Life of Work with Cameron Whitten

by | Jun 18, 2020 | Interviews | 0 comments

Cameron Whitten is a community activist, small business owner, and nonprofit executive.

At the age of eighteen, Cameron experienced homelessness in Portland. After working their way back into housing with the support of local non-profits, they have spent the past decade as a prominent community advocate and civic entrepreneur.

Cameron recently served as the Executive Director of Q Center, and is the founder of racial justice nonprofit Brown Hope.

They are also the founder of The Black Resilience Fund, an emergency fund dedicated to healing and resilience by providing immediate resources to Black Portlanders.

It’s hard to believe they have any spare time, but when they do, Cameron serves on the Board of Directors of local nonprofits such as REACH CDC, Venture Portland, and Pioneer Courthouse Square, cooks hundreds of meals for the homeless, and just generally shows up to important events and meetings all around Portland on an almost daily basis. Oh, and Cameron also just ran for office for a seat on the Metro Council.

Today we talk to Cameron about race in America, their work and activism, reparations, the book that changed their life, their favorite music, and much more.

You may also watch the full interview on YouTube here.

Cameron, you are inspiring to me not just because of what you do, but how you do it. You always show up to every interaction and situation with energy, presence, and joy. You really seem to share your full self with the world. Where do you get your energy from and how do you keep it up?

Where do I get my energy? Where do I get my joy? I get it from you. I get it from everyone. I believe that my humanity is bound in the humanity of others. It would be such a sad world if I saw others with pain, or if I saw others with resentment. My joy comes in understanding there’s so much good in others that I can enjoy myself. And that’s enough to keep me happy.

Let’s talk about The Black Resilience Fund. Can you tell me what it is and why you launched it?

At the time of this conversation, The Black Resilience Fund is only 16 days old, so we’re explaining something that truly is a baby movement, as I like to say.

The Black Resilience Fund is a response to an emergency. We are living in a crisis that has gone on for far too long in this country. Right now we are witnessing a long and painful month that is in the middle of a year that has challenged us all.

But we know that during some of our hardest, most challenging moments, we can still show the best of ourselves. We can rebound, we can heal, we can be resilient. So that is the idea of the Black Resilience Fund.

We are here to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, to acknowledge the urgency for which we must fight right now and take action on systemic change.

We must also acknowledge the impacts of oppression. Every act of oppression that happens in our community creates an injury, a trauma upon people. Every single act. Even after the abolishment of slavery, the trauma of slavery has continued to impact Black communities for generations, as we look at issues like police violence, with the most recent murders in Atlanta and in Minnesota and in other places in this country. And yet we still see the outrage. We still see the pain happening in Oregon. That’s because of trauma. That’s because we have continued to see the devaluation of Black lives for generations.

I was a Black Lives Matter activist when Black Lives Matter started. I was a part of a caravan with 12 other Black Portlanders who went down to Ferguson weeks after Mike Brown was killed. Seven years later, we still have not seen the change that needs to happen.

To be honest, when I first saw the headlines about George Floyd’s murder, I braced myself. I knew that we would see protests, we would see the hashtags, people putting Black Lives Matter signs in their yards. But this wasn’t the first time that we heard “I can’t breathe.” This wasn’t the first time that we saw a man in his final minutes of life, dying in agony on the ground. Just weeks before George Floyd, we had Ahmaud Arbery, just days before we had Breonna Taylor.

So when I first read about George Floyd, I had no assurance at all that this was going to be different. But something has changed. There’s a paradigm shift happening in this country. And I do believe it is the burden for White Americans to help to understand why things are different now.

I am glad that things are different because it’s creating space for us to actually do something different so that we stop ignoring the senseless suffering of our neighbors and so that we can truly have healing in our community.

The Black Resilience Fund was formed as a way to show what healing looks like during a time when people have the right to be angry at the world. We have heard things from people we’ve directly helped through the Fund who have said, “holding that check in my hand was when I finally thought I could come up for air.” I find it absolutely fascinating to be living in the middle of the “I can’t breathe era” and to hear from people who we’ve directly helped say things like that. I find it to be incredibly powerful. And it speaks to what we must do to be able to foster the healing and resilience that our entire community needs.

Can we pause? There is someone knocking at my door.

[At that moment, a volunteer for the Black Resilience Fund was knocking on his door to deliver something]

Was that a volunteer at your door?

Yes, that’s a normal occasion. Probably won’t be the last today. It’s not the last today actually. My house has become a command center. It’s kind of ridiculous.

OK, back to what you were saying.

The Black Resilience Fund is about healing our entire community. For our Black community, for the broken Black bodies, and the broken Black futures, we need healing not just so that we survive, but so we actually thrive in this community.

But we also need healing for White Americans. I think a lot about what it must be like to have lived with so much privilege to either not be aware, to ignore, or not care about the suffering of others.

To see others, and to be able to dehumanize them enough that you are not aware, that you don’t care, or you ignore it, that is the result of a brokenness of the heart and of the soul.

And that is a tragic place to be. To be able to ignore the suffering of another person and to see it as that’s their fault, or that’s the way that things are meant to be. It’s horrible.

And so we’ve created an opportunity not only to provide healing for those who have experienced the brunt of oppression but for our oppressors to finally be able to feel with their hearts and to be able to humanize members of their very own community.

And it’s been inspiring just to see the way that people have responded to that. We are truly sending a powerful message both to Portland, but across this world, that healing is possible. That we can create a society that we all want to be a part of, where we all are embraced and celebrated.

It’s not just enough to end the killings. Our communities are traumatized because this has gone on for far too long. We have to actually heal so that folks feel safe and they feel like they can thrive in this community because that’s the basic thing that we all deserve.

I think your original goal was to raise $10,000?

$5000. And it wasn’t a public goal. It started off as a Facebook post. I’ve been a nonprofit executive for five years, and I’ve done a lot of fundraising and organized a lot of events that have been to fundraise to support other people’s basic needs, so that’s what I wanted to do here.

Right before I started the Black Resilience Fund, I was getting a lot of messages from White people who were checking in on me. I’ve been doing Black Lives Matter activism for a long time and that’s never happened, not to this extent. I was getting dozens of messages from people who had never messaged me before.

At first, I started asking people like, was there an article put out that said, “check on your Black friends?” And I was asking other Black people, “Are White people reaching out to you?”

It was very interesting because it was organic. And, I knew, because of my privilege – I’m doing better than a lot of other Black people are – that as much as I appreciate people checking in on me, I felt like there are a lot of Black people who actually do need you to be supportive, and checking in.

So that’s why I went to Facebook and I said, “Hey, for my Black siblings, do you need a warm meal? Do you need groceries? Do you need a bill paid? I got you. And for my non-Black siblings, please reach out to me. I’ll give you my Cash, my Venmo, my Paypal handles and we’re going to take care of people.”

That day I felt like I was like some kind of philanthropic stockbroker because I had a lot of friends and colleagues from the Black community who had given me different bills that they had. And I compiled that into a list. And then a bunch of White people who are messaging me. And I just sent them a paragraph, I sent them the list of peoples’ first names and their bills so they could see where their money was going. And then they would give me money, and then I would send it back to the people for the amount that they were requesting. And I did that nonstop for 12 hours. We ended up raising $11,000 on that first day. It was exhilarating. But I was exhausted, and I knew that this was not an efficient way to fundraise and help people.

So we started the GoFundMe the next day and I said, let’s try to raise $15,000 by tomorrow.

Because I thought we had hit the peak, I thought that $11,000 was the excitement and then there would be nobody left. We ended up raising $15,000 in less than an hour after I posted the GoFundMe.

By the end of the day, we raised over $55,000.

And then I dared Portland to get to $100,000. And they went to $155,000.

Fast forward two weeks later, we have raised over half a million dollars for the Black Resilience Fund. And we have already given out $120,000 of that.

We have built a structure of 300 volunteers who have created a process for people to apply for funds, to be interviewed, and to have people actually go out and hand-deliver them checks, or groceries, or to run errands for them. We’ve done that all in less than three weeks’ time. And we’re just getting started.

Our goal right now is to raise $1 million. We are more than halfway there. And every day we are seeing new community leaders, organizations, and journalists reaching out to help us figure out how to get our message out to the community.

I am so inspired that during this time where we all have the right to be angry at the world, for us all to feel hopeless, that we actually have people reaching out, showing their best selves and showing that we can be building community, even at a time when it is supposed to be the hardest.

Wow, that’s inspiring. 

This isn’t the first time you’ve facilitated direct cash transfers. A couple of years ago you organized something called “Reparations Power Hour” where white people were invited to contribute money that would go directly to Black, brown, and Indigenous community members who supported the Power Hour. It actually got national attention and Tucker Carlson invited you to talk about on his show, which is kind of hilarious. 

What are your thoughts on how we should think about reparations more broadly, at a national, policy level?

I appreciate that, Peter. What is important to recognize, and what I think so many people across all ages, races, genders and all backgrounds are seeing right now, is the brokenness of our system. America as a country should not have to endure the shame of a man dying, crying for his mama, for seven minutes. A knee sitting on his neck for the entire world to see. That is a level of shame that is unacceptable, and it makes us look horrible to the rest of this world.

So many of us have woken up to the realities that our system is broken and the public policies that we have tried to pass and tried to implement to create equitable outcomes, whether it’s access to education, whether it’s job training programs, these things are not moving fast enough, we actually have to take urgent action to address the real disparities in our society.

And we have to look at it intersectionally. What I stress, very importantly, is that when George Floyd was murdered, it wasn’t just a policeman seeing a Black man. The police saw a Black man, they thought he was writing a fraudulent check. They saw him and assumed that he must be poor and that he was a poor Black criminal. That is what got him killed.

As much as the racist system of policing is responsible for the death of George Floyd, it is also the system of poverty, which has been a weapon that’s been killing Black communities for generations and it’s been killing them at a much higher rate than policing even has.

And I wonder, is it just that poverty isn’t sexy enough? Is it not entertaining enough? Why are we not recognizing how dangerous systemic poverty is and how it is destroying the lives of our neighbors? And so we need urgent action.

I have supported economic development programs. I’ve supported educational programs. But if we want to make a difference in our lifetimes, we have to be looking at the real wealth gap in our society, the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks.

Right now the wealth gap is three to one – that is the exact same amount as it was in the 1960s.

[Editor’s Note: The wealth gap is even worse than Cameron states here – it is closer to ten or twelve to one, depending on the dataset you look at, and it has indeed persisted.]

We supposedly had all this progress in the last 60 years and to see the wealth gap be the exact same shows that we have miserably failed with our ability to imagine what justice looks like and how we actually close this equity gap.

And so the Black Resilience Fund, Brown Hope, the Reparations Happy Hour, and all the programs that I’ve launched have not been shy about calling for real reparations and calling for direct cash investment into these communities and empowering them to actually make decisions on how to live their best life.

For too long, Black communities have been preyed upon by payday loans, by check-cashing services, by all these fines and fees that poor people deal with when they could actually be building wealth. They could be building futures for themselves and their families, and the thing that is stopping them is poverty.

An educational program or a job training program is not going to eliminate poverty for an entire community. We have to provide real financial investment so that folks can start making immediate changes. So they don’t have to be worrying about whether they can pay for groceries while they’re going to school, so they don’t have to worry about whether they can afford health care while they’re going through a job training program.

Give people the basics that they need so they can focus on how to live their best life and do things that they enjoy every single day. And so we call urgently for Reparations, because we know that the wealth gap in this country is because of systemic oppression, it is because racially privileged people for the longest time have had access to institutions to build wealth that they did not earn. And that Black, brown and Indigenous communities had their land stolen and had their bodies and lives stolen to build this privilege that White Americans have enjoyed for so long.

And so we have an opportunity to acknowledge that as fact and to acknowledge the things that we’ve tried to do to address the inequities and to address the unearned privilege have actually failed.

And as bold as the idea of slavery was – to dehumanize someone enough that they could become property – I believe that we need as bold of a solution like reparations to actually liberate people.

That’s what we’re doing today. And as I said earlier, that man who held that $300 in his hand, it wasn’t groceries on his doorstep. It wasn’t a voucher to pay for his rent. It was direct cash that he held in his hand. And he said, I finally feel like I can come up for air. That is magical. And that is exactly what we are advocating for, to truly make justice a lived experience in this country.

We live in such a divisive time right now. I am wondering if you think it is possible to change people’s minds in this environment? How do you think about effectively reaching out to people who may share your broader vision of racial justice and equality but are opposed to reparations, or recoil at the idea of defunding the police, or ideas like this? How do you reach out to those folks?

Good question. We as a country are not going to go anywhere unless we really build a broad movement for change. And that’s going to take us being able to let down our guard and to actually be able to look, listen with our ears, and not just from our own perspectives.

So that is the work that we do with Brown Hope and the Black Resilience Fund. We are looking to show people that addressing racial injustice and addressing oppression is not based on “White people, you’re wrong” or “White people, you’re awful” or “we want to cancel you.” It is actually about the fact that we all can feel joy in healing this world and addressing inequities.

That is the tent that we are trying to build – a movement where we know that the work that we’re doing is benefiting everyone. It’s benefiting our Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, but it’s also benefiting those whose hearts have been broken because of their privilege. And so that is the message that we have. We have a positive message that has been sustainable, and we’re going to continue to drive that home – that we’re looking for healing for all people.

I think that’s what a lot of people want. They want to address the inequities of this country, while also acknowledging that many of them did not choose to be White, that’s true. No one chose to be White. No, I didn’t choose to be Black. I’m willing to acknowledge that and also acknowledge that because you are White, you are in the amazing place where you have a baton, that you can pass behind you and allow somebody to go the distance.

I don’t have that opportunity, not in the way that many White Americans do. But I have seen people who have passed that baton. They don’t have any regrets. They have seen transformation in their lives and the lives of their neighbors.

So that’s what I do to really convince folks who don’t want to listen to the inequities of our society. I think they just need to see how much more they could love themselves and love this world if they really did acknowledge their privilege and found ways to pay it forward.

What advice do you have for people who are interested in community activism, organizing, and civic leadership? How should they start? What should they do tomorrow?

They should start.

I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for protest.

I first really dove into my activism when I was 20 years old and I became involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. At that time, I honestly didn’t think I had a voice as a young 20-year-old, queer, Black, homeless youth. And it wasn’t me. It was the implication by society. It was society’s message that I didn’t matter. And I believed that too. I felt like, what difference could I make?

And it was after attending my first protest, on October 6th 2009, here in downtown Portland, surrounded by tens of thousands of people, people from all different walks of life and some who looked like me, that I realized that I did have a voice, I had a story. And when I shared that voice, some people listened. And it made space for us to work together to try to make this community better. And so ever since then, I’ve been sharing my story and I’ve been encouraging others who have been unheard to share their story.

Persistence matters so much. Believing that you can make a difference is so important. Believing you can make a difference with others is so important. And that, to me, is the most important thing. Recognizing that we’re not in a moment. We are in a movement.

We’ve been doing Black Lives Matter for seven years. And the folks who have stayed in this work for that long are in positions where they are actually making change happen now. Imagine if we had given up seven years, if we had stopped saying “Black Lives Matter.” Colin Kaepernick first took the knee years ago and was virtually banned from the NFL. Now we’re seeing police departments taking the knee. We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. And this is what persistence gets us.

You know, for Black communities we’ve been decrying police brutality and violence for our entire lives. The only difference now is that White Americans are finally waking up. And it’s the fact that we’ve been speaking up for so long that we have been able to immediately see changes happening, because we’ve been fighting for the changes for so long.

It wasn’t that our changes weren’t viable. It was because people weren’t listening. And so the fact that we did not give up, made it very easy for us to find low hanging fruit and make some changes happen.

We’re not done. We’re just getting started.

And so I encourage recruits who are seeing the changes happening right now – realize what would happen if you keep going for another seven years! That is exactly the type of energy we need to see happening in this movement right now. And I’m so grateful to our young people who are out there leading the charge. We’ve got groups in Portland like Rose City Justice and the Portland Civil Rights Collective.

If I had seen that kind of leadership when I was a 20 year old – to see so many beautiful young Black organizers right now – if that had been around when I was organizing in 2011, I can’t imagine what kind of change could have happened in Portland.

And so I really call on our young people who are speaking up and who are scared for their future: they are doing the right thing. And with time, they will become more and more effective.

And it is upon us, who have been in this world for longer, who because of our age, we have become complacent and we just accept the status quo, and that this is the way things are – we need to realize that our youth are coming without a filter. They’re coming with fresh eyes, and we must support them because they’re reminding us of the urgency that we have to make a difference.

We’ve seen that both with the Coronavirus, and we’ve also seen it now with the reaction to George Floyd’s murder. We actually can make bigger systemic changes. We don’t have to wait for gradual change. We can actually make big differences right now and the only thing stopping us is ourselves.

I want to talk about the more personal side of Cameron right now. You’re working 14 hours a day and you do it all with energy. It’s amazing. When you feel unfocused or overwhelmed, what do you do? Do you have any routines or practices that you return to over and over again to help yourself relax and chill out a bit?

Oh, you want my secrets?

Okay, I’m not one to keep a secret. So don’t tell me any secrets.

I have a mantra.

I have five words that mean the world to me. And when I need them, I say them. And those words are: Courage, Peace, Hope, Love, and Resilience.

When I am in need, I remind myself – what we all need to remind ourselves – is that we are enough. And when I am in a place where I love myself, when I acknowledge that I am enough, then I am at a place where I can heal, where I can reflect on who I am, and where I can continue to walk towards the person that I am meant to be.

And so I use these five words, to really assess. I asked myself:

In what ways do I need to be courageous today?
In what ways do I need to find peace today?
What do I need to be hopeful for today?
Who do I need to love and why?

The final word – resilience – I actually don’t use, because resilience has followed me my entire life. As a trauma survivor who has survived child abuse, as someone who has survived homelessness as a youth, as someone who survives racism on a daily basis, resilience has been branded into my very core.

Those five words together are what I channel in order to continue the fight for everyone’s future.

That’s beautiful. I really love that. This has been really fun. I have a few more fun rapid-fire questions, then we will wrap up. You’re very charismatic and you have a lot of experience on camera and doing interviews, and public speaking and such. What are your tips for folks who want to improve on camera or get better at public speaking?

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. And so it’s important to really pay attention to those who inspire you and don’t be afraid to, to imitate, to flatter.

My favorite thing is to watch TED Talks. And I see people who have a love of language. And I allow that love to shape me. And I allow that love to shape others. And so it’s all about letting the language of love spread. So learn to love language, learn to understand what you don’t love about language, avoid that. Learn what you do love.

I would also say keep it simple. You don’t have to use big words. You have to use the right words. And I think that’s what many people don’t understand. Use the right words. And you will get your point across.

What are you listening to right now? 

Lo fi hip hop. It’s my work music. There was this YouTube video that was 10 hours long. I don’t know if you ever saw it, but there was this 10 hour lo fi hip hop mixtape. They took it down like two years ago, but I finally got my hands on that. And so I can just listen to that for a whole week straight.

[Editor’s Note: While we don’t have Cameron’s playlist, we found two lofi hip hop playlists on Spotify (1, 2) which we were enjoying as we were transcribing this interview]

Are there any books you’ve read that have really influenced your life or that you’ve given to other people a lot?

So there is one book that singlehandedly changed my entire life. I’ve actually given it out to over 100 people and I can send you a copy if you want one.

It’s called The Anatomy of Peace. And it is a book that is very important for us to be reading during this time within humanity. We are living in a time of such technology where you can send a message across the globe in a matter of milliseconds. So it’s so weird to be living in a time where we technically can be closer to each other than ever, and yet, we aren’t. And our conflicts, our cliques, are stronger than ever. The polarization within all of our communities across this world are higher than ever. And so The Anatomy of Peace is really an exploration of what we can do to break down these walls of isolation. Coronavirus did not isolate us. I think Coronavirus just reminded us how lonely we always have been.

I love the teachings of The Anatomy of Peace because it really does highlight that we all have work that we can do to be breaking down walls of isolation and humanizing others.

The Anatomy of Peace actually had such an impact on my life that it directly caused me to make a bold decision to reconcile my relationship with my abusive father. After 13 years of silence, of not talking to him, I actually made the effort to rekindle that connection.

This was a man where up until I was 24 years old, I would wake up crying, because I had a nightmare of him coming back into my life. And to think it had been 13 years since I had last talked to him. To be on the phone with this man and to feel no pain, to feel no resentment. The only thing that I could think about was how I wanted to help him.

I could have justified hating this man for my entire life and cursing his name. It was at the moment that I decided I wanted to help him, and that I wanted to heal him, and that I wanted to use that origin source of the pain for my entire life and to use that source for love, it was at that moment that I found myself free. I found myself liberated.

I think a lot of us could benefit from taking some of our most toxic relationships and finding the hard choice to love. It will free us and it will help us to actually create a better world.

Wow. Wise words right there. Thank you for sharing. On a lighter note, what is your favorite comfort food?

Kombucha? Does that count?

Who are some underrated people or organizations that more people should follow?

The answer to that is always yes. There are many local organizations I truly love. One that comes to mind that I would say is underrated that would encourage people to learn more about is Beyond Black.

In Portland, the Black community has experienced generations of displacement from North and Northeast Portland, the heart of Portland’s Black community. And many of those folks are now out in East County. And there is a group out there called Beyond Black, a CDC that is creating economic development opportunities and political action for the Black community in East County. As much as we talk about the Black community in North and Northeast Portland, we also must acknowledge that Blackness everywhere, and we should be looking at how to support Black people no matter where they live, and I really love how Beyond Black is doing that out in East County.

How else can people keep up with you and support your work?

You can’t. You can’t keep up with me. I’m made of fire (laughs).

Seriously though, please donate to the Black Resilience Fund. 

[Editor’s Note: As of publishing, the Fund is asking people to donate $19 in celebration of Juneteenth, but as Cameron said to me, “Don’t let that be your ceiling!” So please consider $19, $190, $1900, or whatever amount feels appropriate for you right now.]

Websites
blackresiliencefund.com
brownhope.org

Twitter
@cameronwhitten
@blackresiliency

Instagram
@cameronwhitten
@blackresiliencefund

Facebook
Cameron Whitten

I appreciate everyone who reaches out because I love meeting new people and I love finding ways to work together. And I appreciate you, Peter, for this interview.

You may watch the entire, uncut interview on YouTube
(Including the part when the volunteers show up at Cameron’s door!)

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