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Young Activist Runs for Metro Council

Position has no incumbent in crowded field

Beverly Corbell | 4/6/2020, 2:33 p.m.
When Cameron Whitten moved to Portland at age 18, he had no place to live and no resources, but a ...
Steeped in Portland political activism for a decade, Cameron Whitten is stepping up to run for elected office by seeking a seat on the Metro Council in the upcoming May 19 Primary. Metro is a regional government which manages growth, infrastructure and development issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries. Whitten most recently served as executive director of the nonprofit Q Center and is founder of the racial justice nonprofit Brown Hope. Photo by Beverly Corbell

When Cameron Whitten moved to Portland at age 18, he had no place to live and no resources, but a local nonprofit with a long history of helping homeless youth took him in. Now he wants to give back and is running for the District 5 seat on the Portland Metro Council, a regional government serving Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

“I was a client at Outside Inn, I had access to mentors, to meals, to shelter, and I had advocates that helped me enroll in school and be successful,” Whitten said, describing his experience with the organization and a concern that too many others, like he was 10 years ago, are still vulnerable.

“Our world is so broken right now, and I think the resources that currently exist do not adequately meet the needs we have,” he said. “There are people who are extremely vulnerable with very intense challenge.”

Whitten, in an interview with the Portland Observer early last month before the coronavirus pandemic caused a worldwide health crisis, said he felt lucky that he had been able to find successful employment and a career in public service. But while he credited the support he’s had, he also pointed to his own hard work to make a productive life for himself.

To focus on his campaign for office, Whitten ended his tenure as executive director of the Q Center to devote the time necessary to win an election. Besides the Q Center which offers programs to support the LGBTQ+ community, Whitten has served as founder of the racial justice nonprofit Brown Hope, known for the Reparations Power Hour and Blackstreet Bakery. He also serves on the boards of Reach Community Development and Pioneer Courthouse Square.

A long time activist, Whitten led protests following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland and other people of color, and in 2012 he staged a 56-day hunger strike in front of City Hall that focused attention on the suffering caused by the city’s housing crisis.

On top of all that, in 2016 he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Portland State University, and he is currently studying for his master’s in business administration.

“I’m 28 and the impact I have made has been outsized to the number of years I’ve been on this planet,” Whitten said. “But I think it speaks to my passion and opportunities that have happened.”

Service to others is his life’s calling, Whitten said, but his great passion is racial justice, and his initial encounter with racism was when he first got to Oregon.

“We were in Albany and went there to stay at my friend’s dad’s house, but after one night the dad asked us to leave because he was uncomfortable having a black man in his house,” he said. “Coming from Virginia, where I never had experienced overt racism like that, it made no sense to me. I actually laughed at myself and said, ‘What! There are racist people in Oregon?’ Ten years later I no longer find it funny.”

The historic racist devastation of the black community in Portland by gentrification and so-called civic improvements or Urban Renewal, cannot be overstated, Whitten said.

“Place is so important. Place shapes our identity, it shapes our community and it shapes our future,” he said. “In Portland, we took that from our black community.”

Whitten is so passionate about the loss to the black culture in north and northeast Portland that he even launched a walking tour, “The Hidden History of Albina,” and talked about the Albina neighborhood that was first divided by Interstate 5 and further replaced by Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, the Moda Center, the Portland Convention Center and expansion of Legacy Emanuel Hospital.

“The reason why, sadly, we called it “The Hidden History of Albina” tour is because when we walk down these historic streets, everything is gone, it’s hidden, everything’s been destroyed,” he said. “We have to have programs like these walking tours, because once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.”

These days, Whitten is more concerned with the future of the Albina neighborhood than its past, given current discussions about how proposed new construction to Interstate 5, built in 1947, might be used to bring the neighborhood back together.

The latest Rose Center project, as it’s called, was proposed by the Oregon Department of Transportation to add shoulders and auxiliary lanes to I-5 in the Rose Quarter area in order to smooth traffic flow between I-5 and two other interstate highways.

ODOT has stated that the project will “improve community connections by redesigning overpasses and reconnecting neighborhood streets, enhancing public spaces and promoting economic development opportunities.”

But just how that will play out is still up in the air. The nonprofit Albina Vision wants to rebuild a diverse neighborhood by seeing caps built over I-5 that will support a connection to the Willamette River with a waterfront park, a public plaza with local markets and events, public park blocks with neighborhood emphasis, residential and commercial development and more.

The project as proposed by ODOT — without caps — is estimated at $795 million, and with caps the cost could run as high as $1 billion.

Whitten said he supports Albina Vision’s position to create caps over the highway.

“With a seismically sound cap, you could rebuild this community, bring it back together,” he said. We could have parks, streets, multi-use buildings, but they have to be done right. I believe the black communities deserve nothing less than a full, safe and seismically strong capping that allows us to recreate what was lost. I fully support Albina Vision and I will do what I can so they are successful.”

He further spelled his platform in the race for Metro Council.

“I will commit to working with a broad coalition in the fight to ensure that Portland has an economy that works for all, that we have affordable housing and that we take action on the climate in a way what does not leave our diverse communities behind,” Whitten said. “When it comes to the economy, we know that even as there have been new jobs in the region, the benefits have not been equitable. And for our black community there are huge disparities in access to living wage jobs and the ability to get advanced degrees and to secure positions of management and leadership.”

He said management should also pay attention to the way it treats employees.

“We need to increase the support that we have around anti-harassment in the workplace, we need to ensure that people have living wage jobs, and we need to make sure that we see the diversity within our own management and leadership,” he said.

Whitten is also closely watching developments for the massive Broadway Corridor project that will entail development of the 14-acre site of the downtown U.S. Post Office distribution center, which the city bought for $88 million in 2016, that will eventually include “4 million square feet of new commercial, employment and residential development.”

Whitten said he plans to make sure that the city lives up to the goal listed on the project’s website at broadwaycorridorpdx.com, “to connect the Old Town/Chinatown and Pearl District neighborhoods, with the goal to maximize community benefits, particularly to those groups that haven’t benefitted from other urban projects.”

“We need to have living wage jobs, project agreements, meet diversity goals for recruitment, implement strategies for retention, find resources for people to get drivers licenses and child care, monitoring and accountability, stop wage theft and create safe working conditions, “he said.

Other candidates running in the May 19 vote-by-mail election for Metro Council District 5 include Karen Spencer, a patent lawyer and business consultant; Chris Smith, a member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission; Mary Peveto, executive director Neighbors for Clean Air; and Mary Nolan, former Oregon House Majority Leader.