State Sen. Avel Gordly was awarded The Skanner Foundation's Drum Major for Justice Award for her dedicated service to the people of Oregon during her tenure in the Legislature. Receiving the award, Gordly spoke about the urgent need for reforming Oregon's mental health system. Citing a recent report that found serious deficiencies in care standards at Oregon State Hospital she asked Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (left) and Senate President Peter Courtney (right) to act to protect patients.
The Skanner Foundation held its 22nd annual Martin Luther King Breakfast last Monday. Every year, the breakfast looks at an issue related to Dr. King's struggle for civil rights, equality and justice in America. This year the theme of the breakfast was: In Green Pastures: An Environment Where King's Dream Will Grow.
By looking at struggles for environmental justice, The Skanner's publisher Bernie Foster said he hoped to highlight opportunities for African Americans to improve our urban environment for future generations and generate "clean, green jobs" for urban youth.
Winner of the annual Drum Major for Justice Award was Oregon Sen. Avel Gordly. Sen. Gordly is a longtime champion for schools, jobs, housing, and health care for all. She will retire at the end of this legislative session.
Winners of the Rev. John Jackson Award were Ken Berry and Michael Chappie Grice of the World Arts Foundation, Inc. The foundation works to promote and preserve African American contributions to culture, and to promote community arts development. They also produce the King tribute "Keep Living the Dream."
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer said being stewards for our environment was one of King's many concerns. "(The idea that) we're all in this alone …," Blumenauer told an audience of over 1,000 at the Hilton Hotel in Downtown Portland. "It's not going to work that way anymore."
Blumenauer was one of several elected officials speaking at the celebration, including Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Mayor Tom Potter, and Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
"One wonders what Dr. King would think that two top candidates from our team are an African American and a woman," said Blumenauer. "Would he be a little disappointed it took 40 years to get to this point?"
Smith, a Republican, also made mention of the historic nature of the Democratic presidential race; Kulongoski said every child in Oregon, in order to share in the American Dream, needed a quality education.
On the advice of Mike Houck, the award-winning executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute at Portland State University, Foster invited Stephen Coleman to give the keynote speech. Coleman is executive director of Washington Parks and People, a multicultural Washington, D.C.-based organization that has helped to clean up some of the most dangerous and polluted parks in our nation's capital.
Coleman described how 18 years ago, he helped create a citizens coalition to clean up one of D.C.'s most crime-ridden parks after a young boy was shot and killed on Martin Luther King's birthday. Until that point, he said, the general rule of thumb in Washington — then the nation's murder capital — was "don't go out at night, don't talk to strangers, lock your doors and don't go to Malcolm X Park."
The coalition, made up of 50 people, most of them African American grandparents, decided to stand up for what is good. They only had two rules, Coleman said. "We had no weapons and we had to say hello to everyone we met."
The park was considered so dangerous, hardly anyone went there any more. On their first patrol they found just two men – a pastor and a homeless man. The pastor came to the park every day to meditate. The homeless man remembered the park when it had been "the most beautiful place in the world." There in the shadows of the riots following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. were two men who had seen the park when it was more than a dumping ground for human waste, used hypodermic needles and the lost hopes of society. "We didn't know at the time that it had been a Native American prayer ground," Coleman said.
Through a community-based organizing effort, the coalition formed 'Friends of Malcolm X Park.' Co-led by Josephine Butler, an African American descendant of enslaved people, who Coleman calls his mentor, they succeeded in reducing crime in Malcolm X (or Meridian Hill) Park by 95 percent in four years.
Next, armed with nothing but the revolutionary idea that everyone deserves quality green space in their neighborhoods, the group turned its attention to the Watts Branch Park, a park named after a slave-holding family. Neglected and polluted with untreated sewage waste, the park had been taken over by drug dealers and addicts. On the ground lay tens of thousands of used heroin needles. Meanwhile neighborhood children, robbed of a place to play, were run over by cars as they tried to play in nearby streets. Coleman said he complained so much to the Environmental Crimes Unit that instead of cleaning up the park, they arrested him for opening his mouth about the problems.
It turned out that the park was next to Marvin Gaye's former home – a building torn down during this period – and near the site where the late singer first performed. Coleman said many saw the destruction of Gaye's former home as a destruction of the community's heritage.
In an effort to reclaim their park, African American neighborhood children decided to replace one of the largest open-air heroin markets in the United States with … a farmer's market. Children are not afraid of bold ideas, Coleman said. "We learned that children can, in fact, lead us."
Backed by Butler and Coleman's coalition, they gathered 2,000 signatures supporting a farmer's market and community gardens to grow healthy food.
"If we can have a market selling illegal and unhealthy things (why can't we have one selling locally grown food?)," said Coleman.
In the park's amphitheater the children put on a concert, establishing its identity as the Marvin Gaye Amphitheater. Through federal grant money and assistance from many organizations, the park has become a green space for the entire community. Portland's own Charles Jordan, one of Coleman's environmental heroes and a longtime friend, played a hand in the park's revitalization. Now it has been re-dedicated as Marvin Gaye Park.
"So many of the poorest areas are the areas least well served by green spaces," Coleman said. "Dr. King loved this earth in the middle of all the civil rights struggles. I would suggest that parks and greenery for all is the new bus and lunch counter fight."
Continuing the Skanner's tradition, breakfast attendees brought in about 1200 pounds of canned food to donate to the Oregon Food Bank.