Big Ideas: 7 Locals Dream Big

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Every brilliant project was once just the germ of an idea that popped into someone’s head, somewhere. Someone had to imagine the bottle bill, or keeping the entire Oregon Coast accessible to the public, or legal weed.

Here are seven great ideas that are just in the dreaming stage so far from Portland-area locals that we think could be the next big things.

Turn The Streets Into Playgrounds

When the early days of the pandemic closed playgrounds, parks, and pools, Sam Balto, a physical education teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary in North Portland, hatched a radical plan: turn the streets into playgrounds. Picture this: no more parking or driving on low-traffic roads bordering parks. Instead, there could be obstacle courses, bike tracks, climbing rocks, and hopscotch galore, for kids to bike, scoot, or skate through unencumbered.

It’s not all that radical—London, Barcelona, and Oslo all have play street programs, so why not Portland? “Encouraging young children to learn and play helps them build skills to function during their everyday journeys,” Balto says. “Having all of this asphalt only for people driving is not serving the city.” —Julia Silverman

Make Legal Help More Accessible to Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Remember in 2018 when the Trump administration used a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, to hold immigration detainees? Not anymore, and that’s thanks to Innovation Law Lab. Stephen Manning, founding partner of the nonprofit and an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark, and his fellow lawyers represented 80 immigrants who were detained at Sheridan and won a not-too-shabby 100 percent of their cases. Their current mission? “To make sure no one goes to court alone,” Manning says.

The big idea: universal representation for noncitizens—everyone has a lawyer, regardless of their ability to pay or produce immigration papers. But that’s just step one. In collaboration with many other community-based organizations, including Causa, a local immigration rights organization, Manning says the lab is “redefining [access to justice] to not mean just access to a lawyer, but access to all the things a person needs to defeat unjust or unfair deportation and immigration exclusion.” He’s aiming at a single app that can connect community members to everything they need, from legal services and transportation to childcare. The group’s holistic approach is “the first of its kind,” Manning says—and the goal is an approach that, eventually, can be replicated nationwide. —Aurora Biggers

Produce Risker Theater

Bigger risks and smaller egos: those are the keys to better postpandemic theater, says Rebecca Lingafelter, co-artistic director of the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Pointing to initiatives like Artists Rep’s ambitious Mercury Company project (which has produced new works by more than 90 artists since its inception last June, partially via federal funding) she notes that in the past year larger theater companies have been more compelled to prop up smaller ones, and to center work both from and of Portland. “That feels really different, and really exciting.”

Crowd restrictions have forced everyone to experiment with form, leading to new audio dramas, interactive walking tours, video work, and more. Lingafelter hopes those experiments can exist alongside more traditional productions when curtains rise again. And rise they will. “My gut tells me people are actually going to want to be in a room way faster than we anticipate,” she says. “We’re all so bereft of that energy.” —Conner Reed

Hold Oregon Schools Accountable for Discrimination

Nitin Rai and his colleagues at Elevate Capital want to give women and people of color in the Oregon tech community millions of dollars.

The local VCs are seeking the next Paula Hayes, the Beaverton-based entrepreneur who launched Hue Noir, a cosmetics company for women of color with backing from Elevate, and innovators like Sean Mitchell, Harsh Yadav, and Keenan Williams, the BIPOC founders of quick-turnaround home rental site Rezi.

So where are they? Not in Oregon, and as Rai’s money follows them out of the state, he’s looking to our public schools to start fixing that.

“The Oregon problem is that it is a very white state,” Rai says. “To be more diverse, you have to invite people in, because they aren’t coming from within. Kids of color in this state’s schools are discriminated against, racially profiled. My daughter went through this, and they have no protection. The seeds of racism are being sown in these schools.”

Rai has spent the past 30 years in Oregon’s tech industry. He knows economic downturns, like this pandemic-dug trough, often boost tech workers’ entrepreneurial spirits. But pitches from people of color and women have plummeted since late 2020. He thinks it’s a symptom of a deeper illness.

While women make up more than half of Oregon’s population, they’re less than a third of all tech workers. Hispanic employees constitute 6 percent of Oregon’s tech sector, but more than 13 percent of its citizens. Meanwhile, Black people are as underrepresented statewide (2.2 percent, compared to 13.4 percent nationwide) as they are in Oregon tech (about 2 percent, compared to at least 8 percent in technology nationwide).

By contrast, Silicon Valley and NYC pull from a concentration of universities that draw a diverse student body. During the past year, Rai and Elevate shifted focus from Portland to their national pipeline of women and BIPOC entrepreneurs from those areas.

Rai believes the seeds of discrimination planted at schools make kids want to leave the state, making it harder for Oregon colleges to recruit them and less likely that they’ll apply to work at Oregon tech companies, and, eventually, ask him to invest in their company.

Rai’s pinning his hopes on a bill in the state legislature that would give students legal recourse against discrimination by making school districts and individual perpetrators within them criminally liable for their actions.

“If the state is serious, if the governor is serious, and if the government is serious about solving this problem, pass that law,” Rai says. “Otherwise this problem will never go away, because half of this country is filled with racist people ... and many of them exist here in this state.” —Jason Notte

Fully Decriminalize Sex Work

Wendy Weiss has already slain one dragon—as Portland’s best-known stripper-comedienne, she’s living reproof to the outdated trope that hot women can’t be funny. Now, she’s on to her next crusade, inspired by her side hustle as a mentor for young sex workers: helping with the drive to decriminalize sex work in Oregon.

She’s teaming up with the Sex Workers Project of the New York–based nonprofit Urban Justice Center on a proposed bill in the Oregon legislature that seeks to repeal laws prohibiting prostitution/commercial sex solicitation. While there were only 29 prostitution-related offenses reported to the Portland Police Bureau in 2020, Weiss says that in her experience, the criminalization of sex work lands hardest on those who are traditionally marginalized, particularly BIPOC and
LGBTQ+ people. 

The bill is the first of its kind introduced in the US, says RJ Thompson, Urban Justice Center managing director. Thompson says his group is testing the water in Oregon because of the state’s “history of political progressiveness.”

“Decriminalization [is] the first step, not the last step,” Thompson says. “We need to make sure that the [sex work] industry has the same worker rights and protections that other industries have.” Criminalizing sex work blocks the industry from following national standards set out by the US Department of Labor, making it a hotbed for wage theft, racism, and sexual harassment. —Aurora Biggers

Create a Better BIPOC-Centered Instagram Community

Growing up in Nigeria, Ochuko Akpovbovbo never had to think of herself as a Black woman—she was just a woman, full stop. Then Akpovbovbo (above, left), now 22 and a senior at Lewis & Clark College, moved to Portland and became, she says, “the ‘Black girl.’ It was heavy for me.”

Last spring, as the Black Lives Matter movement was exploding in Portland, she founded a start-up online media company called Parachute to put women of color at the center of their own stories.

Her team is all young women and nonbinary people of color, most of them college students. One of them, Hanin Najjar, a senior at the University of Oregon, is the site’s editor in chief, managing weekly newsletters that highlight women of color in the art, dance, music, and beauty industries from Kenya, India, Korea, and points beyond.

Their goal: to grow a BIPOC-centered community where people can feel safe sharing opinions and experiences, using Instagram as a primary source to inform their audience about topics ranging from hate crimes to performative activism. They’ve also organized virtual workshops and live group chats.

In just a year, Parachute has built a thriving social media community with more than 30 writers and a volunteer staff of nearly 50 people. They want to expand globally and become a respected “go-to digital publication for perspectives from women of color,” says Najjar (above, right). Next up: build brand partnerships and launch their website, spotlighting identity, activism, and culture via blog posts and podcasts, and start cutting paychecks to their dedicated staff.

“It’s a beautiful thing for a founder, where your dream becomes other people’s dreams,” Akpovbovbo says. “This is just the beginning.” —Reina Harwood

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