Multnomah County hosted its first ever Youth Mentor Gathering in Old Town on Friday, June 22.
The event included a panel of mentees, mentors and public safety leaders, including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, and District Attorney Rod Underhill. It served as a networking forum and opportunity to shine a light on the impact of mentors, particularly for youth whose lives intersect with the criminal justice system.
"I was raised on the values that it takes a village to raise a person, not just one person in the family," said Robert White, Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) mentor and co-emcee for Friday's event. "We’ve all had mentors at one point in our lives.”
The gathering, at the University of Oregon’s White Stag Building, was part of broader effort to address and prevent youth violence in the community. Culturally-specific mentors have been identified, by youths themselves, as playing an essential role in guiding at-risk young people onto a positive path.
Elected leaders, members of government organizations, community service providers, advocacy organizations as well as members of the general public showed up to support mentors and to hear feedback.
“Most of us don’t know where we’re going in life,” explained 18-year-old panelist LeeAnn Montgomery. “And many of us are going down a dangerous path. I’m 18, I just graduated, but I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it to 18 and I wouldn’t have, unless I had mentors who said, ‘Take this street, take this job…’”
Panelists — who also participate in the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), a collaboration among Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, Latino Network and Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC) — shared personal stories about the positive impact of mentors.
Each youth stressed the importance of having multiple mentors who’ve gone down a similar path.
“I don’t need a parent or a correctional officer,” Montgomery said. “If I’m going through something, I need a friend. A lot of mentors take that on themselves.”
Montgomery, who grew up in North Portland, is the youngest in a large family. “I was the only one that had a mentor at all,” she said.
“My neighborhood wasn’t the best,” she later shared. “I bounced around from North to Northeast Portland for 18 years. I was 8 years old, knowing where I could easily get a gun. I’ve been stabbed twice. I grew up being abused. I had a really rough life.”
“I did not like my mentor at first,” she shared. “Eventually, we got to know each other and we’ve been through the same things. We all need someone who can support you for what you want to do and who you want to be. I have three mentors that helped get me through.”
A community discussion among audience members and panelists, including public safety leaders, broached topics from distrust of law enforcement to low pay for mentors to some of the ways those leaders can help improve relationships with the community.
Chair Deborah Kafoury, who serves as the co-chair of Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council sponsored Friday’s event. Kafoury shared feedback she received from mentors, many who described feelings of isolation with low pay and few support systems.
“We are here today to say thank you,” she said.
“I think you’ve heard how crucial and how important you are in their lives,” she said. “We want to get you the support you need. The wages you need.”
As part of the County’s Comprehensive Gang Assessment and Implementation plan, the county has allocated more funding for gang violence prevention and continued its support for programs such as the Community Healing Initiative. The funding for CHI came with direct input from community members for more mentors.
“We are not getting any support from the federal government,” Kafoury continued. “But I want you to know that I have your back and I hope you have mine.”
“I did not like the police,” said Chief Danielle Outlaw on growing up in Oakland, California. “If it wasn’t for the fact that my peer group changed,” she continued, that might not have changed.
A two-week stint in high school with the Oakland Police Department changed Outlaw’s perspective.
“Because I had those two weeks, I found people who liked the same movies, the same restaurants,” she said. “It opened my mind to be willing to see beyond the uniform.”
Outlaw reflected on her original college plans: “My plan was to become a social psychologist, but I found out I would become a single mother the last semester before graduation,” she said.
“I wanted a job with benefits,” she continued. “I wanted to be able to take care of my child on my own without assistance or a stigma. I realized I could have the same impact from the inside, not the outside, as an officer. My perspective completely changed by those two weeks I spent with my mentor.”
Outlaw pledged continued support but also stressed collaboration and solutions to address pressing public safety issues.
“We have to be great partners,” she said. “My role is how we can be the best partner. We want the community to come to the table but to come with solutions.”
Elected leaders were asked pointed questions about future plans for mentors and public safety.
District Attorney Rod Underhill said much has improved in public safety in the last 30 years, although there’s still work to do.
“I work for you,” Underhill said. “And I work with you. We sure can’t do it by ourselves. We need to break down the barriers to help mentors gain access to youth who are justice-involved in our facilities.”
Montgomery, who recently graduated from POIC, credited her mentor for a transformation in school.
“I went to school,” she shared with audience members. “I went from straight F’s to straight A’s.”
The 18-year old plans to enlist in the Air Force and study archeology or anthropology.
Currently, she serves as a mentor for her brothers and sisters. “The hardest part was having them learn about me,” she said.
But Montgomery and other mentees say previous challenges have paved the path to future goals.
Montgomery, who was the only female mentee on the panel also serves as the only female participant for “Word is Bond,” a local group that brings together law enforcement and black youth to change how each group perceives the other.
“Young men come into the room,” said Montgomery. “No one’s pulling out a gun or a Taser. My plan is to continue to participate until my friends are not scared of law enforcement and my people stop getting shot.”