It's hard to believe that this already marks week 3 of my time at Catholic Charities in Portland, Oregon. There are a lot of things about Portland that make me feel like it is an instant home: the laid back atmosphere and friendly people, the striking resemblance to Austin circa 2000-2005 (in my humble opinion, the glory years), green and mountains as far as the eye can see. Honestly, the Columbia River Gorge was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring.
In fact, Portland could easily be a contender for a longer-term place to hunker down for a bit. But there are still a few considerable things (like any place, it has its pros and cons) that still weigh on me.
One of which is how strikingly non-diverse the city of Portland is. As one of my new friends here in town said the other night, who is a white male, "Portland is the whitest city in America. And it's pretty terrifying."
The city of Portland is about 76% white—indeed making it the largest white city in America. My first week here in town, I stayed with a friend in downtown Portland—the heart of the city's rapid expansion and growth. It was there where I had a short commute to work and I was able to absorb the city's pulse. And I noticed a familiar feeling that came back that I hadn't experienced in quite some time. And the feeling was this: there were a handful of situations where I was quite literally—the only person of color in the vicinity.
There was the time I stopped inside a store, only to realize that out of about 30 people, I may have been the only person of color in that entire room. There was also hip hop blasting in the background being served with colorfully advertised artisan goods. (SMH.)
This situation and others actually brought back memories of times when frankly I wasn't living in Cailfornia—when I was living in Texas, and even more so when I was one of a literal handful of students who identified as a person of color in my elementary and high school classrooms in suburban Boston. There are so many words and feels, but the most succinct way I can describe it is this: I notice it. I feel it when I may be the only person of color there. And I know that I have light skin privilege and depending on the perceiver, white passing privilege. These external perceptions aside, it is my own experience I am conveying here which is of critical importance—and I am telling you rooting myself in my own agency—I feel the lack of diversity consistently throughout the day. Every day.
And as it does, it has me thinking.
I work in an office where I am working on affirmative applications for family and humanitarian based immigration relief, including but not limited to: U Visas for victims of crimes, T Visas for victims of human trafficking, VAWA for victims of abuse, family-based petitions, and DACA. Clients live either in Portland or in more rural parts of Oregon—and the state of Oregon itself is overwhelmingly white at almost 78%. And before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: being a US-born citizen, I cannot imagine the terror and fear that often accompanies each of the clients who comes through our literal and proverbial doors. The point I am more trying to raise is: in a state that already has such a disproportionate percentage of people of color—and a long history of blatant discrimination, including exclusionary laws—what is that like for someone who is trying to additionally battle one's immigration status?
Ever since my first job out of college as a middle school teacher in South Los Angeles, I have wrestled with this concept of my work life versus all other life. I remember one of the strangest and honestly, unsettling things about my experience teaching was being bussed into Watts that first summer for immersion and then returning back to another "nicer" part of LA. It felt depressing. It felt like the starkest realization of actually experiencing what life can be like on the margins and what life is like for those who aren't. It was disorienting. Polarizing.
When I am in the Portland immigration office, I feel like I am being exposed to the stories of our friends—friends we haven't met yet because our concentric circular paths don't often intersect with those who are seeking this type of immigration/humanitarian based-relief. I learn about harrowing tales of domestic violence and abuse and a true fear to return because their lives may depend on it.
As someone who strives to be mindful of power, privilege, and rank—I felt humbled by the learning of more clearly understanding that US citizenship in America is a mindblowing privilege. To never have to deal with pounds of paperwork that your future depends on, or having your family separated, or the uncertainty of your safety and well-being—this is the definition of US citizen privilege.
After the end of the work day, I experience greater Portland and I feel that same sense of wrestling with these concentric circles of society that coexist but don't seem to necessarily always directly collide. I see Portland as a green wonderland. Geographically, I think it's almost perfectly where I would want to be. I have met some very special people here.
Then I wonder about the other stories of marginalization out there—and even literally where these stories are in a city and state that is statistically lacking so much diversity.
I ponder this essence of being able to traverse among between some of these worlds—where I can go into the office and spend some time in that land, and transfer out to another by dusk.
And the question always remains the same: how can I—and how can we—more intentionally collide on this trajectory of life? Because it's the collision of our different worlds, stories, and experiences that make life—and the human experience—all the more beautiful. Tomorrow, I will wake up and try to do it again. And again. And I look forward to seeing you there along the way. :-)