When Cameron Whitten arrived in Portland, he was a homeless youth trying to find his way in the city. He became an advocate for marginalized communities during the Occupy Portland movement and ran for Mayor of Portland. In June 2012, Whitten went through a 55-day hunger strike to bring attention to the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp.
Since then, Whitten has served on many advocacy boards such as the City Club of Portland’s Advocacy and Awareness Board and the Transit Equity Advisory Committee for TriMet. He is in his final year of a bachelor of arts in economics at Portland State University. Most recently, he was chosen as the executive director of the art and social justice non-profit Know Your City.
Founded in 2009 by former executive director Marc Moscato, Know Your City has spearheaded a variety of public engagement and art projects – ranging from themed city tours to concerts to publications (including two series of historical comic books, a renters’ rights comic published with the Community Alliance of Tenants and the Jade Journal, a monthly newspaper published by fifth graders in East Portland).
Whitten spoke to The Skanner News about Know Your City and how he hopes to expand the organization’s reach to include more disenfranchised voices into Portland community-building. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: Congratulations on becoming the Executive Director at Know Your City. Why did you choose this job?
Cameron Whitten: Portland needs Know Your City. Portland is going through a lot of changes right now. We're seeing Black Lives Matter, climate crisis, affordable housing. We're seeing a climax of social and political issues happening right now. There's a need for social justice in our community, for movements pushing us forward for progress for all people. People are paying attention. They are talking a lot more about these issues than I've seen since I've first came here to Portland. That's a huge deal.
We are even looking at our demographics. We are looking at our youth, who are more diverse than ever -- and it’s going to be our youth who are going to topple the image and reputation as Portland's Whitest major city in America.
But are we ready for that right now? No. We need to change the conversation at the institutional level, at the societal level. We need to change the conversation to make sure that all people have their identities welcomed and celebrated in our community. Right now is the moment for Know Your City to be doing this work, and this is where I am called to be.
TSN: What can Portlanders expect to see from Know Your City under your leadership?
CW: I think they can expect an organization that is honest, that is committed to the beauty of our culture and is committed to being on the cutting edge of community issues as they are happening. I want Know Your City to be a responsive, proactive organization and it should be one that is all-inclusive to Portlanders and Oregonians.
TSN: In what ways will Know Your City focus on the Black community in Portland?
CW: We are working on expanding our Jade Journal we did in Harrison Park elementary last year. We worked with fifth graders who were journalists for 12 whole weeks.
They interviewed people like state representative Alissa Keny-Guyer and APANO. They read about justice issues in their communities, pedestrian safety, food deserts. These youth were able to understand where they are, their community and also understand how they can use their voice to shape and benefit their community.
We want to have that kind of presence and empowerment in North Portland and also in East Portland. We see that kind of support happen at Lincoln and Grant High School, but there are so many areas where they aren't expected to have a voice and we want to change that.
We are looking at our schools and how every school between third and fifth grade is supposed to do Oregon studies. You go into these schools and what they are talking about is mostly Lewis and Clark, Ben Holladay, George Whitaker maybe. Maybe Carrie Brownstein comes up once or twice, but it's not my Oregon, it's not your Oregon. It silences the voices and lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
We need to have all-inclusive studies of Oregon and we expect our city to be a partner and champion in making that happen. That's what I am advocating right now, civic equity in all Portland schools and we want to spread that to the region.
TSN: What are you most excited about in this upcoming year?
CW: I am excited to see how Know Your City can expand and it's going to take a lot. I see this being a movement that spans the region. I think we have communities we are advocating for who do not live in Portland proper and we need to get out in Beaverton and Hillsboro and Gresham and Oregon City. We need to be able to get out there.
TSN: Is there anything else you want The Skanner readers to know?
CW: I want this to be an opportunity for The Skanner community and the community at large to really sit down with me. My phone number and my e-mail address are out there. Please have us as a resource. We are writing grants, we are fundraising, we are trying to find ways to leverage our resources that we have with the arts, with civics, with education to be really bent towards justice.
We really rely on community working with us to make projects available that help benefit all people and make everyone feel like their culture and identity is welcome and celebrated.