Age 30, Founder and CEO of Brown Hope
2021 Prize Winner
If the Portland nonprofit world has a true superstar, it’s cameron whitten. They’ve spent the last decade on the front lines in the fight for social justice—holding hunger strikes on the steps of City Hall, campaigning for LGBTQ rights and even running for elected office, including the mayorship. But they’ve made their greatest impact as the founder of Brown Hope, an organization dedicated to supporting Oregon’s communities of color through a variety of programs and initiatives, most notably the Black Resilience Fund, which last year managed to distribute $2 million in financial assistance for Black Portlanders in need.
Give!Guide: You’ve been involved in the racial justice movement since long before the recent uprising that started in 2020. How has the last year changed things?
cameron whitten: Last year was this huge explosion, kind of like the Big Bang that created the universe—it filled us with so much excitement and imagination and opportunity, but just like we saw with the universe, after you had this big explosion, you also see contraction. And right now, I feel like that is the period where we're in, where some of that momentum has rolled back. We've had a lot of conversations as a team knowing that the Black Resilience Fund, for example, was launched with the help of over 300 volunteers, some of whom were basically volunteering on a full-time basis. That was a lot of white folks, and most of those white volunteers are no longer here. That has a real impact on Black Portlanders. But the reality is, we can't give up. We can't be bitter, we can't be resentful. We have not taken this momentum for granted. Prior to George Floyd's murder, Brown Hope, as an organization, we were scrappy. We were 100% volunteer run. Now we have 13 full-time staff and other contractors and temporary staff. And we've been able to position this organization to have a lasting impact on racial justice in Portland, far beyond this moment. So I choose to remain hopeful.
It’s often said that Portland is the whitest city in America. Do you feel an organization like Brown Hope is more crucial here because of those demographics?
Brown Hope was created specifically because of Portland’s and Oregon's history, and also because of my own life experience here. I first came into Oregon at the age of 18, and I stayed at a friend's dad's house in Albany. I was asked to leave the dad's house because I was Black. That act was not isolated. That act was enshrined within the painted history of Oregon. The other issue is, in other cities, even if you might face the challenges of racism, at least you are able to turn toward peers. You have people in your neighborhood, you have community organizations and elected officials who you can see and see you, who understand what you've been through because they've been through it, too. In Oregon, we have less of that luxury. Not only are we so little represented in our population, displacement has spread us out to where we don't have geographic cohesion. Brown Hope was created specifically because of this dire dynamic in Portland.
Is there an interaction you’ve had that you feel is particularly emblematic of what Brown Hope is hoping to accomplish?
There's so much. And what I think is magical is that those stories are a daily thing. I get to be part of a Power Hour as the host on a weekly basis. Hearing the stories of folks, whether that's folks who are in recovery, folks who are trying to get employment after a long period, folks who are trying to adopt or dealing with the criminal justice system—just hearing so many stories of folks who are getting support, who are building confidence, who finally feel like they're not alone. I think we are so fortunate because we have emerged into Portland with such a unique model that for many people is a breath of fresh air. It gives me so much joy to see that people will respond so well to our wild dreams.