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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 17 October 2012

PAALF co-chair Tony Hopson

Proper representation amongst decision makers has long been a gripe in the Black community. The Portland African American Leadership Forum (PAALF) is launching its African American Leadership Academy (AALA) this month to address the problem.

"We recognize that as much as there may be folks in our community that we consider leaders, we do not have good representation at the tables where decisions are being made that impact the African American community," says PAALF co-chair Tony Hopson. "If you really want people in there, you have to identify them, groom them and position them to be able to run for these positions and step into these roles."

The new program is part of the group's larger effort to re-introduce itself and continue to tackle issues specifically impacting Portland's Black community.

PAALF is part of the broader African American Leadership Forum, which was started in Minnesota in 2007. It spawned from a conversation about the unprecedented number of Blacks in leadership positions in Minneapolis at the time and how the city's Black community could take advantage to address its needs. Once the group formalized and developed specific initiatives, it got funding from the Northwest Area Foundation.

PAALF director Cyreena Boston Ashby

The success of the program prompted conversations on how it could be replicated in other areas with smaller Black populations. In 2009, Portland became the subject of one of those conversations.

According to PAALF director Cyreena Boston Ashby, around two dozen leaders, representing everyone from clergy to non-profits to business leaders, gathered to create a policy forum model for the Portland organization. The initial fiscal agent was the Urban League.

Under the design, each city replicating the Minneapolis program is empowered to create policy committees that are specific to the biggest disparities in their own communities.

PAALF has four subcommittees, which are Education, Housing and Economic Development, Health and Civic Engagement and Leadership.

According to Ashby, what distinguishes PAALF from the Urban League and other historical Black organizations is that it is data focused.

"A lot of the priorities from the committees aren't necessarily from what we assume to be wrong in the Black community," she says. "They're based on hardcore data that we know underlines what specific disparities exist."

Desiree Williams-Rajee, co-chair of
the Civic Engagement and
Leadership subcommittee


AALA falls under the category of Civic Engagement and Leadership. It came about as part of a million dollar grant from Meyer Memorial Trust to the Coalition of Communities of Color, which PAALF is a member, to develop leadership capacity within their respective communities.

Representing the Black community, PAALF received $115,000.

Desiree Williams-Rajee, co-chair of the Civic Engagement and Leadership subcommittee, says members convened many times over the summer to discuss what a leadership program that focuses on the African American experience looks like.

"What we talked about were issues that face the Black community, as well as looking at racial identity and developing racial pride so that leaders can work on the issues specific to our experience as Black people in the United States and how we can be the most effective, not just in the broader society, but in our own communities," she says.

The program has a two track system.

The first track is mandatory once a month training that lasts for 12 months and focuses on cultural and racial development, personal psychological development, civics, and career advancement. Trainings deal with collective parts of the African diaspora and the Black American experience, such as misogyny and homophobia in the Black community and bi-racial social dynamics. There is even a kickoff focused on the oral history of Blacks in Oregon and Portland.

"It really touches on creating an entire, fully realized person," says Ashby.

PAALF consultant Rachel Gilmer

The second track, which is voluntary, lasts nine months and is project and service based. It requires a member to identify a problem in the community, usually as it applies to a PAALF subcommittee's priorities. Then he/she must submit a proposal, create a methodology and talk about what the specific plan of action is to alleviate the problem. After nine months, the member has to report back to the community.

As part of the second track, members will be given financial resources through small grants, as well as be matched up with mentors from the community. This is part of PAALF's emphasis on building intergenerational relationships.

"There is a huge generational gap in this community between established leaders and those who are up and coming, or folks who are just trying to figure it out," says Rachel Gilmer, a PAALF consultant. "This is about eliminating that generational divide and getting people connected and supported."

Applications for AALA are available on the PAALF website. According to Williams-Rajee, the program is looking for seasoned professionals who are emerging into their careers and a life of service.

For more information, go to PAALF's website at http://aalfnw.org/portland/.

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