neighborhood association is in an area that’s been gentrified, so I think it’s important to have discussions that bring people together,” says Wolf. “We try to have events that empower people to communicate with each other. But it’s been hard to find people who have the time to arrange those events.”

Wolf wants to see more support from the OCCL when it comes to connecting with other neighbors. But, unlike Brim, Wolf doesn’t think upending the OCCL code is the right answer. Instead, she asks: Why not just update the current neighborhood-based structure instead of dismantling it?

“I don’t understand why we need to strike neighborhood associations from code,” she says. “Couldn’t we combine the great new language with the existing language?”

Penkin, with the Pearl Neighborhood Association, agrees. OCCL, he says, “should be connecting us with identity groups, not making us separate entities. Why can’t they give us the tools to be more inclusive instead of pitting us against each other?”

According to OCCL’s Rhee, the city has repeatedly tried to do that—and failed. The systemic barriers that keep minority populations from feeling welcome or heard at neighborhood association meetings are difficult to remove.

“We have to acknowledge that we’ve been trying to fix these programs for 10 to 20 years,” says Rhee. “As leaders, we have a responsibility to acknowledge inherited problems and make real commitments to change them. We can’t just keep tinkering around the edges.”

Unlike neighborhood associations, many of Portland’s business districts—which are also being removed from code language—have expressed indifference to the change.

Todd Struble works for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), where he manages the Jade District program, a business alliance that advocates for shops near the intersection of Southeast 82nd and Southeast Division. Struble believes the code change will have little impact on the Jade District’s ability to be represented at the city level.

Struble’s more excited about how the change could allow more community groups like APANO to have the kind of decision-making power that’s already allotted to neighborhood associations.

“Business districts aren’t working,” says Gallagher, the local business owner on the OCCL code change committee. Gallagher, who also sits on the board for local business advocacy group Business for a Better Portland, says her past experience as a member of a business district was disappointing.

“Members who had more progressive ideas about working within a community were looked down on,” Gallagher says.

Business district decisions often lean conservative. The Central Eastside Industrial Council, for instance, used city dollars acquired through the OCCL structure to fund private security teams to patrol sidewalks often occupied by homeless Portlanders.

In some parts of Portland, however, the decision to slash a business district from city code feels deeply discriminatory.

Take John Washington, president of the Soul District Business Association, whose work includes helping Black-owned businesses thrive in gentrified North Portland. Washington fears that by giving North Portland’s majority-white neighborhood more ways to appeal new construction or make community decisions, his neighborhood’s shrinking Black community—currently represented through his business district—will be silenced.

“The city says it wants more inclusion,” says Washington. “But when a small population of people are fighting to preserve a historically significant place they’ve become the minority in, inclusion means the white people will have more control. It’s a green light for gentrification.”

He compares the code change debate to a 2014 controversy when the City of Portland offered supermarket chain Trader Joe’s a steep discount on a piece of property on Northeast Alberta. At the time, Black Portlanders accused the city of attempting to profit from the systemic displacement of African Americans, a suggestion that inspired Trader Joe’s to drop out of the deal.

“As long as our minority communities are fragmented over an issue, the city has control.”

“As long as our minority communities are fragmented over an issue, the city has control,” says Washington. He’s particularly frustrated that the city is entering this conversation shortly after a plan to revitalize the Black economy along NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. got off the ground.

“It seems like once [Black people] learn the game and start playing it well,” he says, “that’s when then they become concerned.”

The code change is far from final and is still missing crucial details on what the aspirational overhaul will look like in practice. OCCL has yet to propose how, exactly, new groups will gain formal recognition from the city—the kind of recognition that will grant them the same rights as neighborhood associations. Also unknown is how the city will keep hate-based groups from forming and demanding equal recognition.

One idea, proposed by OCCL committee member Gallagher, is to create an advisory council that approves groups who want the city’s recognition.

In Seattle, which gave a similar overhaul to its neighborhood system in 2016, community groups apply to be listed on the city’s website through an online application that’s evaluated by a city employee. Once listed, those groups can apply for city grants and broadcast their events on a city website.

Rhee says these details will be ironed out after the code change proposal goes before City Council. If commissioners approve the updated language, Rhee says, “That’s when we look at all our existing programs to see how they can better reflect the code.”

In the meantime, other city bureaus are preparing to shift their own code language to meet OCCL’s proposed new standards.

“The role [the OCCL’s] code has always played is to signal to the other bureaus—when it comes to civic engagement—whose voices matter,” says Yohannes, with City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office.

“That’s the question at the heart of this discussion: Who is allowed to make decisions about our city’s future?”