A campaign of inclusion is being used as an excuse to dismantle a nationally praised neighborhood system.
From The Oregonian:
The City of Portland is rightly proud of its past urban achievements, including revitalized buildings and neighborhoods, parks and squares replacing freeways and parking lots, transit-served, walkable and bike-friendly streets, and livable neighborhoods that are mostly unspoiled by the mega-projects that blight other cities. In all of these achievements, the city’s neighborhood association system has played a central role. Even today, the city’s website crows that “Portland’s neighborhood system and commitment to public participation has been nationally recognized for many years.”
In that context, it’s troubling that the city agency responsible for the neighborhood system has just changed its name, removing the word “neighborhood” and making it clear that more drastic changes are under way to sideline or even dismantle the system altogether.
So what changed?
The city’s most recent actions began in response to a harshly critical 2016 audit of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. The city auditor found inadequate performance measures, lack of accountability, weak neighborhood involvement and empowerment, and failure to address 20 years of funding inequities.
How did the Office of Neighborhood Involvement react? By hiring a marketing company to rebrand and change its name. The new promotional materials for the Office of Community and Civic Life make it clear the new emphasis will be on representing “communities of identity” — not neighborhoods.
The city is certainly right to take affirmative steps to involve populations that have been excluded historically. Too often, they are still excluded. Portland has a shameful legacy of racism, segregation and environmental injustice, and much more needs to be done now.
But the way to do that is not to sideline the grassroots system that has done so much to revitalize the city. In fact, we should demand more of this system, not less. There are fundamental issues of grassroots democracy at stake.
By definition “communities of identity” are not open to all — as neighborhood associations must be — but instead they may inherently exclude others. The non-profits that represent them are often not required to follow open meeting and public records laws, disclose funding sources or establish standards against conflicts of interest. Their lack of transparency means they are prey to relatively easy manipulation by unaccountable vested interests — so-called “astroturfing.” What seems like authentic grass-roots activism may be something else.
By contrast, neighborhood associations are geographically representative of all the residents within their boundaries – a form of representation that could not be more important in a city that elects its council at large, leaving large sections of the city otherwise poorly represented. Neighborhood associations like our own Goose Hollow Foothills League are required to hold open meetings, maintain public records, hold transparent elections and disclose potential conflicts. This is a vital safeguard of transparency and accountability.
No less troubling: Who decides which organizations will be recognized, and on what issues? The bureau’s director has stated that she will. What kind of influence will these participants really have over the process? Whatever the bureau deems suitable, since they control the process.
This is top-down, thumb-on-scales tokenism — the antithesis of the original grassroots system. Worse, by dividing and conquering — fragmenting community voices into warring “communities of identity” — the city can effectively neutralize effective grassroots democracy.
Activists of all kinds should come together to oppose this political Trojan Horse. We do need a revitalized, accountable, neighborhood-based governance system, with better representation of all residents. We do need effective tools to address our shared and growing challenges: displacement, loss of affordability, homelessness and other urgent problems. Other cities show us that there are effective solutions available, if we work together.
It’s time to strengthen civic engagement of diverse populations within the neighborhood association system, as well as with other affirmative policies. It’s time to demand a stronger neighborhood system empowered and supported by a city office, which is held accountable for its support and budgeting.
In a troubling time of divisive assaults on democracy, it’s time for more democracy — not less.