City bails on funding Visions Into Action – PSU picks up the slack


(Kerfala Bangoura (“Fana”) performs outside City Council Chambers as audience members file in to testify on behalf of the Visions Into Action program.)

The City Council hearing on the evening of May 20 was best summarized by Sisters of the Road co-founder Genny Nelson: “It is not business as usual in Portland.”

Indeed, the individuals giving testimony about the VisionPDX public engagement process and its progeny, the Vision Into Action coalition (VIA), stood in direct contrast to the city’s overwhelmingly white majority. Africans, Cambodians, Iraqis, Latinos and other immigrant and ethnic minority populations packed the seats in council chambers and stepped up to the microphone, detailing in voices alternately shaky and forceful how VIA had empowered their communities — and why the city should not go forward with its planned elimination of VIA’s $339,416 budget.“Through VisionPDX, I felt like I had access to the city in a way I never had,” said Evelyne Ello-Hart, the interim director of the African Women’s Coalition. “It was a clear message that we really mattered.” Before concluding her testimony, she urged City Council “not to kill the vision.”

Romeo Sosa with the VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project spoke of receiving a VIA grant and being invited to City Hall.

“For the first time, day laborers participated in a conversation at City Hall,” Sosa said. “It started a dialogue where we were able to talk to people who saw us as a menace and show them that we are human beings.”

The testimony served as evidence that the massive VisionPDX process — which collected the input of nearly 17,000 Portlanders about their vision for the Rose City in 2030 — had achieved one of its stated goals: “To open up government to all Portlanders, particularly to underrepresented groups and communities.”

Despite the waves of testimonies, the city has determined that the program will no longer be a city-funded iniative.

Not all is lost for VIA, however. The Regional Research Institute for Human Services at Portland State University’s School of Social Work has agreed to both house VIA and be the program’s fiscal sponsor. The move, effective June 30, is unexpected but not without precedent, said Stephanie Stephens, VIA’s program manager.

“VisionPDX worked with the Survey Research Lab at PSU on data for the project,” said Stephens, “and [faculty members] from PSU were really key people in VisionPDX. It seemed like a logical place [for VIA] so when they stepped up we said, ‘great!’”

Stephens said that “when Council passed the VIA resolution in 2008, it specified that the organization would be independent from the city within three years. We will be soon, but nobody expected it to happen so quickly.”

Despite their excitement about VIA’s continuation at PSU, some VIA grantees still feel abandoned by City Hall, marking an ironic end to a relationship that began with community groups feeling embraced and accepted by their local leaders.

Mardine Mao, president of the Cambodian American Community of Oregon (CACO) and a 2008 VIA grantee, said it was “painful to hear” of VIA’s elimination from the Mayor’s proposed budget.

“To eliminate the program completely, breaks the trust with the community,” said Mao. “If they just made a cut to it, I could understand, but …now there’s a disconnect, it seems like they [City Hall] don’t believe in the vision.”

Mao, who worked with her CACO colleagues to create an oral history project that connects Cambodian-American youth to their parents’ stories of surviving the deadly Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, said that the VIA grant helped her community to heal.

“These stories needed to be heard,” said Mao. “A lot of our community suffers because of our history and what we’ve been through. Some have witnessed executions and family deaths, and it’s very traumatizing for some individuals. It’s also harder for them to communicate. But this oral history allows them to engage the youth and help them really understand. It brings the family closer.

“To see a teenage boy break down and cry because of hearing his mom’s story – for the first time in his life – is very powerful,” Mao added. “It kind of humanized the adults to the youth.”
For a generation of Cambodians who fled a murderous regime, trust in government does not come easily.

“We’ve developed a mentality of not trusting leaders,” said Mao, “so for us to be able to get $10,000 from the city … kind of restored our faith in government and politics. We owe our gratitude to the city for believing in us.”

At the same time, however, Mao is dismayed by the city’s decision to cease funding for VIA.
“I realize we’re in tough economic times, but I didn’t think this whole program would be streamlined,” Mao said. “I think the city didn’t really understand what the project meant to us.”

Laurie Powers, the executive director of PSU’s Regional Research Institute, has been in contact with VIA staffers since last fall, when School of Social Work faculty member Bowen McBeath was working with VIA on a grant application. Powers met with McBeath, Stephens and VIA staffer Cassie Cohen to learn more about the program, and “it gave me opportunity to get to know the initiative and appreciate its importance in the community,” Powers said.

“When we heard that VIA wasn’t going to be funded,” Powers continued, “we stepped up to provide them space and support, and look for opportunities to partner with them on future grants. (The Regional Research Institute) is providing a bridge for VIA to maintain some identity and activity through this period until they can establish themselves as an independent organization.”

While the institute will provide VIA with office space, a computer and phone, and access to all of PSU’s facilities, “we’re funded by grants ourselves, so we can’t really control what money will go to VIA,” said Powers. “[Fiscal sponsorship] just means that the City is willing to transfer the dollars left over for VIA to (the institute) and allowing them to realize those funds.” In other words, fiscal sponsorship does not equal steady funding for VIA.

VIA has between $30,000-$40,000 in savings left over from its current fiscal year budget which can be transferred to the institute and used as the program transitions out of the city’s jurisdiction. Stephens admits, however, that despite the PSU partnership VIA’s future is still uncertain.
“It remains to be seen,” said Stephens. “The coalition now has to really think about what to do as a group.”

Stephens and fellow VIA staff members will lose their jobs, but pledge to remain involved with VIA’s evolution without pay.

“When I took this job, I wasn’t looking; I had a job that I loved,” Stephens recalled. “But I really felt strongly about VIA, and as part of VisionPDX I had seen the work on the ground and seen what a difference it has made in the community. I’m not going to stop now.”

While VIA will no longer be funded by the city, the Office of Human Relations would be funded permanently, Mayor Sam Adams said. Created in 2008, the office works on civil and human rights issues, and houses the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“We will have a continued focus on increasing diversity of public outlook and input,” Adams said.


Photos by Ken Hawkins,

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