Civic-minded and passionate about her neighborhood, this month’s Volunteer Spotlight shines on Erika Wilson-Palmer. A resident of Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood for the last five years and the current chair of the MSANA board, Erika is determined to help improve the quality of life for her neighbors by building beneficial and lasting relationships with local business associations and residents.
MSANA was awarded the 2013 Spirit of Portland “Neighborhood Association of the Year” award for its outstanding work, including organizing and/or supporting over fifteen distinct projects during a 1-year period. What have been the keys to MSANA’s success, especially when it comes to initiating and actually implementing so many projects?
We have a lot of very active volunteers in our neighborhood, and our board members are stupendous individuals. Without neighborhood volunteers none of these projects would have been lifted off the ground. They really like to take on projects and to see them through. Some of our board members have been on the board for many years. They take on these projects and want to see them fulfilled. They’ll work with local schools, the folks at the community center, Southeast Uplift, and the city to make these projects happen.
What advice would you give a neighborhood association chair who would like to see their board more actively involved in a variety of projects?
I’m meeting with neighborhood associations in Salem tomorrow about this very topic! I know an individual from the Gubser Neighborhood Association and they knew I was active on my board, so they invited me down to talk about neighborhood volunteer recruitment, getting people involved in projects, and ways to get the word out. People don’t know what’s going on and they don’t necessarily know how to participate. A lot of times people are scared about participating because they don’t really know how much time is going to be involved.
So would you say it’s a matter of raising awareness about certain broader issues, or maybe things that would affect an individual more personally?
I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s spreading the awareness of what’s going on and how it can affect people personally. Neighbors definitely come out for land use and transportation issues. Those are pretty hot topics and if a project is going on right next door, the next door neighbors will definitely come out and bring up those issues. But I also believe we have to think about it at a larger level, at a community-wide level and think about what are the smaller impacts, but also what are the larger impacts? What bigger changes can we make in the community by changing city policy? Can we have a conversation with the city about changing policy? Is the problem we are trying to address caused by a lack of communication or a lack of knowledge? We need to educate neighbors so they can get involved earlier and have more impact on the process.
What MSANA project or achievement are you most proud of?
I am really proud of our neighbors and how our community works so hard on all of these projects. When we start talking about one project we can see the connections with other projects and a lot of times that leverages more resources, more people power, and possibly more money – and it’s all from working together. For example, we look for what we can do as a neighborhood association for the Foster Area Business Association. Or, how our neighborhood can partner with Brentwood-Darlington or Foster Powell. I think that that has been our biggest achievement; reaching out to other NA’s, working on projects together and leveraging our resources.
In place of regular meetings, MSANA recently started hosting quarterly neighborhood socials, at local businesses. What prompted this change? How do you go about planning them? How do you approach potential businesses? Any lessons learned? Have you seen an increase in participation as a result?
In 2012, we did a neighborhood survey with a grant from SE Uplift and from that survey we learned that neighbors really wanted a way to get to know one another. They wanted more fun activities for the neighborhood, like neighborhood barbecues and get-togethers. So we figured having quarterly neighborhood socials would be a good way to bring neighbors together outside of a board meeting and that we could get neighborhood businesses involved by having them host with us, which could introduce our neighbors to a business they may not have known about before. We hosted one at Red Castle Games and it was really interesting because a lot of our neighbors had never been there and didn’t know they provide a huge area where you can go with your friends and play a board game or two for free.
For each neighborhood social we try to have a partnership and get a speaker to come out and talk about a particular project like neighborhood watches, foot patrols, or weatherization. At next month’s social, we’re partnering with the Foster Area Business Association and focusing on how we, as a neighborhood, can work together to support our small businesses along the Foster corridor.
People living near or beyond 82nd Ave often say the City doesn’t provide outer east Portland equivalent resources (from funding to basic attention) vs those provided in the inner city. Do you agree? Do you think this may be changing and if so, what has been or would be a noteworthy change in your neighborhood that would make you sit up and say, “They’re really putting their money where their mouth is!”
I believe the equity issues in Portland are beginning to change just because of the attention that they’re getting. I thoroughly agree that East Portland hasn’t seen an equitable share of resources from the city, but I think that’s changing. For the past year and a half our neighborhood has been involved with the Foster Streetscape Plan Update. The original plan was adopted around 2003-2004, I believe, and for the city to look at this plan again and update it with new goals for the neighborhoods involved has been a huge step for the city to take. The implementation of that strategy is going to tell us something – whether or not the city is going to step up to the plate and actually follow through with what they have said.
Across Portland, neighborhoods are struggling with how to respond to a recent significant increase in infill development. How is MSANA dealing with these issues; from the need to retain affordable housing, to the good and the bad of increasing property values and the many issues around maintaining neighborhood character?
That’s an excellent question. I love that our neighbors understand that infill is going to happen. But they’re also concerned about the scale of the new housing stocks. People are concerned about the impacts – from moving trees and vegetation, to solar panel access. We’re seeing more and more people saying, “We know infill is going to happen, but we need to provide direction to the city on the scale and types of developments we want to see.” Our land-use committee is actually working on some statements for the city’s comprehensive planning process about residential infill and our general neighborhood concerns [in regards to infill]. I think infill is here to stay so the more compatible it is with the neighborhood, the better.
In looking ahead to your third year on the board, what are some key things you hope to focus on?
Volunteer recruitment has always been a high priority and how we get neighbors out and involved and helping with projects, even if not on a regular basis. This year, we’re also looking forward to collaborating with the Mt. Scott Community Center, as well as Portland Mercado, which is coming to 72nd and Foster. We look forward to pushing the city to implement the Foster Streetscape Plan. Additionally, we’ve recently been talking to city staff in regards to the Arleta Triangle that sits up at 82nd and Woodstock. There’s a slip lane in that location and we would like to explore how we could better use that space for the community and possibly put some barriers or planters down for safety.