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The City of Portland, Oregon

Community & Civic Life

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Opportunity: North Portland Neighborhood Services Silver Anniversary

Tom Griffin-Valade has seen North Portland neighborhoods through significant changes. As a staunch community organizer, Tom brought a new perspective to the City and to North Portland Neighborhood Service’s work, convincing other community organizers that it was okay to work with a City-run coalition office. His 25 years of service offer the legacy of more connected neighborhoods.

Tom’s tenure with the City will come to an end as he embarks on a new chapter, and so we take this opportunity to celebrate both Tom’s public service and the silver anniversary of North Portland Neighborhood Services (NPNS).

No Way to Go but Up

From the outset, North Portland Neighborhood Services was an outlier. Born out of a devastating lawsuit that blew up the preceding non-profit 25 years ago, its arrival charted a substantial change of course within Portland’s then-nationally recognized neighborhood program. When the wreckage of the former North district non-profit coalition was cleared, a new City staffed service model emerged‑‑the first break with the non-profit neighborhood coalition model.

Not only did the lawsuit pit the nonprofit board members of the North Portland Citizens Committee against each other, it cast a lasting chill over community organizing throughout North Portland. Weighing the legal intimidation and the threat of financial ruin, the battling neighborhood associations had no intention of working in coalition. Instead, they found themselves bogged down and on the precipice of dissolution, anxiously watching the case slowly wend its way through the lower courts on to the Oregon Supreme Court, where it would end with a whimper in summary judgment.

But refusing to collaborate didn’t mean that each of the neighborhood associations wanted to walk away from the tax-funded support services that had been delivered by the nonprofit coalition.  A solution for neighborhoods’ needs would require innovation.

Time for a Change

In 1994, in collaboration with North neighborhood associations, the then-Office of Neighborhood Associations hired Tom Griffin-Valade to create and implement an alternative approach for the delivery of support services to the neighborhood associations in North Portland. With this shift in the traditional philosophy and operation of service delivery, Griffin-Valade was faced with marrying elements of nonprofit administration and City bureaucracy.

Change didn’t come easy. Persistent opposition to a North Portland City staffed office was raised by neighborhood association and neighborhood coalition board members throughout Portland. Critics considered it an unwelcome deviation from tradition, the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, weakening neighborhood association and coalition authority.

Gradually, organically, North Portland Neighborhood Services evolved as a provider of direct services to a confederation of community groups and flexible coalitions, driven not by geographic boundaries, but by community interest and identity. Modeling itself on elements of an Assets Based Community Development philosophy, North Portland Neighborhood Services staff would play a supporting role through dispersed technical, administrative, and fiscal services rather than the traditional central role played by the former nonprofit coalition.  

Reinvention

Within a few years of the establishment of North Portland Neighborhood Services, the eight original North neighborhoods reconciled. Three other bordering neighborhood associations, attracted by a decentralized direct service model, also joined, expanding the North district to its current 11 neighborhoods. Staff continue to engage in smoothing out the wrinkles inevitable in grassroots community organizing. The result has been a remarkably low number of formal grievances (three) generated in the district over the past 25 years.

In the newly decentralized system, North neighborhood associations adopted a culture of independence, resilience and fluid coalitions that at times were oppositional. During planning for the Yellow Line MAX route, two opposing coalitions of interest emerged within North. North Portland Neighborhood Services assisted both. Conversely, the decentralized approach facilitated broader coalitions of community groups that allied neighborhood association with groups of interest and identity. It was such a broad coalition that it successfully shut down plans to construct a natural gas terminal in North Portland.

Geography & Community Identity

Unlike the previous non-profit coalition, North Portland Neighborhood Services was designed without a board of directors and would be driven instead by the advice and needs of community groups.  Under the direction of six different City Commissioners and seven different Bureau Directors, the City exercised herculean restraint, avoiding directing staff and stepping aside to allow the North community to steer its own course with North Portland Neighborhood Services support.

The combination of shared authority by the community and the City along with the absence of a nonprofit board of directors allowed for a flexible, fluid and focused responsiveness. North Portland Neighborhood Services nimbly exploited “shovel-ready” opportunities whether it was a Commissioner’s idea to turn the organization's offices into a “Mini-City Hall”, or to help drive a community member’s vision to bring inclusive play to North in the form of Harper’s Playground at Arbor Lodge Park.  

North Portland Tool Library volunteersAlong with the mostly place-based services of the City, placed-based organizations such as neighborhood associations are foundational to placemaking and community building. North Portland Neighborhood Services soon recognized that geographic services and organizations would be strengthened by a responsiveness to communities of interest and identity. The decentralized model of services organically grew to engage and serve communities beyond neighborhood associations. From the outset, neighborhood associations empowered by their independence, viewed this expansion as a community building strength.

North Portland Neighborhood Services working with resources from Metro, Multnomah County, the Federal government, and foundations incubated and supported community driven projects like Frente Comun Latinos del Norte de Portland, Blue Heron Wetlands Restoration, Overlook House Community Center, St Johns Farmers Market, North Portland Caring Community, Latino Network, and many others that enhanced North Portland.  Through the present, diverse initiatives are added each year.

North Portland Community Works

The North Portland Neighborhood Services model had to overcome structural challenges related to the awkward marriage of government and non-profit systems. To say the least, government fiscal processes are not as nimble as those of non-profits. Working with the community, an affiliated North/Northeast non-profit with federal tax-exempt status was established to serve as a fiscal sponsor for community driven projects. North Portland Community Works has gone on to sponsor projects that have raised several million dollars.

North Portland Community Works provides fiscal structure along with other technical assistance to incubate initiatives conceived and implemented by community groups of interest, identity and/or geography. Sponsored projects have been limited in term like the Harbor Oil EPA Superfund Community Advisory Group or have emerged as a long-term community force like the St Johns Center of Opportunity. Although fiscal sponsorship is the mission of North Portland Community Works, it has also taken on the role of managing, preserving, and improving the Historic Kenton Firehouse as well as administering and distributing community building funds from the annual Metro North Portland Vanport Legacy Enhancement Fund.

North Portland Neighborhood Services, Inc.

Insuring community groups and initiatives, a second major structural challenge, was addressed by the creation of a second affiliated nonprofit networking group. The 30-plus diverse member organizations of the North Portland Neighborhood Services, Inc. collaborative formed for networking opportunities and insurance coverage. Without insurance coverage, most community building and civic engagement work would come to a halt. Each year, insurance is extended to dozens of projects that would otherwise not happen, like Neighbors Helping Neighbors providing trash pick up for homeless camps, or the Kenton Neighborhood Association restoration of the 1959 Paul Bunyan Statue.

Along with fiscal and insurance services critical to community building success, three other elements powered the North Portland Neighborhood Services model; space, funding and staff.

Oxbow ELSO enjoyed by communityIt is often assumed that free community meeting space is easy to find. It is not. Through the restoration of the Historic Kenton Firehouse, with its 300 meetings/events annually, along with fiscal and/or technical support provided over the years to the Overlook House, Columbia Cottage, and the June Key Delta House the inventory for meeting spaces in North Portland increased. The Firehouse does double duty, providing space for programs like the Vanport Mosaic and Camp ELSO along with office space for staff to the Oregon Speaker of the House.

During its history, North Portland Neighborhood Services has distributed between $12,000 to $100,000 of community funds annually. These funds have powered many programs, such as the North Portland Tool Library serving 7000 members, and YaYA resources working with victims and survivors of human trafficking. 

Constraints & Opportunities

At its establishment, City leaders made the decision that the North Portland Neighborhood Services budget would be at parity with the other six neighborhood coalition offices. The more costly City personnel expenses meant the organization would operate with half the FTE of the nonprofit coalition offices.  On the other hand, the increased pay and benefits would attract and retain highly qualified, experienced staff.

To help address the constraints of fiscal parity, North Portland Neighborhood Services sought outside resources. As an example, office rent was virtually eliminated due to efficiencies in energy consumption through grant funded solar and geothermal systems along with building operation funds raised by North Portland Community Works from Firehouse rentals.

North Portland Neighborhood Services staff is really experienced. Currently, one full-time and two half-time staff employ a combined total of 65 years of North Portland Neighborhood Services work experience to support North and Northeast Portland community action.

Evolution

Reaching its silver anniversary hasn’t slowed down the ever-present evolution of North Portland Neighborhood Services. Starting in May, staffing will change when founder and director Tom Griffin-Valade retires from City of Portland after 25 years and moves onto duties as Executive Director of North Portland Community Works. Long time staff members Mary Jaron Kelley and Doretta Schrock will step up to full-time positions to continue the mission of North Portland Neighborhood Services. They will collaborate with a new Office of Community & Civic Life supervisor (to be recruited) tasked with the administration of both North Portland Neighborhood Services and the East Portland Community Office.