Presidential View from Portland: How Can Our Community Organize?

In the post below, Professor Lund-Chaix reflects on how her home state’s rural and urban concerns are emblematic of strife throughout the United States, and sees solutions in community organization.

Many pundits declared the U.S. a divided nation after the presidential election in which a mere 2.65 million votes of more than 128 million cast separated the victor from the runner-up, who will ultimately assume the presidency in January. Regardless of whether we are a people divided, many of the events surrounding the election have been distressing. Suturing our seemingly disparate communities in accordance with Adler’s social justice mission requires active problem solving through individual direct communication, organizational and community building, and policy change.

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Individual and Organizational Action

Within one week after election day, City of Portland Police had arrested more than 100 demonstrators. The police approached the gathering crowds in full riot gear, sprayed pepper gas, fired rubber bullets, and deployed flash grenades. Most of the arrests were simply for failing to follow officers’ instructions to disperse. A handful of those who joined the protest were arrested when they broke windows of a few downtown businesses, smashed the cars in a dealership’s lot, attacked a few moving vehicles as their drivers proceeded through the pedestrian take-over of the streets, and launched Molotov cocktails at the battle-ready officers. Portland might have looked like a war zone if you squinted enough at the carefully framed and edited footage shot for maximum visual perturbation.

Portland’s history and its social, political, and economic context, and especially that of Oregon as a whole, is strikingly representative of the U.S. overall. Just as individuals are whole and complex, and sometimes internally contradicting, so is my home community.

A few paces outside of Portland’s city limits, much of Oregon is still rural and reliant on an agricultural and natural resources economy. Many farmers have begun to cultivate grapes and hops to feed the fermentation connoisseurs, and a growing number have begun to plant cannabis. These vice crops, however, do not feed many communities, and scarcely typify agricultural industries in a region dominated by timber and food production, strewn about a healthy expanse of public lands, similar to most western states.

Ammon Bundy and his colleagues—who were acquitted of conspiracy for the armed takeover of the federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon in a standoff lasting more than a month—are not the sympathetic and deserving face of rural communities. However, many rural families identify with their distorted message: The federal government is overreaching its boundaries and rural communities are starving as a result. Indeed, rural poverty looks different, and is more severe than urban poverty in Oregon.

The national election is just a symbol of these types of social conditions. Typically, U.S. voters prioritize pocketbook issues and personal and national security when they enter the voting booth. The sway of family and community financial and social stability can be as powerful as racism and other institutionalized oppressions. It is clear to me that the tenor of the endless campaign season was also a symbol of the quality of national dialog that prevents deep understanding across individuals with different world views, and stymies the meaningful problem-solving most nonprofit leaders and volunteers strive to achieve through their mission.

How to Be Effective Change Agents Post-Election

Individually, changing the underlying social and political discourse will require a long process of listening and asking questions. To be an effective change agent, I must learn from those who do not think like me, one-on-one in open and humble dialog. Successful problem solving—including nonprofit program development, strategic planning, and even effective governance—depend on the participation, ownership, and commitment of a range individuals from a breadth of backgrounds, who often hold competing perspectives. This technique for collaboration is grounded in mutual learning and mutual trust.

Applying this technique to post-election community building might mean spending more time in rural communities and seeking opportunities to re-acquaint myself with families who have found hope in the presidential election results. Adler University’s online master’s degree in Nonprofit Management explores the nonprofit sector and the necessary discourse for issues like these. In our online discussion seminars, students have the opportunity to practice this technique through inquiry-based problem solving that often underlies the socratic-style discussions and many other assignments. When participants are deeply engaged, analytical, and creative, the class discussion fora are the laboratories of social innovation, and at Adler, social justice.

Organizationally, the decisions that shape the work we do at Adler and in all nonprofits must support social justice internally and in our communities. Every conversation, every decision, and every policy needs to answer to the mission. Strong community organizations provide the vehicle for individuals to unite and solve problems such as rural poverty, racism, and the other painful problems rubbed raw during the months leading up to the election.

Interested in joining the nonprofit sector and working toward being a change agent? Consider a M.A. in Nonprofit Management from Adler University’s online program.

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