As a mixed-race Blackish-passing-but-perhaps-something-else girl in outer Northeast Portland in the 1990s, I felt like “Portlander” was the least-questioned identity I could claim. I was often asked where I was from.
“Portland,” I’d chime.
“Where are your parents from?”
I wanted to keep saying “Portland” and help shape the city’s future and culture. But with the rise of displacement, gentrification, and the “Portlandia rush,” I saw no place for me here as an adult. I came to resent all branding for Portland: the magazines that discounted the neighborhood where I grew up as “not Portland,” the store-bought Portland identity tokens, the Portland-as-an-adjective advertising.
I became so embittered that I avoided driving down certain streets, as if they had truly disappeared. I needed to stop expecting Portland to be different. So three years ago I decided to move to the Siberia of the continental United States, but after six months of not leaving my apartment without some kind of winter survival kit, I was ready to call Oregon home again.
Even though I felt priced out of Portland, I returned to Oregon with privilege I hadn’t grown up with. I moved to a suburb I never could have imagined myself living in, content to be living in a temperate rain forest without a Portland zip code or identity. From this new place, I noticed something unexpected in Portland: more events targeting BIPOC using a variety of language and emerging insider abbreviations.
I started collecting these events with the thrill of discovering lost invitations. At first I’d scan the bulletin boards, community papers, and telephone poles. Then I took the search online and subscribed to event calendars, RSS feeds, and email lists. I made my own event calendar, with events on it that were nice to know about and events to commit to.
On the internet, the word feed can describe a standardized way to read and collect updates from sites, such as news sites, blogs, podcasts, or event calendars. I became convinced that my event feed could rebuild my connection to this place I once called home and re-create a map of the Portland area for me. This new map would showcase spaces of belonging for melanated folx and challenge the meaning of marginalized. There would be no margins here, just bold pops of color for each plotted event. And me? I was no longer the displaced but a place-maker. I took James Baldwin’s words to heart: “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.”
After several months of relishing many events in person, I learned that one of the groups I had frequented was going to close down. I desperately wanted a new leader to show up to keep the dream alive, but no one did. So, instead of watching it dissolve, I hesitantly accepted ownership of the group.
As I contemplated what direction to take the group in, the words engraved above the inner entrance of the downtown library came to mind: “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” And so, after several weeks of preparation, I relaunched the group in the most ideal form I could imagine: a book discussion group. If paradise was some kind of library, then surely a good book discussion group was the highest form of gathering.
I let my hope flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi style, in designing this book group, complete with art historian–approved clip art. I framed the group as being centered on the experiences of BIPOC, with our first book by a Black civil rights author who wrote for a Black audience. At last, with the keyword combo I had set up, the understanding I had longed for was just clicks away!
It was perfect, in my head and in the event feed.
Then real people came.
They came with their real lived experiences, some of which were starkly different than mine despite checking so many of the same boxes. Still, the discussions were deep and rewarding. We had a strong core of three dedicated members and some one-timers who never returned.
One of the one-timers, let’s call her T, got me rethinking my place-maker role.
“I like Portland. Is that racist?” T dropped in a lull.
“Why didn’t the Black people just choose to be happy?” came in another pause.
I was unprepared for T’s questions but still able to keep things going until she asked her … unanswerable question, which I dare not attempt to repeat here. In response to this most loaded of loaded questions, all I could do was search for my breath.
Until that moment, there had been a social contract in my mind that each person had accepted, but it was suddenly clear to me that the discussion agreements, key search words, elitist clip art, and social media algorithms had failed.
I couldn’t grasp all the assumptions layered into T’s question nor what this person wanted from the group. Did she want us to affirm that she wasn’t racist as she brought out increasingly hard-to-follow and disturbing confessional-style questions? I could’ve asked her clarifying questions, but I sincerely didn’t want to know. She seemed so earnest, and yet her words were so hard to even think about. Where was this person coming from? Where was I? Where was anyone?
At last, noticing I’d probably never speak, one of the regulars, let’s call her M, jumped in. M’s ability to meet this person where she was without agreeing or offering cheap affirmation was—😍—deep breath–inducing. And then, masterfully, M redirected the conversation back to the book, which it seemed our guest hadn’t read at all.
It was a book discussion miracle. Could we really just continue on like that and pretend that it hadn’t happened?
At the end of our time together we exchanged some pleasantries, and T asked for a ride since she feared walking in “this area,” even to the bus stop three blocks away.
I felt defeated. I wasn’t equipped for the unpredictability of real people in real life. All the good in our group felt completely gratuitous and random. I was conflicted about growing the group as I didn’t want to encounter more people like T. In not addressing her behavior, perhaps I had been exercising some boundaries or just experiencing shock. Or perhaps I was simply unable to adjust to the situation in the moment. Whatever the reason for my silence, I couldn’t bring myself to continue the group. I was not the magnanimous place-maker I dreamed of being.
After one more session to wrap up our book discussion, the regulars and I exchanged our goodbyes and contact info, and I decided to step down as the organizer.
At some point in the past year, new neighbors moved in across the street from me, but I never bothered to meet them. I’d walk by their house regularly and think of ways to say hello. At the same time I wondered if it mattered. No one had ever really welcomed me to the neighborhood.
It was early 2020, and I didn’t know that all in-person events would soon be shut down indefinitely.
In March, I made plans to have tea with a distant cousin, but then COVID-19 arrived instead. Six months passed before we met up. We’d hung out a few times as kids, but my cousin Ray and I had never gotten to know each other as adults. She had grown up in the suburb I lived in now, and I wanted to find out how this place had shaped her. Like me, she has multiracial heritage—she has a Black father and European American mother (the opposite of my parents).
When we finally connected, it was a glorious late afternoon after the wildfire smoke had subsided. We settled into secondhand patio chairs on my porch and launched into an accelerated version of small talk. Where was she living now? How was her work situation? Whatever happened with that thing we talked vaguely about once? How was she coping with the pandemic? What was she looking forward to?
“People make many assumptions about me,” Ray told me when describing her workplace.
This offered an opportune moment for me to bring up the question I had been holding on to, which felt connected to my larger questions about the divisions in my family.
“Are there any … Trump supporters in the place you’re living now?” I asked as casually as I could.
“Well, yes … me for starters,” she replied.
Although I had suspected something like this from that side of my family, I hadn’t expected it from someone of my generation. I started recalibrating her other comments with this new information and began nodding the way you nod when the sky starts pouring after you suspect it might rain.
I circled back to the topic of how she grew up. She answered my questions and responded with her own questions about my background. We started putting together different data about how we identified in the world over time and why.
As our questions turned more political, I quickly realized that the new questions we asked held assumptions that seemed formed more by memes than actual conversations or interactions with three-dimensional people.
Still, I could sense Ray’s genuine curiosity in her thoughtful pauses and honest “I’d have to think about thats.”
I was aware that this wasn’t the kind of conversation I could have had with just anybody. I needed the safety of our relationship, the grounding of our shared physical space, the occasional eye contact, and the hopeful pauses that came from periodically refilling our teacups with a tea blend called Peace.
By the end of our chat, which ended up stretching past the political into the spiritual and the deeper whys, I can’t say I convinced her of my view that another Trump term would be dangerous for our country, but that wasn’t really my intent. I wanted to understand, even just a little, why and how she had reached her own convictions. By the time she left, it felt like the distance between our perspectives, while still there, was at least better defined.
After that, my whole neighborhood felt different. Ever since childhood I had viewed this place as an indifferent suburban wilderness where people didn’t really care for or know each other. I could see now that I had become indifferent to my geographic neighbors as I overrelied on event feeds to find connection. But as the pandemic wore on, I began to learn the names of my neighbors as well as their strolling schedules.
In the weeks that followed, I came across Rachel Heydemann and john a. powell’s On Bridging memo, which defines bridging as “increasing acceptance of diverse peoples, values, and beliefs while giving us greater access to different parts of ourselves.”
The best moments of the book discussion group I led were invaluable, transformative, and made richer by a focus rarely allowed in other places. I even made a close friend in M, the book discussion crisis expert. Turns out she is an experienced and skilled therapist who only joined the group by accident when her child played with her phone. This connection alone justified the risks I’d taken in turning my event feed into a reality. Spaces like these helped me develop a sense of my own voice’s value and its capacity for resonance. But I didn’t want to create and curate spaces like these only to ignore the people I live around.
When I ignored my neighbors, I lost the wider “we” that On Bridging describes. I lost access to the part of myself that could interact spontaneously without counting on advanced search filters and the assurance that people had followed the same click-path I did before we met.
Now, instead of “Where can I find belonging?” I’m asking myself, “How can I be authentic while making space for others?”
As the year screeches to a close, I want to tend to the space created in the everyday offline moments, even in the awkward or overplanned COVID-19 style. I want to embrace the reality of who I am in my real-life interactions with others, especially the people I disagree with, the people I pass on the sidewalk, the people whose humanity is easier for me to ignore.
Following M’s example, I now see myself as a space-maker-in-training whose work is deeper, wider, and simpler than I’d previously understood. Just a few days ago, I left a welcome card at the door of our new neighbors’ house, hoping they’d find our neighborhood a little more welcoming, even now.
No comments yet.