The Albina Arts center was once a significant cultural hub for Black communities in North and Northeast Portland. But the building had fallen into disrepair and various plans have been proposed to reinvent and revitalize it. Darrell Grant, a musician and professor of Jazz Studies at Portland State University, began holding cultural events at the space last year and partnered with writer and artist Renee Mitchell to create the Soul Restoration Center this year. The Center is already providing a venue for Black artists, musicians and “a space to just come and hang out, to belong and to heal,” according to Mitchell. We talk with Renee Mitchell and Darrell Grant about what the Soul Restoration Center is becoming and their hopes for its future.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with the rebirth of a cultural and artistic hub for Black communities in North and Northeast Portland. The Albina Art Center was created in the early 1960s, but the building had fallen into some disrepair in recent years. Various plans have been proposed to reinvent or revitalize it. It seems to finally be happening. Darrell Grant is a jazz pianist and composer and professor at Portland State University. He began holding cultural events at the space last year. He is now partnering with the writer and artist and self described creative revolutionary Dr. Renee Mitchell to create the Soul Restoration Center there. It has already been providing a venue for Black artists, musicians and community members to come together to make art, and in Mitchell’s words, to heal. Renee Mitchell and Darrell Grant, welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Renee Mitchell: Thanks, Dave.
Darrell Grant: Thanks, man.
Miller: Darrell Grant first, before you worked to put on events in a kind of popup way at this new center, you had a ongoing outdoor residency on the west side and downtown Portland. What was that experience like?
Grant: Well, yeah, I started this project called the Soul Restoration Project last summer kind of as a laboratory, really. It was in the time we were having these conversations about how do we come back into the city, how do we reimagine and revitalize our spaces, and I was really curious about what could art do, just putting a piano in a space, bringing it down? I had a piano that was from a piano push play. I moved into the north park blocks in collaboration with Vanport Mosaic and just started inviting artists to do these events, morning and evening. And it was actually incredible. I mean, it was incredible to get to know a space, to start to see the life that existed there, and then to create this kind of nexus for things to happen. To say it was eventful, is an understatement. I saw we had people coming in to listen. We also had people pushing the piano off the stage. We had police calls for meth behavior. But I felt like the art was there as a balm, as a healing sort of force, really and making it okay for people to come together. So it was pretty incredible, and left me really inspired and wanting to do this more.
Miller: Renee, Darrell called this the Soul Restoration Project and that name has stuck. I’m curious what that phrase means to you, Soul Restoration.
Mitchell: Well, I’m so grateful that Darrell allowed us to continue on with using that title because it felt like that’s exactly what we’re trying to do in the space now, is to restore souls. And it focuses on healing. It focuses on creativity and people just coming into this space, start to recognize that there’s something happening there that’s different and how it makes them feel. So that’s just the beginning, just entering this space allows for your soul to be restored. And we just felt like it was a perfect way to kind of symbolize, but also just be very clear about what our intentions are in that space. So I’m grateful that we had an opportunity to extend what Darrell had already started.
Miller: Darrell, so this started as a kind of exploration or laboratory in the North Park Blocks. How did that lead to what was initially a popup studio in this former Albina Arts space on Northeast Killingsworth?
Grant: Well, I had gotten some grants. I had a RAT grant. I had a grant from Chamber Music America. I had some funds from Prosper Portland and a City Arts and Healing grant. So I had had this idea, really since the summer, even before I started Soul Restoration, about finding an underutilized space in the Black community, moving a grand piano in and it’s sort of doing this whole restoration idea. So I have been hunting for a space since April, since I did this sound walk in Northeast Portland and walked by this space many, many times. No information, no way of knowing what it was. I happened to run into artist Bobby Fuller, who said that he had done a window installation in the space and I should check that out. So through some really serendipitous circumstances, I came in contact with the person managing the space, Jeana Woolley, and she was interested in this idea of using art to activate a space.
So, in September I moved a grand piano in there and when I walked in, I did not know when I got the space that it was this historic Albina Arts Center. But as Bobby said, the ghosts were still there, and the minute I walked in it was just so amazing. I said, this is far too important for me to do something as an artist. I need to call in the community and we together, artists, the community need to put our energy into restoring and activating the space. So, over the course of this residency which was meant to be about six weeks, but it just came together. We did film screenings. We did spoken word nights. We made an art gallery. We held artisan markets, jazz concerts, school workshops, oral histories. It was really, as Renee said, it was this place when you walked in, the spirit of welcome and this history of thriving Black arts and culture, I feel like it just populated everything that we did. So that became my mission for the fall, trying to figure out how to continue to activate this space and bring that kind of refuge and that beacon of Black culture into the neighborhood.
Miller: Renee, what can you tell us about the history of this building? About what it meant going back 60 years?
Mitchell: Well, I’m certainly not an expert on the history, but what I’ve been able to discover is working with some of the artists, including some of the artists who have passed on, including Thara Memory, who I wrote a jazz opera with, it was a place where, when he came to town and didn’t know anyone, he was told go to the Albina Arts Center and that is like a hub for people, for artists to be able to find each other and create together. So that was known in our community, as this is a place where people were able to take dance classes and music classes and they had a kiln in the place, and young people to adults were coming there to be able to be, their spirits revived through creative expression. We’ve been now learning some of the history and inviting in some of the elders who know that history to record it so other people and the whole community, the whole city of Portland, would be able to understand the depth of the meaning of this place in the Black community. One of the people that we’ve come in contact with joined the original board when he was age 22, he’s now in his seventies. So being able to record that and to acknowledge that is really, really important. But we are still even finding out more and more information about what this place meant at that time and continues to mean to our Black community.
Miller: Renee, how did you get involved in this project?
Mitchell: Well, serendipity, I suppose…
Miller: The word of the day.
Mitchell: Great respect for Darrell Grant. I came to a couple of the things that he was doing there and loved it. I loved seeing people back in the space. I loved being in the space. It felt very comfortable. Sunshine Dixon was also working with Darrell. I’ve known Sunshine for a long, long time. And when you think about her name, that’s basically what she exudes is sunshine, is community. Being able to connect people together to create community and build community. So when Darrell decided he had to go back to his full time job…
Grant: Yeah, that’s, that’s the other thing I was trying to figure out … how do I keep this going, knowing and of course that it’s temporary because there’s this process that, with the space, of seeing how it really is returned to the Black community. But Renee’s program just seemed like the perfect segue from looking, arts and culture and creativity, moving and thriving for the Black community, then moving into wellness and health and healing and mental health, and especially youth culture because to me the thing about this building was that the history of it, these people are elders now, but it was started by young people. This whole initiative for the center.
Miller: Renee, I think the last time you were on is when we were talking about your I Am More project, which I understand is still going on. Can you remind us, I bet a lot of people listening now didn’t hear that conversation from long ago. Can you remind us what it is?
Mitchell: Absolutely. Love to talk about I Am More. So I Am More, the MORE is actually an acronym. It stands for ‘making ourselves resilient every day.’ It is a program that I started when I was a teacher at Roosevelt High School. I was the only Black teacher for a number of years, and I worked a lot with students who needed a place to feel like they belonged, needed healing, needed someone to talk to. There was a situation back in 2018 where Stand for Children gave out 16 scholarships around the state called Beat The Odds. There were four of them that were distributed in Portland and of those four, three of them were my Black Girl Magic Mentees at Roosevelt High School. So that was the founding of the organization where we decided to focus in on how do we empower youth, especially youth who have been traumatized, and especially youth of color, and how do we give them opportunity to understand their own brilliance and their ability to overcome trauma to become who they were destined to become. We started that and we quickly, within six months, had our first national presentation at an annual trauma-informed conference. We just grew from there. We ended up moving out of Roosevelt into a community space. It was a coworking space right on MLK and Alberta, but it still wasn’t large enough. We wanted to make sure that the youth who came and we celebrated their voices. When we were in a coworking space, we were shushed a lot, because we would hold summer internships and the youth would come together and start to have these deep and involved conversations that they had never had a place where they can get access to some of the situations that they were dealing with. We recognized through those two summer internships and also ongoing programming that we really needed this space, that they would be able to just feel like that was their space and they could be as loud as they needed to be.
Miller: That was part of the entire point, right? I mean, getting shushed, it’s never fun, but especially if that the very heart of your activity is to celebrate your voice?
Mitchell: Absolutely. So we were looking around and hadn’t really landed on a spot, and then ended up having this conversation with Darrell and realized this is the perfect space for us to bring in youth. But also elders are a big part of what we want to do as well, making the connection between our youth and our elders. We thought, well, it’s very important. It’s also what the research says, strategically, how do you help youth really feel grounded and saying, well you have to connect them with folks who can give them their own knowledge, and so we’re pouring that knowledge into our youth. So, I Am More is an opportunity to give youth space, some training, and chances to really show their wisdom and show their brilliance.
Youth within our organization have been hired to do trainings at Portland Public Schools for teachers, for classified staff. From a youth’s point of view, what is missing? What needed to happen to be able to help that young person feel like they belonged in that space, were welcomed in that space, were loved in that space? And so these conversations were new. But it was youth who were leading these conversations, and also were being paid to be able to give their wisdom and share their wisdom with others. We’ve been growing since we began, and now, we have a trifecta of approval. We are evidence based, we are research based, and we are theory based. So everything that we do is grounded in those three things that we know works and has proven with the scholarly research to show that it works. We’re growing and we’re having more and more students connecting with us. It’s very heart centered. We love what we do. And we’re so glad to be in that space because it complements our energy about how we do this work, and the fact that we want to include community as well and network.
Miller: Darrell, before we go, I want to listen to part of a performance that you had at this space. This is with your quartet along with the emcee Mike Crenshaw, singer, Tiffany Austin. We’re going to hear part of the song ‘Alright’:
“We survived for centuries against the violent enemy. High intensity white supremacy attack, fall back, thinking act defensively, graveyards, hospitals and penitentiaries, continental invasion, mental enslavement, murder, rape, extermination. Racial hatred is sacred here. I never did ignore the war in my face, kid. But how much longer will we take it in? How much stronger will it make us? Cops in handcuffs. Propaganda. Who do they serve and protect? They do not defend us. Get off my back. I’ve got to stand up. Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant’s blood in my veins and arteries. The pain is part of me. It is what it is, but it ain’t what it ought to be. If we change ourselves, can we change society people in the back, people in the front. Ohhhhh, yeah.”
Miller: Darrell, I want to go back to something you said at the beginning, because you had said that basically you wanted to have this laboratory to explore how art could activate or renew or affect some kind of civic space. You’ve now done it in a couple of places. But I’m wondering if you have an answer to that question, as a musical scientist?
Grant: I do, actually. I really believe that I do. I think that the Soul Restoration project and this particular Albina Art salon that we did gave me the answer that yes, art can impact these things. I was really inspired and informed by the work of artists like the Astral Gates and Rick Lowe who are really trying to use art to create platforms for cultural development, for neighborhood transformation, for connecting art with infrastructure. So for me this, this four-month experiment, and looking at the empty space that I walked into, this empty storefront, and if you walk into that space now, it is so beautiful and so vibrant and so full of this excellence, the best of Black culture. And that was my dream. So I feel like, okay, so that means that this was just a start. We take these lessons and we apply them to more spaces. We, the lessons, our collaboration, the lessons are the ability for art to provide this fugitive space and energy, and allow things to grow in a way that’s not yet defined until they can really set in roots. So for me, yes, I absolutely have the answer and I’m looking forward to continuing the laboratory and other spaces across the city.
Miller: Darrell Grant and Renee Mitchell, thanks so much.
Grant: Thank you.
Renee Mitchell: Thank you for having us.
Miller: Darrell Grant is a jazz pianist and composer, a professor at Portland State University. Dr. Renee Mitchell is an artist and a poet and a teacher, self described creative revolutionist, the director of the New Soul Restoration Center.
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