Profiles: Discovering What it Means to be Black

Profiles is an ongoing series, seeking to create spaces of affinity, where similarly identified folks have a space to talk about the perceptions, nuances and actualities of their identity.  



The concept of black identity has been one fraught with a single narrative and stigma of what it means to be black in America. With diverse images and stories beginning to show and develop in mainstream society, there have become more ways to express blackness. Blacks are now left with the job of taking on their own understanding of being black, without adhering to what society tells them they must be or how they should act or who they can be. This is their world, this is who they are, who they deserve to be and will never fall victim to being anything but themselves. 

TRIBE, The Real Inseparable Black Experience, is the name of our affinity group here at Catlin.

Being black, African-American, Afro-American African, a ‘Negro’ as they use to say, back in the day just means being a part of such a rich culture and history. Now, what is black culture, is an entirely different conversation on its own. Being able to connect with people who look like you on that level. It’s like being exposed to an entirely different world.
— Juma S, 17
Being black means having to live in a society where you were set up to fail from the beginning. Being black is being followed around in a store, and being afraid for your life when you get pulled over by the police. Being black is having your culture constantly mocked, but also having it, while other minorities try to mimic.
— Jordanos L, 18
I just really think being black, means to be beautiful and strong and powerful and resilient. If I had to pick one word to describe black women, it would be RESILIENT.
— Aaliyah J, 17
What does it mean to be black? I think it means being whoever you are. Thats how I answer that. There are so many different variations of skin tone, personalities and jobs and the way people speak. I think whoever you are as a black person, is what it means to be black.
— Damien G, 34

Profiles: The Beauty, Love and Passion of Islam

Profiles is an ongoing series, seeking to create spaces of affinity, where similarly identified folks have a space to talk about the perceptions, nuances and actualities of their identity.  



The fear of Islam and Muslim believers has become overwhelmingly socially acceptable. Critics of Islam, who blame the faith for the actions of radical, fundamentalist terrorists have misjudged the religion that well over a billion people worldwide have found salvation in. The hypocrisy that persists is one that does not apply this same standard to Christianity, a faith that saw the enslavement, mass genocide and centuries of war throughout time, internationally. Despite this all, Muslims within the U.S. are staying truth to their identity. Amidst the rhetoric, young Muslim-American men and women are challenging their fellow citizens and communities to solve the myriad of social injustices that permeate our society, with the teachings and principles of Islam. 


Ibrahim , 17

on Living as a Muslim in America 

"I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas… We lived in a neighborhood, our car would get egged and someone put needles under our cars and we would get hate messages… Ever since then, we moved out of that neighborhood and I have gotten any physical abuse for my religion. I would walk with my sister and people would look, because my sister wears the hijab… Part of the Muslim experience is not abuse, it kind of undermines what American means to you… It kind of amuses me the lack of ignorance of what people think Islam is and what isn’t."


on the Meaning of Islam 

"‘A Muslim is not a Muslim if he knows his neighbor is hungry and goes to sleep full.’ And so Islam is helping people and keeping your connection with God." 

Semerdin, 16

on Perceptions of Muslims

"The media kind of portrays this idea of Islam totally differently. Islam is one of the largest religions in the US… It is really surprising how many different people have that basic idea of Islam and twist it to their own imagination. That takes a larger effect on Muslim individuals."


on Islamic Values

“Islam is a religion that means you have to help yourself and help others, keeping up with good deed, that’s what Islam is all about… Islam provides a sense of interdependence that all people should value."

In Conversation with Youth from Brazil About Identity

The perceptions we adopt of the people and places we are unfamiliar with can be quite dangerous. To assume and project the ideas or messages we receive from the world to the unknown, creates an us v. them complex. This complex allows us to feel a sense of security in finding our own perceptions and ideologies as good or just, and those of the ‘other’ as not.

I noticed this most during the Olympics this past summer, when reports of the Brazilian government forcing people out of their homes, and wrongly mistreating the subsequent protests, to build the infrastructure for the Olympics. When speaking to others, they seemed to find the actions of the Brazil as an anomaly, a special case, an outlier amongst world governments. None of that is true. The basis of some of this city's foremost problems lie within forced removals of people experience poverty from their homes and those experiencing houselessness from finding safe spaces to sleep at night. The homes that people have lived in almost their whole lives, have just been destroyed to make room for more desired attractions. What is more desirable than home? Rio de Janeiro and Portland, share qualities that are one in the same.


Yet, that is not the perception that I have seen portrayed. So often I see, stories of Brazil that focus that are reflective of few things-- soccer, Carnival, beautiful beaches, the deforested Amazon, favelas, crime, corruption and violence--almost as if they separate from society, or removed from the larger social systems in place. Rampant poverty and crime takes on a different face and medium here, but it still exists. However, in that very statement, the skewed and biased perceptions of an entire nation is summed up. How often do we see the regularity and simplicity of day-to-day life portray in Brazil? How many movies have you seen set in the sequestered favelas, ridden with gang violence and no order? Often. If not, frequently.

My perceptions were completely changed when 12, racially, ethnically, sexually and culturally diverse Brazilian students, spoke with me about their stories. With big smiles, big hair and big personalities these 12 individuals dive deep into this open space. These youth Brazilian Ambassadors from all over Brazil, visiting with the World Affairs Council and the US State Department, were the brightest, optimistic and realistic people of their communities. They were overrun with this desire to share their experiences. To create their own platforms, to stand, with full attention and relay the entirety of their respective lives.

It is almost ethereal when people from completely different worlds come together to discuss their worlds. It is so subtle and beautiful and simple, that is almost seems divine. The impact of two hours on the lives of thirteen individuals, including myself, is not conscious in the moment. Rather it builds. Going from topics about water accessibility to opportunities to better our lives, every point struck a chord with each of us. Initially, I functioned as the facilitator. But, soon found myself looking upon this moment, outside of my own self, looking on, as these people transcended their  geographical, political and social barriers to instinctively connect as human beings. To not argue. To have each and every one of our stories validated by one another.

Truly, I began to see the parallels of our country’s horrific racist pasts, playing out in being followed around at the mall or treated differently when we were with a darker parent, rather than the other. I began to see the purposeful limitations and barriers established to stop, thoughtful, engaged and intelligent young people from changing the systems that provide profit for those in power. I began to see that the objectification of the female body and the degradation of the female spirit as an ugly universal reality. I began to see my own privilege of being born in a place where aspiring to be better was not just a dream but a potential reality. I began to see my own privilege in never having to worry about having water, but instead drowning in a wasteful abundance. I was beginning.

To begin is where all progress starts. Forcing ourselves to challenge our perceptions, to empathetically address the plight of people universally, to acknowledge our blindspots, to connect. The power of connection can fortify and destroy the largest and most minute perceptions we adopt. Allowing our perceptions to persist, even though we know no one of those we are perceiving is beyond ignorant-- it is an active decision to discriminate.

Begin to interrogate your understanding of everything you know or perceive to know. In doing that, I have 12 new friends and a redeemable invitation to a place just as racist, corrupt and unconcerned as my home now. Only difference, is the people there more authentic and human.

Pellegrino: Relations, Community and Housing

Many have not heard of the Office of Government Relations. But it does exist. The smallest of all of Portland’s city offices, the Office of Government Relations happens to be one of the most important entities of the City of Portland.

Serving as the lobbyist, representative and liaison between jurisdictions local, national and international, Martha Pellegrino is the head of these affairs. Pellegrino has been a longtime law, government and political force in Portland. With successes such as the new affordable housing power, that allows The City of Portland to buy housing units of newly built residential buildings in hopes of leveling the current, overly competitive and expensive housing market.

Pellegrino has made it her job to find ways to engage and be a supporting political force, for the empowerment of marginalized communities. Her honesty brings to light an emerging generation of community invested politicians.

This is Martha Pellegrino, the politician and the person.

Bus Project: Time-Lapse of Portland Communities

Public transit is the equalizer of city change. People of all walks of life, come together in the narrow aisles of a forty-something seater bus, where there is no separator between the rich and the poor, the black and the white -- society’s melting pot.  

As I rode two of Trimet’s busiest bus lines, the 72-Killingsworth/82nd and the 4-Division/Fessenden, at some point it felt as if I had been transported to cities along the banks of the Mekong and Balsas Rivers, gently the melody of languages foreign and close to home soothed my experience throughout these changing areas.

My trip, starting on N. Skidmore and Mississippi, featured characters similar to the Portland based, Portlandia. Milling in and out of taxidermy shops, teahouses, local businesses and microbreweries, these characters with no knowledge of this area’s history, move about aimlessly not knowing where they enjoy their chai teas, use to be a crack infested house. A house that had been home to three generation of middle class African-American, business owners, who had moved with the tide of a hopeful black population, prospering for generations until the hell-infested crack bomb, took the lives of the very people they had moved for-- their future children.

Riding to the city center, three older black gentlemen, liven the bus with memories of their days as a young people. Never a shortage of substance, they move through topics from racial discrimination to government conspiracies and gentrification. My ears became glued to these voices. They were the voices of my uncles, cousins and grandfather, who had a bounty of knowledge, but the wrong skin tone. Their memories digging out my own ideas and perceptions of life, making me think deeply about who and what was in these areas, prior to me telling these stories.

Out to the areas in which these communities of color now call home, is where I see the sparse glimmers of community pride in the small businesses, occupied by people of the Mekong and Balsas Rivers, but also their children, finding pride in speaking their household languages among friends at school. A young Hispanic boy got on the bus, in hand with his mother and her friend, who both seemed to be on her way to her job. The two speaking Spanish, so fluently, I felt myself ashamed not to have been able to engage too. Following, came a bounty of young people in the late morning rush hour, heading to work, the entry jobs that could possibly get them the house their mother had lost.

On my trip to North Portland, I heard the stories of men that been sucked in by streets, going in and out of jail, one even recently stabbed at the porch of his home. But even the wake of this commonly thread theme of North Portland, being the “hood,” they had a firm pride for their own community. This pride broadened my eyes, as I rode through New Columbia, looking at the various flyers advertising community events from old Father’s Day Honors Brunch, to clothe drives and employment preparation classes. As I continued further into North Portland, the pride of being a homeowner illuminated as the bus passed the streets with immaculate yards, set in front of houses painted as if to smile, assuring you are safe.

From the conversations that started with a simple question, “what are you doing?” to the smiles that made me feel welcome, but not enough to stay, as I travelled through the changed, bright, vibrant, new, fun, urban, white neighborhoods: Division, Mississippi and Alberta, I realized so much has changed, but the people coming in and the people who left remain the same. There faces do change colors, but life continues to go on.

This is our Portland.

The hopes and dreams of new groups of people mixed with the anger and adaptive behavior of old groups of people, undercut by the overwhelming acceptance of this change, by the majority of people. The old to the new.

To my surprise, as the bus is the equalizer, it is also the divider. Allowing for these displaced communities to get to and fro from where they had to leave. It allows for city expansion to occur and in turn, city change. The city will go on with or without these communities. So it is time to make the city realize these communities, we, exist.

Listen to those old guys talking, help that Hispanic woman and her son, talk to the homeless guy next to you, do as much as you can to learn about people. This is the basis of changing a tide that caused a hurricane-- talking, organizing and changing. As the city does virtually nothing to help these displaced people, they matter to us as fellow Portlanders, as fellow humans.