Public Process & Elements of Dominant Culture, from Williams Avenue to Wall Street

Williams Avenue - Portland, Oregon

Williams Avenue - Portland, Oregon

In Portland, a transportation project has raised the ire of historic neighborhood residents, many who feel the city’s sudden will to improve safety on the street is conveniently timed, as most of the neighborhood’s historically black community have now been dispersed to other neighborhoods and a new, more affluent white community has taken their place. Along with those changes have come a neighborhood unlike it was even five  years ago, replete with bustling white-owned shops, bars and restaurants where black-owned businesses once thrived.

The city has responded to this community’s outcry, and a lot of positive and innovative things are now happening as part of the public process around this project, mostly involving discussions of race and class, the historic trampling of the black community by city officials over the past 70 years, the painful wounds still not healed.  Powerful stuff for transportation planners and process facilitators to tackle, but the city deserves some credit for taking the community’s concerns seriously and not ignoring the elephant in the room.

One piece of jargon that has come up a lot through the process is Dominant Culture. What is Dominant Culture?  This is a question anti-racist whites must ask in perpetuity. Below is an excerpt and link outlining how white supremacy has seeped into every aspect of our organizations, businesses, schools and churches.  These characteristics are so prevalent they are often referred to as “normal” or “professional” by white-led groups.

Dominant Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group.

They are damaging because they promote dominant ways of thinking to the exclusion of differing ways of being and thinking. The overall effects of these dominant cultural norms is to stop us from talking about power imbalances between individuals and groups …. which stops us from creating cultures supportive of transformation towards justice.

Continue reading Elements of White Middle-Class Dominant Culture.

What’s important to understand is that we aren’t simply talking about PAST injustices, we are also talking about PRESENT injustice.  This is extremely pertinent as many whites do not have a good understanding of white privilege and lack the necessary tools of understanding to actually dismantle systems of racism.  Read the handout, resist an immediate temptation to get defensive, and just take it in.  Going forward, see if you can identify these characteristics in your personal behavior, at work, at home, in your activism.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has succeeded in challenging many tenets of Dominant Culture at a populist level, but the work has only begun.  My hope for the Williams Avenue process is that it will compel more Portlanders to confront their own privilege and racial identity, and help usher in a new era of restorative justice locally.  To hope for such an outcome from a transportation project is why I live in Portland.

Referenced work above is reproduced here for educational purposes only.  If anyone has a better version of this document, I would appreciate receiving a copy.

The Shared Cause of Protestors Occupying Wall Street


“Human beings should come before money. Human beings should come before profit. There’s a lot of greed out here [on Wall Street]. A lot of people don’t have things, and there’s a few small people who do have it, and they’re keeping it from us. And they’ve got the cops out here protecting them, and they should be out there protecting us.” – Protestor

Quoted from a Democracy Now interview, part of their coverage of the Occupy Wall Street Protests, now in their second week.

Dignity Village – More Than a Tent City

Shortly after moving to Portland, I began working within the city’s continuum of homeless services. While I had some experience with this in Philly, through street counts and staffing emergency shelters, my experience in Portland has been more entrenched.

One misconception I held was that if someone was on the street, they were avoiding the shelter system due to a variety of valid concerns. This may be true for some folks experiencing homelessness, but many people are interested in warm, clean places to sleep and meet their basic needs. The problem is capacity: there are simply not enough beds to house those on the street, largely due to a lack of capital and operational funding. In Atlanta, where thousands have no beds in shelter and the homeless are defacto banned from the city center, one solution has been large warehousing of the homeless. It is not pretty or comfortable, but it is a shade better than sleeping on the street. Most of the funding for those shelters are through private contributions. Our country refuses to fulfill the basic human right of housing for all. Instead, we see homelessness as an inconvenience, an eyesore.  We criminalize homelessness and push it further to the outskirts of society.  As long as we cannot see it, it must not exist.

Along with an incredible list of non-profits, who have taken on the task of providing basic needs and transitioning the homeless to affordable housing, there is also the ground-up solution of tent cities.  Tent cities allow safe spaces for homeless housing. Tent cities have their own governance, all the officers and decision-makers are also residents. Tent cities provide a source of autonomy that many shelters (once you wait 3 months for a bed) cannot provide. Many tent cities are operated on unused private or public land, sometimes in violation of property laws. It seems that a simple solution would be the provisioning of public land for this use, but because tent cities require a degree of visibility, there is resistance from more affluent citizens.

The Pacific Northwest has gradually accepted tent cities as part of the solution toward ending homelessness.  Such efforts in the Northeast have generally been installed as protest, although there is now a tent city in Camden, NJ. Dignity Village in Portland is part of a movement to create tent cities across the country.  Here are 2 videos that give a glimpse into the world of a tent city:

Working in the Winter Warming Center, a more temporary and crude housing option for homeless residents, I’ve seen how much can be done with little resources. We’re able to house about 100 homeless residents for about $1000 a night. Surely we can come up with the funding to support all of our homeless, if we can muster up the political will to do so.

Violating the Constitution with the aid of Heavy Handed Police Tactics will leave us all confused.

This is classic. Deny constitutional rights to assemble, then crack down with heavy handed police tactics. The result? We’re all distracted from the protest issues (poverty, climate change, militarism) and instead it’s us vs. the police. Then the footage cut for live broadcast makes everyone look crazy. It is not crazy to fight for things you care about, particularly if you have facts and evidence to back it up. Don’t be distracted! This is about economic justice!