The turn radius of a fire truck; such an innocuous detail launched Arlene Kimura into a quarter century of public service.
It was 1992, and Kimura had time. She worked an early shift managing shipping logistics for an advertising agency, and only needed four-and-a-half-hours sleep to feel rested. One day she was flipping through the proposal for a new development in Hazelwood, where she lived. Portland city code required street corners provide 16 feet of turn radius for emergency vehicles. But she made some calculations and discovered the plans were short.
She wrote a letter. The developers changed the plans. And the city invited her to attend land use planning meetings.
“Most of it was to act as a sounding board, to help pass out flyers,” Kimura said. “That’s what started it all.”
Kimura has served on citizen committees for land use and transportation planning, worked on the East Portland Action Plan and Gateway Urban Renewal plan, joined the East Portland Parks Coalition and has become president of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association, to name just a few of her volunteer roles.
“I’m essentially an environmentalist. I think we’re doing bad things to the earth and we have to stop it,” said Kimura, who doesn’t own a car. “Transportation and land use planning have more impact than people realize on the environment. So I thought, ‘Maybe this is where I should start.’”
Kimura is being recognized this month with the Gladys McCoy Lifetime Achievement Award for community involvement. The award honors people who demonstrate the values of McCoy, the first African-American elected as Multnomah County Chair, an advocate for citizen participation in local government, and a champion for people of color and people living in poverty.
“[Kimura] cares deeply for those who have least access to resources. She tries to open doors for them, then she steps back,” said Eliza Lindsay, community programs manager for the East Portland Community Office. “She’s humble. She doesn’t often want to say much about herself.”
Kimura was born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents. She remembers her grandparents struggled with a command of English, and she watched people underestimate their capacity to understand. She saw the same dismissal of immigrant parents in East Portland, and has used her platforms on committees, boards and in associations to make those voices heard.
The City of Portland’s 95 neighborhood associations are led for the most part as they always have been – by middle-aged, middle-class White homeowners, said Ronault “Polo” LS Catalani, immigrant integration policy advisor for the City of Portland’s New Portlander Policy Commission.
But that’s not the case in Hazelwood, an area with high rental rates, where in some pockets 40 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home. Today Kimura represents Hazelwood as president of her neighborhood association.
“Everybody knows her. She’s adored and respected,” said Catalani, who calls Kimura “Auntie Arlene.”
“She’s just that woman you dream of to get things done,” he said. “She has tremendous social capital.”
Kimura spends her capital at land use and transportation planning meetings. “If we’re only doing outreach to a White, middle-class audience, we’re not getting the guy at the corner store,” she said, the one who doesn’t know he can request an exemption and so cannot expand his business.
“Government is not to be trusted in many countries, so people will do whatever they can without government help, then fun afoul of regulations,” she said. “No one explains to them why we’re doing these things. And we’re mad because they broke the law. And they’re mad because they were trying to do the right thing.”
She brings that advocacy to her volunteer work with city parks, where she pushed for a more diverse workforce and cultural outreach for the city’s mobile playgrounds. The summer work application used to be lengthy and verbose, simply posted on Craigslist. Most hires were Anglo-American students from PSU, Catalani recalls. But Kimura prompted the city to streamline the application down to two pages, rewrite it in plain language, and to host job fairs to reach teen applicants from immigrant and refugee communities.
Anne Downing, an English as a Second Language teacher at David Douglas High, met Kimura when she went to Downing’s class to help students fill out the application.
Then Downing started seeing her everywhere, at meetings, park events, the local neighborhood association office.
“She totally impressed me,” said Downing. “One day I went up to her and said, ‘The work you do is amazing. You’re who I want to be when I grow up.’”
Downing chokes up when she talks about Kimura – about her ability to write grants to fund community projects; her ability to inspire others to volunteer their time; her ability to see the power in seemingly dull roles on boards and in communities.
“These are the skills that we don’t really think about. We think about the mission, but we don’t think about what we can do to make that mission come true,” Downing said. “She really is extraordinary.”
Kimura doesn’t drive, so people take turns offering her rides home when meetings run late. Downing still remembers the first time she dropped Kimura off at her Hazelwood home. “She opened the car door. It was a nice breezy night, and the whole house was surrounded by windchimes,” Downing recalled. “The sound was so lovely in the breeze.”
There was something in the music that perfectly fit the woman who lived inside; this powerful woman, now 71 and three inches shy of 5 feet.
“I rolled down the window to keep hearing the sound,” she said. “There was something magical about it.”