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Artist Isaka Shamsud-Din speaks on the importance of a vibrant Alberta Arts Center during a press conference hosted by Don't Shoot Portland on Dec. 20, 2021. Photo by Mika Martinez.
Saunda Sorenson
Published: 27 January 2022

For just over a decade, the Albina Arts Center was a vibrant cultural hub for both its neighborhood and the city at large. Now, even local leaders and Portland natives are surprised to learn of the significance of the aging building at 8 Northeast Killingsworth Street.

albina arts press confDon’t Shoot Portland wants to buy the property and restore its prominence in the community.

“We were renters, along with Critical Resistance, Books to Prisoners, and Brown Girl Rise, in the space right there on Killingsworth,” Teressa Raiford, Don’t Shoot Portland’s founder, told The Skanner. “And because of the type of work that we do, which is mostly advocacy and direct engagement, people would come into the space and start sharing their stories, especially elders coming to our eviction workshop.”

Raiford said her own mother visited the offices and recalled helping install some flooring while in high school. A friend recalled seeing her father cut hair in one of the spaces.

“I was like, ‘What, was this a whole mini-mall of black businesses?” Raiford said.

Unfortunately, as Raiford learned more about the building’s history, the facilities themselves started showing their age.

A Bad State

“We started noticing the environmental hazards,” Raiford said. “In the back, if it started raining, we would have dead rodents on the ground back there.”

And when it rained, she said, there was flooding, particularly in a storage area where the organization had been storing a small community archive: yearbooks going back half a century took on water damage. She said the landlord did little more than deem that area off-limits and keep it locked.

“I thought because of the programming that we were doing and the people that were coming there, that just wasn't fair,” Raiford said. “We started having discussions, asking, what can we do to revitalize this space, to rehabilitate the back area?”

In pictures shared with The Skanner, Raiford and her staff documented water damage to the building, as well as considerable disrepair in the floors and ceiling. The organization decided to rent a space a few doors down where the roof had been more recently maintained, she said.

“We couldn’t afford to put rent into a space that wasn’t even sound enough for us to provide programs,” Raiford said, adding that she was concerned about her own asthma, as well as the health of elder members of the community who would visit the site during eviction workshops.

“We want a Black space, where we can work with our elders who are still with us today,” she said.

“Even though we went through gentrification, we can say, ‘Our people were here!’”

Rich History

According to a February 1993 report by what was then known as the Portland Bureau of Planning, the Albina Art Center was established in December 1964 to “provide a means of developing the cultural and intellectual resources of Albina and other similar socio-economic areas within metropolitan Portland,” offering music, drama, and visual arts classes. At its height, the center boasted 800 paid members. Arlene Schnitzer sat on the board.

Albina Arts Center offered outdoor performances and concerts in North and Northeast Portland that attracted thousands. But during its first decade of operation, there was some local resistance to what some perceived as a white-controlled organization in a historically Black neighborhood. According to The History of Portland's African American Community (1805 to Present), some members protested taking what they viewed as “white money” to operate the center, and a promised $40,000 from the Model Cities Program never materialized. The center’s assets were transferred to the Albina Women’s Association, led by Betty Overton, in 1973, and the center finally closed in 1977.

“The Albina Arts Center became a vital force in the community, and I think of it as the heart of a body,” Portland artist Isaka Shamsud-Din said during a December press conference. “Without an art center, we’re really a community that really doesn't have a voice and doesn’t have a pulse.”

‘Behind Closed Doors’

The Albina Women’s League was dissolved in 2016 when one of its leaders was found to have wildly misappropriated charitable funds over 16 years. The state Department of Justice stepped in and oversaw transfer of remaining charitable assets. The nonprofit Oregon Community Foundation (OCF) was chosen as property administrator. According to court records, the state DOJ gave the property to Black Investment Corporation for Economic Progress Inc (BICEP) on the condition that the organization, then considered a charity in-formation, obtain 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit by the end of December 2017. While BICEP was registered as a community benefit nonprofit corporation, records indicate it failed to receive the required IRS designation by the deadline. The organization has since dissolved.

teressa raiford bernie foster drum major 2022 fullTeressa Raiford is presented with The Skanner Foundation's 2022 Drum Major for Justice Award by Bernie Foster, The Skanner Publisher and president of The Skanner Foundation. (Photo/Jerry Foster)
Don’t Shoot Portland argues that since BICEP was not in compliance with the agreement that stipulates that OCF should then have distributed the property to a more qualified charitable organization or organizations approved by the state attorney general.

“We talked to the Department of Justice, to the landlord, to the Oregon Community Foundation, and said ‘Hey, you haven’t done what you told the Black community you would with this building. We think that we can help. It says here you’re supposed to provide this community resource,’” Raiford said.

Raiford said her organization is willing to buy the building, which according to court records owed $275,000 plus interest to the Portland Small Business Loan Fund in 2016. Raiford said the amount appears to stand at $240,000, according to court records she has reviewed. 

But Don’t Shoot Portland claimed it met with resistance in trying to purchase the building.

“Our collective goal is for a community involvement and visioning process to ensure that the Alberta Arts Center remains a vibrant community asset for Black Portlanders for decades to come,” Marcy Bradley, OCF vice president of equity & culture, told The Skanner. “This process will culminate in identifying a local nonprofit to successfully transition ownership built upon a community-directed engagement of local voices stewarding the interests of the neighborhood and tenants.”

Raiford said she felt the process was only being proposed because her group showed interest. 

“They said they’d prefer to create an eligibility process to invite anyone to make proposals,” Raiford said. “We advised them that this was a standard tool of white supremacy to cause division. There had been a process they created that failed to support the maintenance and community outreach…Our lawyer told them they should read up on the nonprofit-industrial complex, and that we already occupied the space at the time of the offer and even met the requirements of (the prior agreement with BICEP).”

Raiford expanded on why she felt the process reeked of white supremacy:

“You’re putting us through a process that doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“Now you’re all circumventing, allowing community members to just go and use a building that’s in disrepair. I think it’s real racist…Meanwhile, we’re a nonprofit, we serve the Black community, we’re from the Black community, let us buy it. The petition is just to say hey, just let us buy this building.”

Raiford has a clear vision of what a community resource center and “liberated archive” could mean to Portland.

“By restoring that building, it creates a multi-use for educational access, and it remains familiar,” she said. “The most important thing to me in that building was people would walk in off the street when they recognized there were Black people in there again. They’d see Black aunties and uncles and cousins, people would just come in and say, ‘What are you doing in here?’ They’d be happy we had couches where they could just come and sit and think about stuff.”

Raiford added, “This needs to be a place that doesn't have a patriarchal level of oversight, like plantations do. It needs to be a liberated space where people feel welcome and there aren’t any strings attached to why they’re there. For people that do archives and document history, it’s important to have that kind of space.”

To view the petition, visit https://www.dontshootpdx.org/campaign-for-awlf-building/

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