As often as Esperanza Spalding is back in Portland, helping out at benefits and fundraisers, you could be forgiven for not knowing she’s living in New York. Spalding’s seemingly bottomless generosity with her time and star power has benefited music education programs, human rights groups and much more.
On Nov. 17, the Grammy-winning composer, instrumentalist and vocalist will return once again to play a one-woman show on behalf of Bienestar, the affordable housing and community development nonprofit based in Washington County.
Bienestar’s cause — providing housing and support for low-income families — has deeply personal resonance for Spalding.
“For many years, after I left Portland to go to the East Coast,” she said, “my mother lived in one of the Bienestar apartments in the Hillsboro area.”
The mom who ferried her to countless hours of music lessons and band practice starting when Spalding was 5 years old, was not able to pay for her own housing in the metro area’s rocket-ride real estate market.
And as high as Spalding’s star has risen, she said, “neither my brother nor I could afford to help my mother the way she needed it” until recently. Spalding kept hearing stories about her mom’s volunteer work in ESL classes, and felt this was a cause she wanted to get behind.
Playing as many benefits as she does, Spalding has a sensitivity to the philanthropic relationships that can sometimes lose sight of who’s benefiting. She recalls meetings for an ACLU event where the conversation veered toward the best way of engaging law enforcement on how sanctuary city guidelines are applied.
“And I realized we were talking about our Latino/Latina neighbors and none of them were in the room,” she said.
Spalding picked up the phone and called Bienestar to connect the two groups.
“You can’t work on behalf of someone that you don’t know,” Spalding said.
The realities of forging action-based community are not simple, and Spalding said there have been times when she felt uncomfortable standing onstage for roomfuls of wealthy Oregonians, given the acute state of crisis in which immigrant families find themselves in 2018.
She asked Bienestar for help building the material for this month’s benefit. It was organized by her childhood pal and fellow Chamber Music Society musician Megan McGeorge, of the Piano Push Play project.
Spalding came upon a series of photo portraits Holly Andres created for the group, documenting the Promotoras — embedded activists living at Bienestar properties. This cohort of women advocates serve as resources and connective tissue when residents need to access health care, food assistance or other services. Spalding’s resulting four-song cycle, inspired by the Promotoras, debuted at a Portland Art Museum event last year.
But Spalding said she’s really glad to bring the songs to the audience for whom they were intended — Bienestar’s community.
“What’s inspiring me right now are these women, who are literally creating their lives day by day,” she said, “and imagining possibilities they don’t see before their very eyes.”