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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > July

Sisters bring public issues from behind private doors

As this issue of The Alliance goes to press, over 100 students, Columbia Villa residents, and community leaders are preparing to attend a community gathering to speak out against powerful changes taking place in their community. The June 26 event, organized by Sisters in Action for Power, is taking on the depletion of public housing, the deterioration of public schools and the displacement of people who have lived and worked in the north/northeast Portland for decades.

As to be expected when dealing with one of Portland’s most dynamic community groups, this event will tackle these hard issues with a good share of creativity, including a send up of “Who’s Gonna Be A Millionaire” game show, poetry, rap performances and skits. The group will also perform “Critical Crossers,” a visual demonstration of the impact of “revitalization” illustrated through girl leaders with critical questions crossing NE Alberta street. Girl leaders with Sisters will also be traveling in a simulated float that reflects the basic themes of the community gathering.

The event is the latest step in Sisters’ “Land Equity” campaign. As part of an ongoing effort to draw connections between colonialism and current changes in the community, the campaign aims to address the devastating affects of privatization and “revitalization “ on low income communities and communities of color. In doing so, Sisters hope to expose the institutions that benefit directly from revitalization. The campaign also seeks to challenge the imposition of dominant norms and values in well-established communities of color.

The communities of north/northeast Portland have long been in trouble. Redlining, disinvestment and “urban renewal” have seriously damaged the local economy. The Memorial Coliseum destroyed a vital part of that community, severing its link to downtown. Despite these factors, low income families and people of color have been able to maintain a community that provided much-needed housing and jobs.

That community is once again under assault from gentrification. Over the last 5 years, housing costs have nearly tripled. Low income renters and homeowners of color are feeling the pressure as neighborhoods in which they have lived for 30 years are transformed into upscale boutique districts. The impacts aren’t just financial. As hair and nail salons are converted into art galleries - some featuring traditional African art - and local markets, clothing stores and clubs are replaced by trendy restaurants and coffee houses, the original residents become cultural refugees in their own community.

Many in the community view the “revitalization” of public housing at Columbia Villa as one of the most serious assaults on established neighborhoods in north/northeast Portland. Under the HOPE VI grant program, Portland’s largest public housing complex will be razed, displacing over 1,200 residents. Parts of the old complex will be sold off to developers while a “mixed economy” development will be built in its place. The net result, however, will be fewer public housing units overall - at a time when demands for public and low income housing continues to grow.

In the meantime, residents find their access to public education shrinking as budget cuts close schools and public school property is sold off to developers make up the difference. In the case of Columbia Villa, the successful neighboring school has already been slated for closure and no funds are available for providing a new facility in its place or as part of the new public housing.

For Sisters, the link between the housing crisis, collapsing economy and other problems facing communities of color and low income families is the land. Who controls the land and how it is used is determining what happens to the people currently occupying it. The community group believes that the real agenda of revitalization is privatization and corporate dominance.

Only by understanding that dynamic and organizing around it can real change occur.

The Land Campaign is an ambitious effort for Sisters in Action for Power. By going to the root of our capitalist system - the ownership of that most basic form of property - the organization risks an unprecedented response from those threatened by the suggestion that change is needed. Sisters, however, has demonstrated in the past an ability to take on foes much larger than themselves. Their campaign for transit equity resulted in reduced pass fares for children attending school.

Sisters in Action for Power is an organization based in the community with multi-racial and intergenerational members . They are dedicated to building leadership and collective power of low income communities and communities of color to make a positive change. For more information about the campaign or about Sisters in Action for Power, call 503-331-1244.

-Dave Mazza


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003