Every month, a group of Black and brown girls and nonbinary youth spend an afternoon at the roller rink, sometimes at Oaks Amusement Park, or perhaps out at Gateway Park. But they aren’t just skating. They are also organizing around social justice issues, including period poverty, Indigenous sovereignty, transgender rights, and habitat loss.
The event, Action on Wheels, is one of many organized by Brown Girl Rise, a nonprofit established in 2017 that seeks to cultivate a safe and healing space for BIPOC youth. Members come from the Portland and Vancouver area and from as far afield as Salem and Eugene.
The grassroots organization focuses on building connections with members and their families through mutual aid, workshops, and activities like annual camping trips and those monthly skate days in collaboration with local partners—among them, Mudbone Grown, a Black-owned farm working to train the next generation of BIPOC growers, Wild Diversity, which aims to connect historically excluded people of color with the outdoors, and, for Action on Wheels, the Rose City Rollers.
Jennifer “Chickpea” Ottenberg, a Portland skate instructor, was hired to instruct at one of BGR’s skate events at the Rose City Rollers’ hangar, an experience she described as “absolutely positive and uplifting.”
True to its name, the events also feature an “action” component. “I think one of the favorite things we did this last year [for Action on Wheels] was focused on menstruation poverty,” says Ash, one of the organization’s coordinators. Brown Girl Rise members helped assemble and distribute menstrual kits to the houseless community.
The organization also hosts sessions called Holding Space for Black and Brown Youth, taking place online in the pandemic. “We need safe spaces where we can come and talk about our experiences without having a bunch of people questioning our experiences or invalidating us,” says Dani Mandley, another coordinator. “And that really happens in a safe container with people who look like you.”
For Ash and Mandley, Brown Girl Rise is as much about learning from their members as the other way around. But at the core of it all? Joy.
“Black and brown girls and femme youth are so often thought to be many years older than they are ... and society tends to make us have to be a lot more grown up than we are,” says Mandley. “So what we’re focusing on is just letting kids be kids and have fun.”
Portland Monthly solicits nominations for the Light a Fire awards, our annual nonprofit honors, every summer and makes selections with the help of a panel of volunteer advisers from the local nonprofit community.