Reducing Violence Through Building Better Futures

Several months ago, the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School (POIC + RAHS) opened the Community Care office in a previously vacant building at SE Stark Street and SE 91st Avenue. From this location, they provide violence reduction programs that divert at-risk people into job training programs and provide support to those transitioning to a safer future.

POIC began in 1967 as part of the national OIC of America network, an organization dedicated to providing black Americans access to job training programs. In 1983, the Portland group shifted services to struggling youth, later opening its first high school named after Executive Director Rosemary Anderson. That initiative has grown to support over 3,000 students across four high school campuses and one middle school. The education and opportunities nonprofit continues to use work training to reduce violence and improve lives.

Serving the community from the SE Stark Street location, Hiag Brown is Co-Director of POIC’s Community Care Team and the Trauma + Violence Impacted Family Program. Brown explained that people come to the organizations primarily through referrals from Police, school district staff, faith-based groups, or community members. “Once they come in, we do a risk analysis and figure out where they fall. Are they extremely high-risk? Do they really need a life coach or an intensive case manager? Or are they on the verge of getting into a gang, where we can find them a mentor,” said Brown.

After evaluating the person’s needs, the Community Care staff determines the next steps. Those steps can involve setting up a safety plan for individuals needing immediate guidance. “Safety plans are with the intensive case managers. It’s intensive because, for the first three months, it’s daily contact, meeting with them three times a week face to face. It’s consistency that is needed over time. They haven’t had somebody guide them in the right direction. It’s an 18-month process and part of best practices,” said Brown. That process involves developing a cooperative strategy stemming from a series of questions. “Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? What can we do? So it’s keeping them safe, keeping their family safe, making successful choices.”

A desire to remove yourself from a dangerous life is only the first step. It requires overcoming many barriers present in people’s environment. Brown explained that diverting someone into a job apprenticeship program is an essential part of their counseling work and a necessary step to making positive changes in people’s lives. “If they’re into that lifestyle, into drug dealing, that’s their source of income. So if you’re taking that away from them, what are you replacing it with?” Asked Brown. Even in a strong employment market, having a felony on your record can dramatically limit work opportunities. “As soon as they have a felony, people will just give up.” However, according to Brown, working around that limitation is where the organization excels. “We’re good at finding people jobs they can do with a felony and make a decent living. We’re putting them into these apprenticeship programs. We’re finding jobs through our work source, putting them into the culinary program if they want. So we’re finding all these positive things for them to do.”

Focusing on the future is insufficient to keep people on their chosen positive path. Counseling, mentorship, and continued support through life events contribute to POIC + RAHS’s success rate. “When there’s somebody that’s shot, our people get the call, and they’ll say, ‘my homeboy just got shot,’ ‘my brother got shot,’ whoever, it’s our life coach and intensive case managers there keeping them on track. ‘Remember what we’re doing. Do not lose sight of where you’re at. We’ll not step back into that lifestyle,'” explained Brown.

Hiag Brown acknowledges that gun violence is astonishingly prevalent despite the organization’s decades of work. He does not fully understand why there was a sudden increase but sees a few recent events contributing to the problem. “COVID did not help at all, but it was my opinion that when they got rid of the gun violence reduction team and didn’t have anything to replace them with, that hurt. Because those officers had built relationships with those high-risk individuals, and they weren’t as brazen as they are now, with carrying weapons and not worried about being pulled over.”

Despite that setback and increased community violence, Brown sees significant success in the organization’s work. “So they’ve done a great job of keeping them out of that lifestyle, and I couldn’t imagine what our shooting numbers would be like if we weren’t connecting with these people.” The increased attention to their work has helped expand operations, including opening up this centrally located office on SE Stark Street and raising pay for employees, many of whom come from the same background as the people they are helping. However, even as POIC + RAHS grows the scope of their work, keeping that support going after the shooting numbers come down will be a challenge. “Finding sustainable funding is a big part of it. [Eventually,] somebody says, ‘OK, now these shootings have gone down, we’re going to cut your funding.’ That’s usually what happens,” remarked Brown. A funding cycle that diminishes with signs of success can undermine the lasting effects of violence prevention programs like those that delivered historically low shooting numbers in the city before the pandemic.

The SE Stark Street POIC + RAHS location is closed to the public. The office hosts many support groups for people who have suffered trauma from violence or need the support of a community with shared experiences. It is a safe space where the turmoil of a person’s life does not follow them. Instead of greeting people as they walk in the doors, POIC + RAHS staff are out in the community serving Portland’s Eastside residents. People looking to support the organization can donate or partner with the group by offering internship opportunities at a business.

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