Metro occasionally contracts with community members to write about newsworthy topics from their perspective as a member of a historically marginalized community, such as people of color, immigrants and refugees, low-income residents and people of varying abilities. These pieces are intended to provide important points of view for consideration and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council.
“Hey, you all. Stop dropping your trash.”
That was Jan Bowers.
When I was seven years old, she was the property manager at Dekum Court, the low-income apartments where I lived in Northeast Portland. She supplied us kids with gloves and nifty nabbers to help pick up trash. And she’d reward us with Creamsicles when we were done.
Jan was a brave woman. People in the neighborhood – even the gang members – had respect for her. We all understood how much time and energy she put into making things better for everyone.
From an early age, I realized how bad our community was in need. Trash filled our parks. And kids would jump on the old ripped-up mattresses they’d find there. Expired food, musty cardboard pieces and broken glass covered the ground around the garbage enclosures. Discarded furniture sat there too.
I got used to the gang violence in our neighborhoods. Younger kids like me knew to go inside when the street lights came on. Because the older teens would come outside and stir up trouble.
When Jan left our apartment complex, shortly after my 9th birthday, she also left a gap in my life.
I never heard from her again. But I never forgot about her.
Years went by. I was dealing with the pressure of entering high school and my own personal drama. At 14, I didn't really feel like I had a support system. My family life was complicated.
I was running with a group of people who I thought were my friends. But they didn't have my best interest at all. I found myself wanting to leave them. But they were all I knew.
And in some weird way I felt protected by them and loyal to them. I believed that they were the only ones who really knew me and cared about me.
But when they began getting into situations that I wanted no part of – like fighting, stealing, and destroying property – I knew something had to change.
Surrounding myself with people who want to see me win
Around that time, two strong, amazing women entered my life. Only I made it difficult for them. I had a hard time trusting. I thought of Jan. I wondered if they too would leave and I would never hear from them again.
Let's talk about Zahra Pike first.
She became the resident coordinator at my housing site. Zahra always went the extra mile for the residents – from helping families with food and resources to being able to connect on an emotional level.
And she came to us with a lot of knowledge and understanding about trauma.
She reached out to me and my friends when she saw us in passing. “Hey, would you like to join us in the community room?” she’d say, “We have some fun activities going on.” We always said no. But she never stopped asking.
Around that time, Home Forward started a partnership with the nonprofit Trash for Peace to create after-school clubs at housing sites like mine. They began offering activities about sustainability.
That’s where Laura Tokarski, the executive director of Trash for Peace, comes in.
One day after school, I finally decided to give the community room activities a try.
The energy in there was really high. Trash for Peace had me and other neighbor kids engineering all kinds of things out of recyclable materials. My inner nerd actually ended up having a good time.
It was the start of something new. I found myself coming back each week for more. I began to shed old habitats and care less about what others thought of me.
The people that I ran with didn't like coming to the community center. “It’s for chumps,” they’d say. So it began to drive a wedge in our friendship. Honestly, that needed to happen.
Beyond the fun activities and learning about reducing waste, we also were picking up life lessons – about fighting peer pressure, staying away from gambling, and learning how to better communicate our problems instead of resorting to violence. I even learned little tips and tricks to stay focused on tasks.
It was definitely a safe space that both Laura and Zahra had created. I could talk to them about anything and feel comfortable enough to do so. They were always willing to listen and teach and give us the tools we need to make it in this world.
The biggest lesson was love. They showed me that love is not a weakness but an undeniable strength that I can always carry with me. The actions and words of others don’t have to dictate my reactions.
Finding a new path. Speaking up. Giving back.
Throughout high school – go Grant Generals! – I volunteered at the community center with Trash for Peace and Volunteers for America. I became a youth leader to my peers. I came early to help set up for programs, generated new ideas for projects, helped serve food, and stayed behind to help clean up.
Zahra and Laura regularly reminded me that I had this light inside of me always. And they never gave up on me.
Though they may never admit it, there were times when I was a challenge.
Teenagers have bad days. And I had mine. Sometimes I wouldn't participate or I would act out because of how someone at school made me feel. But instead of turning me away, they continued to work with me to be my best self.
When I was in my senior year, Laura pushed me to apply for college scholarships. Her motivation and support helped me get to Lane Community College where I studied for a couple years.
When I moved back to Portland in 2018, I got back in touch with both Zahra and Laura.
Around that time, Trash for Peace had just begun to partner with Metro on a program to hire and train environmental promoters – people who bring awareness to their immediate communities about how to reduce household waste.
Laura asked me if I’d be interested. Of course I said yes!
I applied for a position, got it and immediately began teaming up with other environmental promoters living in low-income apartments around the Portland area.
We planned educational events, clothing swaps, community garage sales, national night outs, and bulky-waste collection events where residents could bring things that don’t fit into our apartment’s trash and recycling enclosures. All the same hard-to-dispose-of things that I remember laying outside in my childhood – we hauled off for free.
I am so excited to get into a field of work – environmental education – that actually means something to me. As a kid, going out in nature would calm me down. I always felt a connection to the environment. So I know this work is important.
But the connections that surprise me most as an environmental promoter are the personal ones. It’s really isn’t just about the trash. It’s about your community and the relationships. I’ve listened to these communities and their different stories.
When you are in lower-income neighborhoods, you already have so much on your plate – juggling a thousand things to keep your life afloat. We want cleaner neighborhoods and parks too. But lower income neighborhoods don’t get the same resources as wealthier ones.
Talking with other community members, all normal people who are trying to make a difference, inspires me. My thinking has changed because of them. It’s built character.
Working with the community has changed my life.
Editor's note: As Isaiah Talton was wrapping up this story, the world began to shift. So did his work. Meetings and community education moved online. In June, Talton completed his internship with Trash for Peace and transitioned to staff. This fall he will resume studies to finish his associate degree. He plans to transfer to a four-year university and pursue a service-related career.
Talton's 5 tips to build and support your community
- One of the first steps, I would say, is to understand your community better – what does it need are and how can you aid those needs within your limits? Join your apartment’s resident committee. If you don't have one where you live, form one by building relationships with your neighbors. Have conversations about the changes they would like to see. Check out your neighborhood association.
- Research! Research! Research! Find out what other communities are doing to give yourself an idea on how to get started. Look up different events, community projects, drives and donation centers to get involved with.
- Network. Then Network some more! This is a very important step. Build relationships with people in various fields that interest you. These connections can bring fresh new insights to projects and other collaboration ideas.
- Start a social media page to use as a platform to voice your concerns, and overall goals for your community. Keep people updated about the important work you're doing in your community. Follow other communities and organizations whose interest and missions fall in line with yours.
- Find funding for events and projects – especially if there is going to be food and activities. So, apply for different grants and partner with non-profit organizations. Volunteer with organizations that do a lot of community work. You can learn tons about what goes into planning an event and doing outreach.