Portland's Dawson Park was once an epicenter for the Black community, but had been neglected after gentrification and discriminatory public policies and practices disrupted a thriving Black neighborhood. So, for four months this summer, my youth-empowerment organization, I Am MORE LLC, in partnership with The Soul Restoration Center, organized a series of cultural activation celebrations in a two-acre community park that had been experiencing an uptick of gun violence.
When it comes to weaving joy into community, it's essential to focus on what you do want, rather than obstacles that might get in the way. So, we called the series of park events "Reclaiming Black Joy," and spent months planning activities, securing permits, and creating a festive, safe and celebratory energy that reimagined the park as a positive gathering space for Black youth, elders and community organizations.
“It’s the legacy, it's the thread, it’s the cloth,” said Sunshine Dixon, I Am MORE’s Community Connector. “It’s the way we were born and the way we were brought up. It is who we are, and it just doesn’t make the news.”
I Am MORE had started a Spreading Black Joy campaign at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to help refocus the Black community's attention on what we did want - joy - instead of the depression, fear and uncertainty caused by the virus. Two years later, Multnomah County's REACH program (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health), put together an organizing team, made up of representatives from our 11 key partners, which helped us secure permits, tents, and payment for participating vendors. Our Black-owned food trucks provided more than 1,200 free meals. Black farmers passed out fresh vegetables, packets of salad from the Sheridan Fruit Company, and hundreds of sample servings of collard greens, rice and beans, a recipe that was developed in partnership with the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition and the chain restaurant Cafe Yumm!
We also set up tables to encourage attendees to paint, draw and create art. And we hired Black entertainers, singers, and musical groups, DJs, and face painters, and hair braiders and barbers to offer free hair styling. An entrepreneur set up a free photo booth and also distributed several flavors of free ice cream. Each month, Black elders officially opened the event with a community welcome. And we hired youth poets and youth drummers, and we paid Black youth participating in our summer internship to help set up, take pictures and videos, and then clean up afterward. We also had specially made dominoes created for the park regulars and invited them to engage in the "Reclaiming Black Joy" activities, as they were often ignored by previous events organized in the park. And to honor culture, I Am MORE passed out hundreds of free kente-cloth scarves, kente-cloth lanyards and Spreading the Black Joy Virus t-shirts.
A vaccine clinic, organized by Oregon Health and Science University, provided free COVID-19 vaccines, including ones for young children, and also distributed free food boxes to families. Our county library gave away free books for children and adults. Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, across the street from the park, provided water bottles and access to security. The county provided free cooling kits, and other weather-related and food resources, as well as helped us secure the permits from the city to close off streets, provide electricity and pick up the trash.
All told, we had 26 vendors, almost 90 volunteers, and we put in more than 100 hours of work to pull this off.
“We want to just let everyone know they are welcomed. That they are worthy. They are valuable and they deserve to be happy,” said Cherrell Edwards-El from the Multnomah County Health Department. “And so we want to bring the different components that really uplift Black humanity. That’s music, that’s dancing, that’s healthy habits and just community.”