Portland Activists Built Resilience Fund Inspired By Racial Justice Protests

Apr 3, 2021
Originally published on April 3, 2021 8:15 pm

As some of the most contentious Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 erupted in Portland, Ore., last spring, 29-year-old Cameron Whitten started getting a deluge of messages. Friends from all corners of his life were checking in on him.

"At first I was like, 'Did something happen to me?' " says Whitten. Realizing people were just concerned about his well-being, he reached out to other Black people to ask: "Are you having white people message you too?"

It wasn't just that people were wanting to discuss with him the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Whitten says. They wanted to make sure he was genuinely OK. This was a first. "Never in my lifetime of Black Lives Matter activism ever has that happened before."

He was OK, but he saw an opportunity to leverage this new-found concern from the white community to help those who weren't. On May 31, he posted on Facebook asking for donations from white allies to give cash to Black Portlanders who were struggling. The first day he raised $11,000, the next day $55,000. On the third day he raised more than $155,000.

The Black Resilience Fund was born.

In less than a year the organization raised more than $2 million in donations from corporations, foundations, government and thousands of individuals.

Co-founder Salomé Chimuku joined the project as it got off the ground in those first few weeks. When Whitten told her about the project she had a hunch it was going to take off.

"I was like this is gonna be a lot bigger and take a lot more work than you think," she says. "I became the systems person."

With a background in community engagement, Chimuku worked to quickly build internal structures of accountability and process. Needing infrastructure, they legally folded the Black Resilience Fund into another Portland-based nonprofit Whitten had already established: Brown Hope.

They found an office, hired staff and solicited volunteers, of which there were many. Trapped at home during quarantine and watching the Portland protests, people were eager to help. At one point Chimuku oversaw a team of 400 people a day who had joined the effort.

Elected officials including both of Oregon's U.S. senators endorsed the project. Researchers from Princeton studied them and wrote a report on them.

Through all this work, they've helped more than 7,000 Black Portlanders through payments of a few hundred dollars.

One recipient, Trayla Lomax, found herself living out of her car with her three young children after an eviction.

"It was devastating," Lomax says. "It was really, really hard just getting them used to living here and there, having to go shower at peoples' houses."

Historic forest fires were raging across Oregon last summer and Lomax was at times dodging evacuation zones, when a friend told her about a guy named Cameron Whitten who was helping out people like her. She completed an online application and brief screening process in which she asked for money to put a security deposit on an apartment.

Lomax says the process of receiving aid from the Black Resilience Fund was a compassionate one.

"It's so hard for me to ask for help sometimes," she says. "It didn't make me feel 'less than.'"

Whitten understands first-hand the necessity of trusting recipients.

He landed in Portland in 2009 after fleeing an abusive father and hitching a ride with two friends from the Virginia suburb where he grew up — a Black, queer kid with no place to go.

He spent years crashing on couches and living in shelters, but eventually worked his way through college and took jobs in government and the nonprofit sector. Now that he's in the position of helping others, he's determined to make the process of getting aid less dehumanizing than what he experienced.

For that reason, the organization is committed to a minimal screening process, without requiring extensive paperwork or proof of income in the form of paystubs, eviction papers or bank statements. Black Portlanders, says Whitten, have long been in crisis.

"Black folks have always needed a real economic jumpstart, like a stimulus package, in order for there to be parity with our racial wealth gap," Whitten says.

That wealth gap is laid bare in the kinds of things recipients report using the money for: food, rent and power bills. There are also many unique stories: The woman who needed to fly home for her sister's funeral, the mom who needed equipment to homeschool her child with autism.

More recently, donations have waned and the Black Resilience Fund has struggled to keep up with requests for help. But the founders are planning a new fundraising effort around the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's death.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some of the biggest and most contentious of 2020's racial justice protests took place in Portland, Ore. Not only did they draw attention to the calls of activists, they drew financial assistance to everyday Portlanders in the form of the Black Resilience Fund. Now nearly a year on, Katia Riddle checks in on it.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: As the Black Lives Matter protests erupted last spring, 29-year-old Cameron Whitten started getting a deluge of messages - friends checking on him.

CAMERON WHITTEN: And at first I was like, did something happen to me? (Laughter) When I realized it was is about George Floyd, I reached out to other Black people, and I said, are you having white people message you, too?

RIDDLE: Whitten was so dumbfounded by all the support, he started searching the Internet to see if there had been a viral article circulating directing white people to assess the well-being of their Black friends. Turns out people just wanted to make sure he was OK.

WHITTEN: Never in my lifetime of Black Lives Matter activism ever had that happened before.

RIDDLE: He was OK, but he saw an opportunity to help those who weren't. On May 31, he put up a post on his Facebook account asking for donations from white allies to give cash to Black Portlanders who were struggling. The first day, he raised $11,000, the next day, $55,000, the third day, more than $155,000. The Black Resilience Fund was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDRAY FRAISER: (Playing guitar, singing) It's getting colder.

RIDDLE: By January, he was holding a Zoom fundraising concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRAISER: My name is Redray Fraiser, and it's a pleasure to be performing for you in support of the Black Resilience Fund.

RIDDLE: In less than a year, the organization raised more than $2 million - donations from corporations, foundations, government and thousands of individuals. Whitten and co-founder Salome Chimuku registered as a non-profit, got an office and hired staff. Senators endorsed them.

Donations have waned recently, but in the last year, they've helped more than 7,000 people through payments of a few hundred dollars - people like Trayla Lomax, who last year found herself living out of her car with her three young children.

TRAYLA LOMAX: It was devastating. It was really, really, really hard just getting them used to living here and there and sometimes, you know, having to go shower at people's houses.

RIDDLE: But then a friend told her about a guy named Cameron Whitten who was helping out people like her. She completed an online application and brief screening process asking for money to put a security deposit on an apartment.

LOMAX: And it's so hard for me to even ask for help sometimes. So that was another really gratifying aspect about the Black Resilience Fund, is that it didn't make me feel less than. They were very, very compassionate, really.

WHITTEN: In my experience, the nonprofit starts with being on the other side of the plexiglass.

RIDDLE: Whitten says he understands firsthand the necessity of trusting recipients. He landed in Portland in 2009 after hitching a ride with two friends from the Virginia suburb where he grew up - a Black, queer kid with no place to go.

WHITTEN: I had a father who was abusive physically and emotionally. And I was 18 at the time, and I didn't have a single desire or hope for my future because I honestly didn't think I deserved one.

RIDDLE: Whitten spent years crashing on couches and living in shelters. But he worked his way through college, eventually getting jobs in government and nonprofits. Now that he's in a position of helping others, he's determined to make the process of getting aid less dehumanizing than what he experienced.

WHITTEN: We didn't need to see paystubs. We didn't need to see leases or, you know, bank statements to know that these folks were in crisis, to know that Black folks have always needed a real economic jumpstart like a stimulus package in order for there to be parity with our racial wealth gap.

RIDDLE: That wealth gap is laid bare in the kinds of things recipients report using the money for - food, rent, power bills. And also many unique stories - the woman who needed to fly home for her sister's funeral, the mom who needed equipment to homeschool her child with autism. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.