Cameron is a writer, civic entrepreneur, and Executive Director of Know Your City. He has been engaged with nonprofit, civic and political causes in Portland for his entire adult life. His passion of advocating for human rights and marginalized communities was catalyzed in 2011, the year the Occupy Movement was born. Cameron currently serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for Pioneer Square and the Housing Development and Finance Committees for Reach Community Development. Cameron’s biggest pride is that he’s a first-time uncle to year-old Dominick Daniel Whitten.
Tara Miller: I’ve been thinking of a way to rephrase the brilliant interview question heard on
the podcast Another Round with Heben and Tracy , but it’s just too good, so, what do you do and why?
Cameron Whitten: I serve as Executive Director of Know Your City. My work encompasses all degrees of nonprofit leadership—programs, communications, governance, hiring, human resources, finance, legal, development, volunteer engagement, strategic planning, coalition building, and being the occasional nonprofit whipping post.
It’s my own story that calls and compels me to take this journey with Know Your City. When I was eighteen and homeless, I saw people, much like myself, unable to make ends meet, and without anyone to turn to. I consider myself fortunate, having access to support systems that not only provided for me, but empowered me to have pride in myself and my story. I’m grateful to know Portland is a community where we care so much about whether our neighbors thrive.
However, even though I was able to make the transition from homelessness, the glaring needs of others have fueled a lot of my activism over the years, including the 55 day hunger strike outside of City Hall. That hunger strike was a sacrifice of my mind, body, and spirit, and it helped to start a conversation about the future of Portland. I wasn’t really sure what was next for me after becoming a celebrity gadfly, or whatever you’d like to call it.
And that’s the exact moment when Know Your City came into my life.
The Executive Director and co-founder asked me to participate as a guest speaker on a Peripheries tour on homelessness, sharing my experience with the hunger strike. It felt good to be out in the community, having conversations about an issue that was so important to me—and I had a lot of fun too.
I quickly became a member and supporter. And then a Know Your City board member. And then Board President. And now Executive Director. As you can tell, I love this organization.
And I love my team. While many organizations talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, KYC demonstrably embodies these values at every level. We are proud to be a nonprofit, but also a living movement whose leadership is woven by women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Our team loves and is committed to Know Your City because it’s exciting, innovative, courageous, and hopeful.
TM: Thank you for sharing your story. You have a significant history with activism and community organizing! Do you identify as an activist? If so, when did you start?
CW: I identify as an activist, but I find the term advocate to be more appropriate for myself.
As a kid, I struggled with my father’s physical and emotional abuse. I was introverted. I was always crying. I had no self-esteem. After it was discovered that my father had an ongoing affair with my godmother, my mom was smart enough to get a divorce when I was 13. Still, it was no panacea to fixing our dysfunctional home. I tried to get emancipated when I was 17. I left Virginia on August 29th, 2009 after I turned 18 and graduated.
Problem was, I had nowhere to go.
In less than two months, I ended up in Portland on October 6th, 2009. I had no support system and no work experience. I stayed for months in a homeless shelter for at-risk youth. Growing up in a middle-class suburb, I never knew that this level of homelessness could exist in America, and wasn't ready for tragic realities that I would learn about at-risk youth who struggle to survive in the 21st century. Even though I had relatively little, the services that were available helped me get into housing. I enrolled in classes at Portland Community College within six months of arriving in Portland.
The generosity of this community is what got me on my feet. I wake up every single day with a bit of gratitude because of it. I was motivated to immerse myself in community service. I spent hundreds of hours volunteering at local nonprofits, such as: Portland Homeless Family Solutions, Write Around Portland, Free Geek, Food Not Bombs, and In Other Words. It was through volunteering that I realized my calling in life. I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce harm in the world instead of adding more to it.
In 2011, I learned about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I knew at that moment that my life was changed forever - watching people come together as a unified force to address the crises within society. My heart was flying. I went to the very first march on October 6th, my second anniversary of coming to Portland. I remember the streets of downtown, filled with tens of thousands of people, all mobilized with the dream of a better community. It gave me conviction. I felt something stirring inside me, telling me that my experience as a homeless kid, as an abused kid, as a low-income person of color, as a queer, bike riding vegan, instilled me with stories that I could leverage as a vehicle of change for my community. I became inseparable from the movement afterwards. I helped organize marches, workshops, general assemblies, and was arrested four times in my dream to help spur a new civil rights movement. While Occupy didn't have the tactics, lasting presence, or outcome I would have liked to see at this moment, I wouldn't be doing the work that now fills my heart if I hadn't been there on October 6th.
TM: I see your history of connecting with folks in the community from different organizations and with different passions reflected in the fact that Know Your City partners with so many artists for your programs. How do you get connected with artists? Can you tell me about some of the artists you’re working with currently and how your work with them furthers your mission to “educate people to better know their communities, and to empower them to take action”?
CW: Know Your City is committed to cultivating grassroots community relationships. Since we know a wide network of people, we are able to get a sense of who’s out there and what work they’re doing. However, we are always trying to get our opportunities out to more artists and artists from underrepresented backgrounds, so we continually do public submission processes for upcoming projects. So, if you’re an artist, you should email firstname.lastname@example.org and start talking to us!!
Two examples of artists we’re working with right now are Joamette Gil and Shanita King. Joamette is the illustrator of our soon to be published Oregon History Comic on Hung Far Low, and is a professional cartoonist whose mission has always been to represent the under-represented in whatever she creates. Her works have focused on queer identity, interracial history, generational trauma, and intersectional feminist practice in people’s everyday lives. She is a contributing cartoonist on EverydayFeminism.com, one of the world’s leading online resources for educating people on issues of patriarchy, racism, immigration, sex positivity, and much more. She uses her training in illustration, graphic storytelling, and liberation psychology to deftly communicate complex people and situations.
Shanita is working on our Insider’s Guide to Portland map and is a self-made artist from the east coast; she has loved the process of creating art since her childhood, and that feeling has stayed with her since. Her relationship with her work has grown over time, into a meditative practice- A way of working through emotions and integrating both the beautiful and the challenging aspects of human life. Her artwork is a visual manifestation of a deep exploration into her passions, embodying elements of nature, yoga, music, creative movement, spirituality and divine play. Elements of figure drawing with surrealism and the abstract are an intrinsic facet of King’s work.
TM: Know Your City implements a number of different programs to further its mission, from tours to publications to lectures and youth programs. What current or in-the-works Know Your City project are you most excited about right now?
CW: In just 6 years, we’ve collaborated with 90+ organizations on programs such as the Hidden History of Albina, a walking tour of North Portland’s African American history, the Jade Journal, a student led multilingual newspaper about the SE 82nd and Division community, “30 Flags,” a prison placemaking program at Columbia River Correctional Institution led by former Board Secretary Reiko Hillyer and local artist Emily Squires, and Oregon History Comics, ten illustrated stories about some of Oregon’s least known histories.
Since celebrating new leadership in November, KYC has expanded programming to reach over 1,500 individuals, including: 3 awareness events (300 attendance), 7 forums (556 attendance), 19 tours (435 attendance), and tabled at 6 community events (500 conversations).
While I could list a lot of programs that we’re spearheading or building capacity for right now, for brevity’s sake I will say that it is a priority for KYC to continue to grow our partnerships and transform this organization into a treasured community institution that all feel like they benefit from and contribute to.
One upcoming event I’d like to suggest for folks to attend is our Visions for a Housed Community teach-in and dialogue, funded by Oregon Humanities.
TM: So many incredible programs with extensive reach and impact for various communities. I know that many people in the Portland community first heard about Know Your City through your tours. Where did the idea to do these tours originate and how might they differ from other mainstream history tours?
CW: Know Your City began during the winter of 2008, when Marc Moscato met Lucy Rockwell and Kyle Von Hoetzendorff. The three began to exchange ideas about how to help Portlanders understand and be involved in civics. After receiving community input, the three founded “the Dill Pickle Club,” named after a countercultural club from 1920’s Chicago that was based on similar ideals of community-based education, activism, and alternative culture. In June 2009, Know Your City held its first event, “Art for the Millions,” a bike tour which brought together over 50 Portlanders to explore the legacy of the Depression-era public art created during the Works Progress Administration. With growing success, the organization became an LLC in 2010 and acquired a Winter gallery space in the Everett Station lofts and later moved to the Dekum Building. While there are many tour companies in Portland, KYC designs tours that foster dialogue between experts with first-hand knowledge, partnering community organizations, and the community at large. KYC tours provide quality information on issues of social concern and social justice, presenting interactive ways to learn by bus, bike and foot.
TM: Know Your City’s new Food Rights by Bike tour “highlights the #NorthPortland community through a lens of a different kind of #foodie movement, one led by #immigrants, #peopleofcolor, and low-income #Portlanders working towards an end to food injustice.” Without spoiling too much for our readers who will sign up for the tour, can you talk about where this tour originated and why it’s important?
CW: Portland, which is often lauded for our local and sustainable food culture, faces a public health crisis stemming from tens of thousands of residents who lack access to the affordable and healthy food options. Redlining by banks and retail outlets, the outmigration of jobs, and food deserts paint a stark reality for food access—and this issue is clearly exacerbated by racism and class discrimination.
During January this year on Martin Luther King Day, Know Your City and People’s Food Co-op hosted a community dialogue about food justice and its intersection with race and class in Portland, and the event sold out in less than two weeks. In response to this demand and the critical need for education around this subject matter, Know Your City and People’s Food Co-op partnered again to host two Food Rights by Bike tours.
Food Rights by Bike is a new tour that highlights the North Portland community through a lens of a different kind of foodie movement, one led by immigrants, people of color, and low-income Portlanders working towards an end to food injustice. Topics include gentrification, displacement, culturally responsive food gardens, and diverse food culture.
TM: How are art and social justice connected for you and for Know Your City?
CW: KYC believes that the social problems Oregon faces stem from more than a political crisis or an economic crisis. It’s a crisis of vision. We care about what’s in people’s minds, what’s in people’s hearts, and the power of sharing the gift of your story with others. This is when we feel closest to our humanity. That’s when we have a stronger vision for the future.
Know Your City is about justice. For generations of communities who have fought against the erasure of their culture, their identity, and the pride of who they are—we uplift those voices, first and foremost. Our role in community is not of engagement, but empowerment, helping the people around us have confidence in their contributions to our collective civic and cultural fabric. Our work helps to foster community leadership, identity, and relationships for Oregonians through the literary and graphic arts, develop personal enrichment in the lives of our audience, and inspire others to advance equity in their community.
Our vision is to make sure that the people who interact with KYC programs leave with a feeling of profoundness, just like Dakota, an inmate and artist at Columbia River Correctional Institute, who said that the 30 Flags project “reminds me of freedom” during our installation unveiling event.
TM: What is a struggle you find yourself coming up against, and how do you move past it?
CW: The organization was facing closure near the end of 2015. That was eleven months ago. I ended up volunteering to take my position as an unpaid employee, not only because in my mind it was the right thing to do, but it was the only option we had if we wanted to stay alive. Since then, we’ve tripled our staff capacity, and brought much needed consistency and innovation to our programs and communications.
When I started the job, I was prepared for the usual friction of nonprofit leadership, but I was surprised to be exposed to the scorching level of hostility that has accompanied the other sacrifices. By far, the greatest challenge has been trying to play the game of the nonprofit industrial complex, while remaining committed to being a social justice nonprofit that sings its own truth. We get past these challenges, because giving up is not an option. It is our own resilient fire that helps to build this movement and better serve our community.
TM: What support do you and Know Your City need from your community to sustain and expand the work you’re doing?
CW: We have some ambitious ideas of how Know Your City will emerge into 2017, with new partnerships and campaigns. And we rely on support from the community in order to take that step with us. A big part of that is with donations. We 100% need our community to donate to sustain the work that we’re doing. There are many other great opportunities available to help lead our strategic work through volunteering. We need Youth Print PDX Mentors willing to help our youth classes develop student-written community newspapers. We have opportunities to table at community events. We have once a month meetings with the volunteer Programs and Education Committees. We are also seeking additional board members!