Light a Fire

Four Decades of Protest: Self Enhancement Inc Keeps Showing Up

The North Portland nonprofit works with schools, families, and partner organizations to provide support for students and their families, in academia and beyond.

By Fiona McCann December 2, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Extraordinary Nonprofit winner at our 2020 Light a Fire Awards: Self Enhancement Inc

New to protesting for racial justice? SEI has been doing it for almost 40 years. “When we show up for a kid, we’re usually standing up for them in a way that no one else has ever done for them before,” says Libra Forde, the nonprofit’s chief operation officer. “And they look like me. That has been our protest: We sit at a political table asking for funding for these children and for our programming. That’s a protest.”

This ever-evolving North Portland mainstay sprang 39 years ago from a one-week baseball camp created by founder Tony Hopson. From there, it evolved into a year-round “multiservice agency, with full wraparound services,” says Forde. Now, SEI works with schools, families, and partner organizations to provide support for students and their families, in academia and beyond. Through in-school, after school, and summer programs, the agency impacted more than 16,000 students and families in 2019 alone.

Then came COVID-19. “Safety became our primary goal in a very different way,” says Forde. “We always kept our families safe from other danger—whether it’s systemic racism or other things—but now physical health became the main safety issue.” Its food pantry operation upped from once a week to every day, it trained staff to work with kids on-screen, and its vans have been repurposed to function as traveling schools for one-on-one tutoring. “We’re the support system for students that we serve,” she adds.

Martae Brown was one of those students, starting with SEI in second grade and staying in its programs all the way through high school. “It gave me everything,” says Brown, who recalls walking into the building and seeing people who looked like him in roles that spanned the entire organization. “It gave me a different view on how we as Black folks could do anything we put our minds to, whatever that may look like.” Brown went on to become a behavioral educator, and is returning to school next year with the goal of becoming a teacher. “SEI made me a teacher,” he says. “I really hope that I’m making them proud.”

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