Examining our Impact: Birding “Historic Vanport”?

As part of our commitment to organizational equity, Bird Alliance of Oregon has adopted a series of community agreements to guide our work. One of these is “Examine our intent, and be accountable for our impact.” Last month, we were called to do this as a result of one of our adult program descriptions. 

In late March, we advertised an adult Field Trip program called Birding the Wetlands of Historic Vanport. This title was inappropriate for three reasons. First, the title commodified a moment of historic trauma for Black Portlanders that was physically and psychologically brutal, profoundly unjust, and itself a product of deep institutional racism in our city. Second, the description failed to acknowledge this history, instead focusing on the birds that might be viewed from the wetlands. This erased the troubling history of how these wetlands came to be, even as the title was calling that history forth. Finally, given that Bird Alliance of Oregon as an organization has benefitted from a legacy of White privilege in Oregon, it’s essential that we do not position White educators from Bird Alliance of Oregon as the tellers of that history. On behalf of the entire Education team and Bird Alliance of Oregon as a whole, I apologize.

Much has been written about the history of Vanport, a World War II era city created by industrialist Henry Kaiser to house thousands of Black workers from the South. In a 2017 interview with CBS, scholar Walidah Imarisha described this history in the context of racist redlining practices that restricted the lives of Black Americans in Portland:

“These thousands of black folks who were coming had no place to live. The Housing Authority of Portland refused to build additional housing for these workers. So Kaiser said, ‘I’m rich. I can build myself a city.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He built a city on unincorporated land between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, and called it Vanport. It became the second largest city in Oregon and it was 40 percent Black.”

Because Vanport was designed as a temporary city, houses were built hastily with what Imarisha calls “shoddy materials.” However, when the war ended, these same entrenched discriminatory housing laws meant that there was nowhere for Black families to move. 

They were there when, in the spring of 1948, a dam broke and washed the entire city away in less than an hour, with little to no help from city officials. The flood destroyed the homes, schools, and community of 18,500 people, including 6,300 Black residents. 

For many, this moment is a mirror of the value that White Portlanders put on Black lives, and it has resonances and ripples with the struggle to protect Black lives in Portland today. In the CBS interview, Imarisha shared, “we live in Portland every single day and we see the mask that Portland puts on for the rest of the world. And we see that it is paper thin and we have to look under it every single day.” The history of Vanport is a history of racial discrimination, exploitation and violence, and should not be called forth without deep intention and care.

Within our Education team, we have been working for a number of years to have honest and open conversations about race and racism, and this necessitates moments of discomfort, critique, and learning. To address this incident, our team is taking the following steps:

  1. We met with the trip leader and the Adult Education team as a whole to talk about why this trip title was inappropriate and what we could do to move towards repair. The trip leader who created the program recognized the missteps he had made and apologized for the harm that he had caused.
  2. We’ve canceled the trip and we will be donating the proceeds we would have made to two organizations that support the cultural history of Vanport and Albina: Vanport Mosaic and Albina Vision Trust.
  3. This conversation exposed that many White people who explore Vanport Wetlands and Force Lake have little understanding of how this area came to be. Camelia Zollars, our Public Programs & Partnerships Specialist, is exploring creating a program in partnership with Black scholars to address the significance of this history. 
  4. Finally, for the last six months, we’ve been working with ELSO, Inc. to take the whole team through training on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, and we’re planning to continue this work in the future to build a more inclusive team that centers racial justice in our work. 

That said, birding will never be a truly inclusive landscape until people of color are represented at all levels of our organization and across the field. I’m especially grateful to Sam DeJarnett of Always Be Birdin’ for calling our attention to this program, and for her role in leading Black-centered and People of Color-centered programming for birders in Portland and beyond. Thank you for calling out the harm these kinds of choices have on our relationships and on the people in our community with whom we are working, very slowly, to build trust. We’ll continue to keep doing everything we can to change this culture. It will take a lot of time, a lot of vigilance, a lot of listening and collaboration, and a lot of change in every aspect of not only what we do, but who we are. 

We encourage our readers to support Black leadership in the outdoors by donating directly to Always Be Birdin’ and ELSO, Inc.