By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer

Civic engagement will always come from the community, not from the powers that be.
Dawson Park; Photo by Mischa Webley

In the insular world of local politics, a recent controversy has sparked a heated conversation in Portland around civic engagement. In short, the City of Portland’s Office of Community and Civic Life (Civic Life) has undertaken an effort that would, theoretically, expand the focus of the neighborhood system (that’s us) to be more inclusive of other groups, and less-focused on neighborhood associations (note: Civic Life is NECN’s primary funder).

The plan, broadly called Code Change, has been met with fierce opposition from a broad alliance of Portlanders. Critics see the move as a way to undermine public involvement in a city that still doesn’t elect its commissioners by district, leaving the neighborhood system as one of the only avenues for most Portlanders to directly access their government. The City, for its part, maintains that Code Change is simply an effort to widen the tent of recognized organizations. 

Few on either side disagree with that mission. But after a two-year long process that has been less-than-transparent and at times openly hostile to neighborhood groups, the plan has proven to be more divisive than inclusive. Here at NECN, it’s led us to reflect on our own history of civic engagement and the partnerships we’ve made over the years.  

real, meaningful civic engagement doesn’t come top-down from the city.

Our office since 1974; photo by Mischa Webley

NECN has a long history in Northeast Portland. We’ve been operating out of the King Elementary School Annex since 1974, when a group of neighborhood leaders banded together to fight the city’s strategic disinvestment and negligence of the (then) predominantly black communities of Northeast. Neighborhoods joined together to amplify the voices of the community and build strength in numbers to demand representation from the city. In other words, NECN was born out of opposition to – not because of – city policy. That’s because real, meaningful civic engagement doesn’t come top-down from the city. It comes from the ground up, from the people.

NECN’s focus is, and always has been, to support and uplift our community by promoting, funding, supporting and enabling in any way we can other grassroots and nonprofit organizations in Northeast, including neighborhood associations. From working with all these groups over the years, one thing is clear: people don’t fight for their community, engage with their city, vote for their representatives or volunteer in their community because the city government gives them their blessing. People do it out of faith: that their neighbors are good, that their community needs them, that things will get better. And they often do it in spite of the decisions made in City Hall, not because of them. 

So, in this issue we shine a light on just a few leaders around Northeast who have made it their life’s work to improve this place. For some, faith in community and faith in a higher power are one in the same. For others, faith is what they need to keep fighting for a community that presents different daily challenges. Whether it’s in the news or not, the hard work of building up communities goes on, everyday, as it always has, and will always continue to do.