As one of the whitest and most racially-charged cities in the U.S., Portland, Ore. is a tough place for Black people to find community.
That’s why for more than 10 years, a group of Black male professionals has taken matters into their own hands. On the last Wednesday of every month, Black designers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs come together at “Olive Or Twist,” one of Oregon’s oldest Black-owned businesses in Portland’s Pearl District, which is named for a Black woman. Dubbed “Da Gathering,” it’s a casual event to meet people with similar experiences, purposefully devoid of the formalities of a networking or career mixer.
“It’s a real break from what people generally see in their day-to-day activities,” said Stephen Green, a Portland native and one of the event organizers. “To walk in a place where it’s all people that look like you, I think is a shock. But it’s also extremely comforting because you’re allowed to let your guard down.”
Other than being Black, Portland-residing men, the attendees of Da Gathering are a mixed bag. Many have ties to Portland’s thriving footwear scene, with Nike, Adidas, and Columbia Sportswear all based in the region. Green himself was previously the director of operations at Pensole Footwear Design Academy, which helps nurture young diverse design talent in the footwear industry. Other attendees work in law, tech, medicine, the nonprofit sector, and more.
Intel and Nike have made pledges to increase the racial make-up of its staff and leadership teams in the workplace. But Black employees are still often a minority, especially at leadership levels. And while many of these companies offer resources for minority employees, there is only so much community that can be fostered in an eight-hour workday.
Da Gathering is meant to fill this space outside the office and help people see that contrary to popular belief, the Portland Black community is vibrant — and growing.
According to census data released on Thursday, the Black and minority population in Oregon is steadily growing. Oregon is still 71.7% white, down from 78.5% in 2010, but 1.9% percent of Oregonians were Black in 2020, up from 1.7% in 2010.
“[Da Gathering] helps [Black people] rewrite a new story for themselves of Portland, maybe not being Atlanta or Detroit or D.C., but also being a place where you can have extremely Black experiences and great connections with folks in this place in the Northwest,” Green said.
Green doesn’t recall how Da Gathering got its name, but a group of Black attorneys in Portland, led by the Melvin Oden-Orr, started the meetings over a decade ago. Green assumed responsibility for the group after Oden-Orr became a judge — and a lot busier — in 2018. Via a spreadsheet with regular attendees, Green grew monthly attendance from 10 to 30 regulars.
Like most social events, Da Gathering went on hold in the pandemic in March of 2020. The event came back on August 4, with almost 100 attendees ranging from ages 21 to 70. Green’s LinkedIn post advertising the event racked up over 5,000 reactions and almost 500 comments from Black Portland residents looking to get involved. The attention also spurred Portland resident Gayani Ekanayake to forge ahead with her own version of the event for Black women.
“A lot of women just want to network and figure out what’s the best way to get their voice heard at work, a lot of times just let off some steam around what has been going on,” Ekanayake said. “It’s really just creating a safe place to engage and connect and network in that way and just let our hair down a little bit and have a good time.”
A footwear veteran who previously worked at Nike and Puma, Ekanayake, is currently a senior manager of retail learning and development at Levi Strauss & Co. When at Nike, Ekanayake and some coworkers started Rose Gold Co. PDX, a program meant to empower women of color in the footwear industry through events and brand partnerships. After hearing about Da Gathering, Ekanayake decided to launch an offshoot for women via a sponsorship from Numberz FM 96.7, the city’s only radio station focused entirely on Black music.
“Anything we can do to help reconnect our community is going to be important to our progression,” said Kayode Balogun or DJ Ambush, the GM of Numberz. “And I believe women of color are the key to the future we all want.
Ekanayake’s initiative reveals how Da Gathering is inspiring similar events across Portland. Green sees the potential to ignite even more events across the US.
“It’s a place to recharge the batteries and really bring home and a physical space,” he said. “I’m not here by myself and that’s all I need.”