Friday, February 12, 2016

Porch Light Shelter Staff Natasha Kotey on Black History Month

February is Black History Month and we asked one of our shelter staff, Natasha Kotey, to share her thoughts on this important occasion. Natasha has been with Janus Youth Programs for several months and participates on our Janus Diversity Committee. Here's what she had to say:

Black History Month is here and is as necessary as ever before. This month we celebrate the many contributions of African Americans since getting off the boat. Blacks’ excellence and struggle have been nearly invisible in American History classes. Visible only to pander to a very idealized and misleading view of America. This is the education the youth we serve have come from. For the sake of the Janus employees, employers, and the youth we are here for, let's speak truth to this month, through the historical lens of Blacks in Oregon. 

I moved to Portland from Oklahoma in August of 2014 and started working at Janus nearly a year afterwards. After having seen so many young faces on the streets, I found Janus and joined the team at the Porchlight Crisis Shelter. As an African American woman, I have always and will always be aware of my race. Race was the first thing I noticed about Portland. Although I treat every client with the same care and respect, whenever Black youth enter into our shelter I feel a connection an ease in them knowing people who have been culturally or racially stamped also work at shelter and are there to support them. Empathy goes a long way and there is no denying how our culture shapes us. In the most predominately White big city in America, our clients of color may find it difficult to find the unique support they need. It has been my job to learn about direct actions in Portland that will benefit our youth.

Oregon passed a series of Exclusion laws from 1844-57 forbidding Blacks from settlement, and prohibiting Blacks from owning real estate.  Even after the 14th and 15th amendments were past after the Civil War, it wasn't until 1927 that these laws were repealed. These were widely oppressive laws and we are still met with the residue of the past. This a dark side of Oregon's history that is kept in the shadows through Oregon Public Schools. 

Take it to present day Portland. Redlining in Portland denied people access to housing and wealth. Redlining was a way for segregation to live on past laws prohibiting it. Redlining was an insidious practice that gives reason to why NE Portland is the "Black side of town". The youth we serve come from areas that were historically ignored and mistreated. The struggle for identity in a city that has systematically rejected people like you is a challenge that a majority of Portland natives will never understand. Historical and cultural awareness greatly informs how we engage with youth and each other.

Working on the front lines at Porchlight has taught me so much about myself and the communities around me. Race relations on the streets are far more familial and accepting than those of middle class neighborhoods.  I've realized ways in which I can support youth that would also heal my inner child who struggled finding the help she needed. Call it selfish, but everything we do is to satisfy our values and passions. We should never place more value on the act than the effect. We should effect social change by making our doors more accessible for people of color. 

We all must learn about structural racism, critical race theory, and engage in the history of the places we choose to settle in. A healthy dialogue stems from the discussion and dissection of historical issues. This dialogue provides us the tools to not dismiss the challenges and opportunities organizations and our community face when we simply "talk about diversity". Janus Youth should strive to be an organization not just talking about it, but building from it.

Speak to people you do not know. Listen and believe their story. Embrace Black Excellence. Embrace the Uncomfortable. I'll leave you with a quote from Portland activist, author, and PSU Professor Walidah Imarisha "When we see these events as part of a cycle, then we can see what is really happening and can create a place we want to live in" Happy Black History Month. Stay Educated.

Natasha Kotey
Residential Advocate 
Porchlight Crisis Shelter

Diversity Committee Member

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