Portland, OR: My Story
How can the simple act of taking family portraits help bring a community together?
In recent years, Portland's ethnic makeup has changed. Working to put a human face on the City's changing demographics, a local arts-related organization called My Story developed a project—"We Are Portland"—to teach communities the fundamentals of photography. Using these new skills, community members took family portraits, simultaneously presenting how they see themselves and documenting the diversity of Portlanders. Displayed in public spaces throughout the city, the photographs reached a broad audience and helped to increase public understanding about the changing nature of the City.
While Portland’s reputation has long been that of a health-conscious city with laid-back residents, the City is increasingly recognized as a welcoming place for new immigrants to call home. As a result, the face of the city is changing as minority populations grow. As a city of nearly 600,000, over 13% of residents are foreign born and over 18% speak a language other than English at home. While the center of Portland remains predominantly white, diverse minority populations are now living in areas to the north and south of the city.
With these demographic shifts, communities have changed accordingly. At the macro, city level, Portland has become generally more diverse and there are changing notions within the city about who the “typical” Portland resident is. On a more micro, neighborhood level, particular areas have undergone dramatic demographic change. In the north, approximately 1,000 Bhutanese refugee families now call Portland home. In another neighborhood to the south, Rockwood, the majority of the population comes from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In area schools, 60% of students speak English as a second language and over 20 languages are spoken at home.
Taking into account these major demographic changes and new cultural influences, Portland's challenge was to redefine itself in a more inclusive way. Many new immigrants to Portland did not have access to arts education, so many communities throughout the City felt a need to connect new Portlanders with art. Using art as a common language, these programs were designed to help communities and families connect with each other. An evaluation of existing programs at housing development corporations revealed that different initiatives tended to reach small segments of the resident pool, so there was a need to broaden arts access across demographic and age groups. Youth, they found, were relatively well served, but adults often went overlooked, so there was a need to develop programs that would attract and engage all ages.
My Story, a local non-profit organization, provides photography workshops to communities throughout Portland, introducing arts education to populations that don’t typically have access to such resources. As a way to encourage interaction across different cultural groups, My Story launched an initiative focused on teaching people how to create family portraits. The project was tested initially with a small group and showed that the program reached residents of all ages, from children to older adults. With the Our Town grant, My Story was able to launch the program at a city-wide scale. The program had different goals for different age groups. For youth, they wanted to create a program that would empower them to serve as community builders within their own neighborhoods. For families, they offered a vehicle to help bring different families across different cultures together as a community, while providing something of value—a family portrait. Collectively, these family portraits reflect and celebrate the City's growing demographic diversity.
The program was the result of a collaboration between My Story and the Mayor’s Office, who both had mutual interest in acknowledging and representing Portland’s diversity and changing demographics. While My Story took on the responsibility of project management, the Mayor’s office and city staff facilitated partnerships with other city departments and connected My Story staff with people in the community who could become neighborhood-based partners. Within each of the individual neighborhoods, project staff collaborated closely with local organizations, particularly working with low-income, minority, and immigrant youth (see sidebar for information about specific neighborhood partners).
With the entire city of Portland as a potential site, project managers first narrowed down the field, determining where individual projects would have the greatest impact. Working with the county health department, they created a set of questions and a decision matrix that would guide the selection of those communities that had the least access to arts education. Turning to those areas identified in the survey—typically neighborhoods with low-income families and schools or school programs serving multi-ethnic and underserved communities—they partnered with housing development corporations that already had the capacity and networks to implement projects in these places. Project organizers then set up an eight-session photography workshop for area youth. These workshops taught photography fundamentals, but they also included sessions that helped participants write about themselves and their community. In this way, the project became an historical archive, too. Once the portraits were made, the team created poster-sized prints and partnered with the city to exhibit them in community centers and libraries.
THE KIDS GOT TO BE IN CHARGE OF SOMETHING THAT MADE THEIR COMMUNITY BETTER. IT’S A VERY EXCITING THING. - Alex Ney, My Story project manager
By the end of the project, over 200,000 Portlanders were able to see the portraits. “We heard lots of stories about seeing their portrait in a library and bringing their family to see it,” says Ney. On an experiential level, the project team found that on those days where residents took—and posed for—portraits, the event tended to break down boundaries between the youth photographers and between members of the broader community as well. “People came out that normally wouldn’t have. There was an excitement about each day. Maybe it’s something about the vulnerability of posing in front of each other, but people that normally would not talk to each other started doing so. Staff told us they saw people coming together in ways they had never seen before.”
The project did hit a bump when the mayoral administration changed and project managers found they no longer had the direct connection to different city departments they had once enjoyed. After informing the new mayor’s office about what they were working on, that relationship quickly reestablished itself and the project was able to move forward. These connections proved to be essential for coordinating one of the most successful community events. In one southeast Portland neighborhood, organizers were apprehensive because the community organization was smaller and did not have the same capacity to provide the support services. Led by one of the students, the community itself rallied to help with logistics, securing bus passes and “gas cards” for volunteers to shuttle families to the park where the event was held. Even on a rainy day, hundreds of families came.
“In one community we worked with, a number of Russian and Somalian families were living together in a housing development – but they were not getting along and there was a lot of animosity between the two groups of youth. Family Portrait Day, for one afternoon, helped to erase those boundaries and got people talking to each other.” - Alex Ney, project manager
“The way we’ve always crafted our programs is by listening to people – and by being as flexible as possible. Every community has different sets of needs and challenges. We found that rather than creating program that is just one-size-fits all, you have to have an understanding of who the community is you’re working with and what the place the live in is about. It’s a give and take relationship between the project’s vision and the community itself.” Alex Ney, project manager
- Bhutanese Youth of Oregon (southeast Portland) serving roughly 1000 Bhutanese refugees.
- Davis Elementary Sun School (southeast Portland) Rockwood neighborhood, where 60% of the student body speaks English as a second language and over 20 languages are spoken at home.
- Immigrant Community Refugee Organization – connected My Story with two elementary schools in southeast Portland: Jason Lee Elementary School and Madison High School.
- Rose Community Development Corporation, Leander Court, a housing development that was planning for their first multi-cultural fair.
- Self Enhancement Incorporated (north Portland) serving the African American community.
- Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative, a community development organization serving a mix of low-income African American and Latino youth.