by Elizabeth Turnbull
At the age of 20, Cameron Whitten ran for Mayor of Portland. In 2012, they went on an almost two-month-long hunger strike to protest homelessness in the city. This summer, they started a fundraiser which has raised close to $2 million for members of Portland’s Black community in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“It was very hard for me to really get a sense of how big this was going to be,” Whitten said at a virtual event detailing the fund on Thursday.
A week after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota, Whitten took to Facebook, asking fellow members of the Black community if they needed anything and if non-Black allies could lend some support.
At most, Whitten thought they might be able to raise $5,000 in a two-day period. Instead, they spent the next 11 hours glued to their kitchen table, filtering through direct messages, emails, and texts from members of the Black community and transferring donations in response.
At the end of the 11-hour marathon, the post had raised over $11,000. The next day, Whitten, who is also the founder and CEO of the racial justice nonprofit Brown Hope, decided to create a Gofundme which ultimately morphed into the Black Resilience Fund (BRF).
It’s been a bit over three months since then, and thanks to the help of many volunteers and cofounder Salomé Chimuku, the fund now consists of roughly $1.7 million.
In addition to being able to access food and other donated items, individuals who apply and qualify for funds are handed a $300 check to spend on whatever they need.
As of Sept. 5, the BRF had distributed just shy of $1 million dollars in immediate support to roughly 3,150 Black Portlanders with most of the recipients using it to help with rent, utilities, small business support, phone bills, and moving costs, among many other essential needs.
While the fund is focused on alleviating the immediate needs of members of the Black community in Portland, it is ultimately dedicated to the pursuit of healing and resilience.
“We know that in the media it is oftentimes insinuated that to be Black means to be in pain, to deal with despair, but we knew that our Blackness means we are beautiful, caring, and resilient,” Whitten said. “Since day one we have elevated stories of the Black Portlanders involved both as volunteers and both as recipients, showing the beauty of our community.”
Over the years, Whitten has spent various efforts fighting for the LGBTQ+ community, the homeless, and for racial equality, ultimately advocating for basic love and inclusion — principles that they and members of the Black community have not always experienced in the state of Oregon and in the City of Portland.
At the age of 18, Whitten spent their first night in Oregon at a friend’s house. They weren’t able to stay a second night because their friend’s father said he wasn’t comfortable having a Black person in his home.
This happened roughly 10 years ago. Today, the racist history of Oregon and its state constitution, which had the goal of forming an “all-white state,” in addition to recent acts of white supremacist violence in Portland, linger and converge with nationwide focus on police brutality, Whitten’s positivity, community support, and the mission of the BRF, providing a bit of fresh air for Black residents of the city.
Over the summer and on the weekend of Juneteenth, Whitten urged BRF volunteers to find 35 local businesses that would be willing to donate 19 percent of their sales to the fund over the two-day period. Ultimately, 187 businesses participated in the Juneteenth collaboration with some even contributing 100% of their sales from the weekend.
“It was amazing the small businesses, who had been impacted by COVID-19, really showing up for their Black neighbors in ways that we never had seen before,” Whitten said. “It was truly at that moment that I realized this is a huge movement. We have hit upon the pulse of Portland, and this is going to have a lasting impact.”
After receiving over 10,000 submissions for support, applications to the fund have closed until more funding is provided. Due to funding constraints, the group remains focused on meeting the needs of Black residents of the Portland metro region exclusively, but Whitten and other organizers have held webinars to help provide other cities and areas with a similar fundraising blueprint.
Ultimately, organizers with the BRF chalk up its success to timing, clarity of purpose, urgency, community-based and experienced leadership, and trust and collaboration, among other factors.
Whitten particularly emphasized the importance of the fund’s dual focus as it attempts to alleviate some of the suffering caused both by racism and nationwide police brutality in addition to difficulties caused by the global pandemic.
“I’m a vegan,” Whitten said. “So I like to say, ‘We fed two birds with one scone.’”
Elizabeth Turnbull is a Seattle-based reporter.
The featured image is attributed to Matthew Roth under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.