Urban League boss reflects on being African-American in Portland

Urban League boss reflects on being African-American in Portland

When Michael Alexander told friends seven years ago that he was moving from St. Louis to Portland, one asked: “Are there black people in Portland?”

“He was being quasi-facetious,” said Alexander, who has served as CEO of the Urban League of Portland for the past year. “But I didn’t really know.”

Portland’s African-American population is less than 7 percent — about half the national average. The 2010 U.S. Census determined that Portland — within city limits — was the whitest big city in the country.

Portland is the first place Alexander has lived where African-Americans are “a minority of the minorities,” meaning that other minority groups (in Portland, Latinos) have greater numbers.

That places a lot of pressure on the Urban League, which advocates on behalf of African-Americans in several areas, including workforce development and senior and youth services. Alexander has restored funding and rebuilt credibility at the nonprofit after a 2011 financial dustup involving the former CEO. (Subscribers can read more in Friday’s print edition).

“We have never been seen as a huge asset to the city,” Alexander says. “But the vibrancy of this community is.”

Alexander himself didn’t fully recognize that until he joined the Urban League. He had previously worked as a senior-level executive at Cambia Health Solutions. He also served as board chairman of the Cambia Foundation.

Portland’s lack of diversity manifests itself in several ways.

For starters, Alexander said too many equity initiatives lump all minority communities together. Communities of color have different needs.

He also feels compelled to silently greet other African-Americans, even if he doesn’t know them, simply because Portland’s African-American community is so small.

“If I did that in Philadelphia and Chicago, I’d get a lot of looks,” he says with a laugh.

The Urban League job has been an eye-opener.

“Before I came to the Urban League, I had no idea of the breadth, depth and richness of the community, or the potential for this community,” he says. “It looks and feels very different downtown than it does [at the Urban League].

“The perspective I bring from the business community can only serve a state that is rapidly browning.”

The Portland Business Journal is a KATU News partner.

More from our partner: Diversity in Portland: 'The job is not what will keep you here'