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By Abe Proctor of The Skanner
Published: 22 February 2006

On the first Thursday of every month, when the galleries of the Pearl District invite the public inside for wine and art, the doors of Portland City Hall are open as well.

Since its inception at the hands of City Commissioner Sam Adams a little more than a year ago, First Thursday at City Hall has been an occasion for Portland to live up to its ideal of open, citizen government.

At the next First Thursday at City Hall, on March 2, the focus will be on the contributions and concerns of Portland's African American community. African Americans from all over the city are invited to discuss issues important to them and their neighborhoods.

"The city wants to pay respect to the contributions of African Americans to Portland, and to open up a new conversation about where we're all going," said Charles McGee, a former Portland school board candidate who is helping to coordinate the event.

"It's about forming a partnership. … It gives people from the African American community the opportunity to talk to, meet and have an honest dialogue with the folks that they elect."

McGee added that city commissioners will use the event to deliver brief statements about themselves and their visions for Portland's future. The idea, he said, is to foster a climate of trust and openness between city government and the people.

But what about the traditional mistrust of government harbored by many African Americans? How is the upcoming First Thursday at City Hall any different — or any more effective — than past attempts by the city to reach out to its Black residents?

Jared Spencer, a public safety policy assistant in Mayor Tom Potter's office, said he hopes that the dialogues begun on First Thursday will lead to a larger discussion about more engagementbetweenBlack Portlanders and the city.
"I don't know how much folks feel like they can come to their elected officials, have an open dialogue and understand that they will have an ear to speak to," Spencer said.

"Our elected officials campaign in Northeast, and they go to Northeast and speak," he added. "An important aspect of this (event) is to say, 'You can come into this arena — City Hall — too.' This is where decisions are made. When you've been to City Hall, when you've spoken to the mayor and to the City Council, you'll be more inclined to come back in the future."

Adams, for his part, has been pleased to see the First Thursday events gather steam since their inception.

"Having worked in the building (City Hall) for 11 years as a staffer … I was surprised at how many people I met who had never been in City Hall," Adams said. "I really wanted to start a regular open house at City Hall where people would feel free to come in — City Hall is their building — and have an opportunity in a casual setting to meet their elected officials and their staff."

Adams also saw the First Thursday open houses as a chance to expand his role as arts and culture commissioner by bringing local artists and their work into the halls of government.

"I wanted to expose emerging artists who did not have contracts with galleries … and give them a space to show off their work and sell their work," he said.

In keeping with that tradition, Sunshine Dixon, co-director of the United Way's Art of Change Gallery, will install the work of local Black artists in City Hall for the event.

"It's a small group of the artists whose work we show at the gallery," Dixon said of the art that will be on display on March 2. "One of the benefits of partnering with the city for this kind of event is that we can cross-sell art between our gallery and City Hall. It's really great for our artists in terms of their ability to sell their work."

Dixon said one of the evening's featured artists, Elvin Jones, is just 11 years old.

"Family members tell me he's been an artist since he was a child, since he was 2 years old," she said. "He started by giving his art as gifts to people. … I saw one of his paintings and I was blown away. He had a showing at the gallery in December, and he sold well. … He's excited to be showing at City Hall."

The response from both the public and city government to the First Thursday open houses has been overwhelmingly positive, Adams said.

"Emerging artists have welcomed the opportunity to have hundreds and hundreds of people view and purchase their work," he said. "It's really helped to humanize elected officials, and for us to get to know parts of the community that we otherwise might not come into contact with. … It's really a wonderfully non-political atmosphere.

"It's taking City Hall back to its roots as a meeting place."

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