PORTLAND, Ore. — Local activist Cameron Whitten had joined the thousands of protesters crowding downtown streets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. He’d seen racism hurt his own community and knew systemic change was needed. But he also knew many Black Portlanders needed something more immediate, especially in the midst of the pandemic: direct cash assistance.
His idea, launched just over two months ago, has taken off in a stunning way. As national headlines continue focusing on the city’s protests, the Black Resilience Fund that Whitten started has already raised $1.42 million. Its appeal seems tied to its unique grassroots approach, which hands out checks — no strings attached, no bureaucracy and very few questions asked.
“We see this not only as an emergency fund, but as a community effort that’s allowing healing,” he said.
The effort began, like many things do these days, with a social media post:
“For my Black siblings reading this — do you need a warm meal delivered? Groceries? A bill you need to get paid? Direct message me and we’ll get you some resources immediately.
“For my non-Black siblings, if you can contribute some help — message me and we’ll make it happen.”
Whitten, 29, figured that he might raise several thousand dollars, which he’d disburse through his own bank account and connections. His inbox was flooded fast, however. He spent a marathon day getting donations to people who needed assistance. “I really felt like I was on the Stock Exchange, except I was helping people,” he said.
The 24-hour tally: $11,000. By day two, he knew he had to set up a more formalized process. That’s where his friend Salomé Chimuku came in. She would be signed on as co-founder.
“I could tell this was going to be a big deal, quickly,” she said. Her work history in state government and at nonprofits meant she knew how to create systems and build teams. She created Google forms to track contributions and how the money was being doled out. The fundraising moved from Whitten’s social media onto GoFundMe.
At first, the pair was filling people’s specific requests. They’ve since standardized, giving qualified applicants $300. Now, with more than 10,200 requests, applications are closed to allow the fundraising to catch up.
Recipients are using the money for utility bills, car insurance or transportation, medical costs, student loans, even work uniforms and funeral expenses. According to the fund’s Aug. 1 report, more than 22% of the $723,269 disseminated so far went to rent payments. Nearly $221,900 bought groceries.
Some people have gotten cash faster through the fund than from the state unemployment office.
“When we talk about safety nets, we often think about the most vulnerable,” Chimuku said. “But we don’t have safety nets that prevent people from becoming the most vulnerable.”
To qualify, an individual must show they live in the Portland metro area and identify as Black, African American or of African descent. They’re briefly interviewed over video, then someone from the fund’s growing team of volunteers delivers a check or a gift card.
“I feel like this is what I’ve been called to Portland to do,” Whitten said.
The northern Virginia native is no stranger to activism and policy work. In 2011, he joined scores of Occupy Portland activists living in a downtown tent encampment.
“I was a young, queer, homeless, 20-something who believed my voice didn’t matter,” he recalled. “Occupy told me my story did matter.” He became a leader in that movement and was arrested four times.
Months later, he ran for mayor. His signature prop was a slogan-covered cardboard box he wore while campaigning — with nothing underneath. In 2012, he staged a very public 55-day hunger strike, hoping to pressure the City Council to address homelessness issues. He has since served on local committees working on transit policy, equity and civic engagement. Until March, he was executive director of the Q Center, which serves the LGBTQ community.
His latest work has attracted hundreds of volunteers, of all races and backgrounds. It has expanded to involve food box deliveries and mutual aid, such as helping people with yardwork.
Messages fly all day long through about 15 Slack channels, and spreadsheets keep track of the activity. The doorbell of Whitten’s townhouse-condo in Northeast Portland, still the fund headquarters, rings constantly.
“Welcome to pandemonium!” he greeted a volunteer.
By design, the people who interact with recipients are all Black. “It’s your own community, smiling, saying they see you, and handing you a check,” he said.
Bonnie Johnson, 62, is one of them. A longtime drug and alcohol counselor, she more recently followed another passion, cooking, with the Salvation Army. But the pandemic shut down its meals program, and her job evaporated.
She initially applied to the Black Resilience Fund for money to fix a broken shower. The experience was so uplifting that she decided to volunteer. These days she’s a check delivery driver, and her encounters have been eye-opening.
One elderly woman with very limited mobility wanted to buy a new chair because she no longer could get up out of her other furniture. “The only place she could stand up and hold onto her walker was the toilet. So she sits in her bathroom, on the toilet, all day,” Johnson said. She left the woman’s house determined to make something happen fast. “I wasn’t going to rest until she was taken care of.”
Many times, Johnson has spent 30 minutes or more just chatting on doorsteps. Several recipients asked her to come back and visit. “We’re reaching people that don’t get a chance to tell what’s going on with them,” she said. “I’ve done volunteer work before, but this is showing me a whole new population. A forgotten population, really.”
Donors include thousands of individuals kicking in small amounts. Nearly 200 businesses have sent money. Some pledged a portion of their profits on Juneteenth, and larger institutions in the city, including a major health-care organization and a foundation, also have given. Beneficial State Bank contributed $2,500 and is working with Whitten and Chimuku to develop a Zoom webinar to share best practices with other groups across the country.
Both of Oregon’s U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat who represents most of Portland, have tweeted their support. The fund is transitioning to become a formal program of Brown Hope, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that Whitten started several years ago.
Still, the swell of enthusiasm is striking given the fund’s no-strings-attached disbursement strategy. Some people in the community point to the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of color, and Floyd’s videotaped death in the custody of Minneapolis police as a devastating combination that has left many residents searching for ways to aid others. President Donald Trump’s divisiveness also factors in, they say. And in this overwhelmingly White state — where laws excluding Blacks lasted from its founding to the 1920s — White guilt may also play a role.
The Rev. E.D. Mondainé, head of the local NAACP chapter and author of a recent op-ed contending that Portland’s protests had lost their focus on Black Lives Matter, said that all may be true. Yet “anything that brings hope matters,” he said.
“When you see a smiling face, which Cameron has, it helps,” he said.
He backs the Black Resilience Fund but says it’s addressing “just the lower-hanging fruit. The real issues are in our systems, our policies, and our procedures. It’s in our foundation. And that’s where the hard work has to begin.”