PUGS Black History Month: How can we improve the lives of Black Portlanders without causing more harm?

Many of us like to think of Portland as a progressive hub that welcomes people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds. But Oregon was founded as an all-white “utopia”; slavery may never have been legal here, but people of color were explicitly excluded from taking residence. What does that history mean for Black people currently living in Portland?

Justice Rajee, who has lived in Portland for 13 years, is confronting this discussion head-on by teaching a course at Portland Underground Graduate School (PUGS) in February for Black History Month. In this four-week course, Portland’s African American Boys: How to Be an Ally, Justice and course attendees will examine the history of Blackness in Oregon, along with perceptions of Black men in the media and throughout our communities. By the course’s end, students will have plans for constructive actions they can take beyond the classroom to support the livelihoods of Black men and boys in Portland.

Justice Rajee

Justice Rajee

“Black men and boys are not usually the focus of discussion unless we are talking about a deficit,” Rajee says. “Then, we tend to talk about the deficit, and what the deficit looks like, and how we may be able to impact the deficit. Meanwhile the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of those same Black men and boys are not treated as worthy of study.”

During the day, Rajee is the CHI Elevate Program Manager at Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC). The organization provides one-on-one case management and mentoring to African American gang-impacted men ages 17 to 25. Because of his day job, many people end up asking him how they can help Black Portlanders without causing more harm. That was a big inspiration for creating the course with PUGS.

“My response,” he says, “is to place myself out there to share my slice of understanding and experience.”

To give participants a solid background, the course will begin by examining data on the lives of Black Portlanders—and by talking through individually held biases honestly.

“We live in a racist society that taught me terrible things about myself that I had to unlearn as a necessity for personal survival,” Rajee says. “We have to confront the ideas that we have ingested in society in real time, in my view, and challenge them.”

Portland Underground Graduate School is a community-based organization dedicated to lifelong learning. Portland’s African American Boys: How to Be an Ally starts Tuesday, February 6 at 7 p.m. at Taborspace. Sign up here.

George Winborn, on how to find the wisdom that is already inside each of us

This is PUGS instructor George Winborn’s first course at PUGS. He’s excited to share his life experiences and to help his students savor life’s hardest times as huge growth opportunities.

PUGS Course you’re teaching and why: I’m teaching Thriving through Heartbreaking Personal Change because it feels like we’re going through a cataclysmic shift in the world today —individually and across the planet— and I want people to have the tools they need to deal with it better.

I’ll be teaching students how to use a simple meditation technique called active imagination to connect them to their inner guidance. Learning this helped me open up a whole new view into my inner life. It’s like tapping into the wisdom people used to get from grandparents or other wise elders. This wisdom is already inside each of us, we just have to connect to it.

We’ll also use movement to begin unlocking the emotions stuck inside us, and our voices to move them out of us. Once I started doing this, I felt heartbreak beginning to ignite more compassion, patience, and heart-centeredness inside me. This has played out not only in the big things I want to do with my life (like teach, listen and counsel) but most especially in the small day-to-day moments when I can spend an extra moment with myself to stay grounded, or look someone in the eye and sincerely ask how they’re doing. Heartbreak scours the soul, forcing us to expand how we love and care for ourselves and the people in our community.

George and Coco

George and Coco

Who’s the target audience of this class: Anyone who feels overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world today. Anyone experiencing anger, sorrow, shame but doesn’t feel comfortable actually feeling it. The purpose of the course is to give people structures they can use to process these big emotions through their minds, bodies and spirits. To let them run their course instead of suppressing them. The first time you do something, it feels scary and difficult. Over time, it gets easier. The same happens when you’re riding the waves of emotions. After a while, you come to experience these big emotions as neither good nor bad; they just are and should be allowed to do their work in transforming you.

Best thing about PUGS: It’s so inspiring being around a community of curious adults! People who want to do better for themselves and the world. While taking Financial Freedom with PUGS founder, Douglas Tsoi, I connected to how money affects me emotionally, which shifted my outdated views on money. Now I actually have a budget and a plan for how to retire! Amazing.

I care about lifelong learning because: I always want to grow. Feeding my mind and my skill sets –whatever they may be, from finances to architectural history—makes me feel alive. When I stop learning, put me in the ground. You have to exercise your mind the same as your body. It keeps it young, supple and ready for whatever may come!

Instructor John Doyle, on why he gave up trivia night hosting for PUGS

This month, PUGS Instructor John Doyle is teaching Class, Race, and the Urban Landscape. Before class is in session, we asked him to share some reflections with us. 

What PUGS courses have you taught? I have now taught 12 PUGS classes including Portland History, Architecture and Urban Development, Portland Architectural History, Portland Architectural Forensics, Portland's Urban Landscape, Beauty and Aesthetics I, II and III and Images of Woman.

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What are indicators of “success” for you in your courses? My biggest indicators of success is seeing involvement and participation from students, positive responses on course evaluations, and seeing return students in future classes. My specific goals change for each class, but as most of my classes a geared towards history and art history, my principal goals are to impart a certain amount of background, and also more focused information to students, many of whom come to class with little or no familiarity with the material. Also, I seek to engage students and get them comfortable with looking at images (usually artwork) and objects (usually buildings) in new, exciting and analytical ways which they take away from class and continue to develop on their own once I have provided them with what I call "the basic tool kit of observation and analysis."

How did you learn about PUGS? I was a Portland trivia host for 12 years, and I learned about PUGS from regular attendees to one of my trivia nights. They are friends of Doug and thought I had a certain knowledge base which could add to the PUGS curriculum. Ultimately I gave up being a trivia host because I found PUGS to be more intellectually stimulating and substantive. It also requires less drinking and I can go to bed earlier.

What's your favorite aspect of PUGS? My favorite aspect of PUGS is learning the new model of education based on participation, conversation, feedback and personal exploration rather than the old-school method of lecture on the part of the teacher and absorption on the part of the student. This was the model with which I grew up and I was very good at it -- so it is an ongoing challenge and opportunity for me to present my classes in a new and interactive way where I learn as much from the students and their way of seeing with fresh eyes as they learn from me and the massive amount of information I keep stored away in my head. My students often marvel on the sheer quantity of information I can just regurgitate on demand but my favorite Doug Tsoi [PUGS founder] saying is "there is a difference between information and learning." I understand this to be true more and more with each PUGS class I teach.

What do you love about Portland? I love that Portland is a comprehensible city. A place to which one can move and not feel overwhelmed by an impersonal urban environment. Portland has all of the cultural assets of a city many times its size but few, if any, of the drawbacks and stresses one tends to associate with large metropolitan environments. I realize many people think this aspect of Portland is changing for the worst and doomed in the long run, but since the urban models I grew up with are New York City, Boston, and Seoul, South Korea, Portland still seems like a very large, small town to me, endowed with cultural gems far exceeding what one would otherwise expect to find in city this size.

What is your favorite spot in Portland on a sunny day? What's your favorite spot in Portland on a rainy day? Other than reading on my front porch in inner Northeast, my favorite spots in Portland, sunny or rainy, hot or cold, are River View Cemetery for outdoors and the research library of the Oregon Historical Society for indoors. They both provide me with the same opportunity to learn about and from the city which I love so much. The only major difference is that one hold books and photos, and the other has trees and tombstones. The lessons and information I take away from each differ only in the format.

Kristin Teigen: It’s important that we know our collective history

PUGS Instructor, Kristin Teigen, teaches some of our most beloved courses on history, justice, and activism. She shared some of her thoughts:

PUGS Course you’re teaching and why: I teach a course on the history of whiteness in Oregon. It shows the other side of Oregon and of Portland, the one with a reputation of being a forward-thinking city and state, a Portlandia welcoming of a vibrant culture. What’s this other side? Portland is the whitest city in the United States, with dramatic disparities between people of color and white people. How did we get here? Our history, one of displacement, exclusion and violence, has created our present, and yet, this history is rarely taught, in any school or college in our state.  

If we are to create a better future, I think it’s important that we know our collective history, to learn as a community with the intent of moving forward to create change.  I’m thrilled to be a part of that community.

Who's the target audience of this class? The class targets anyone who wants to learn more about Oregon's history of racism as a way of ensuring that they are more educated members of our community moving forward. That's what I hope students will get from it as well. It intentionally places responsibility for corrective action on white people in the hopes that they/we will take responsibility for creating a different future.

Best thing about PUGS: PUGS makes so much accessible for teachers and students, taking learning beyond a specific period of one’s life – in college – to every stage of life.  People can connect at PUGS around their passions, delve deeper into their interests, and strengthen their commitment to creating educated change. 

I think PUGS has made me see opportunities for education beyond the traditional college classroom, and also encourage learning that doesn't have to be measured by a paper or test.

I care about lifelong learning because: I love to keep learning because the world keeps changing, our community metamorphizes into a new way of being, and perspectives always evolve. Walking through life with new knowledge keeps all of that relevant, interesting and engaging.

Dream course you want PUGS to offer: I do love what I teach, but personally, I’d also love to take a class on winter gardening! [We reminded her to check out our October 14 and 15 course, Decoding Plants, facilitated by Mulysa Melco!]

To learn more about Kristin's course, the People's History of Oregon, and to sign up, go here.

Elena: "I'm like one of those sharks..."

Decoding Plants (July 2017)

Name: Elena

Course you’re taking and why: I met Douglas, the founder of PUGS, at a party. He said the word underground and we happened to be in a speakeasy and I like pugs. Shortly thereafter, an ecologically-minded landscape designer I follow on Instagram posted that she was going to be teaching a PUGS plant class [Decoding Plants].

It seemed like destiny. Her course description was super enticing, promising a way to learn a pattern language and framework for plant ID instead of the species-by-species memorization I was accustomed to.

Your instructor was amazing because: Mulysa has a remarkable combination of deep experience, prep, passion, science, soul, approachability and generosity that makes taking her class a delight. Plus it was taught in a mini, permiculture botanical garden (AKA her backyard) and I wasn't able to find a plant she couldn't identify.

Best thing about PUGS: Taking a break from my usual grind and learning from and with other Portlanders who share a similar passion just for the hell of it and not for a degree or work is really, really fun and revitalizing. 

I care about lifelong learning because: I'm like one of those sharks who must keep swimming to live. Substitute me for the shark and learning for swimming.

Dream course you want PUGS to offer: Hmm, perhaps fly fishing small creeks for trout or an edible mushroom hunting field trip.

Lindsay Burnette: "Opening my mind to untaught histories and alternative ways of living"

Name: Lindsay Burnette

Course you’re taking and why: Improvisation for Mindfulness - to make new friends, laugh a lot, take new risks, be more spontaneous.

Biggest takeaway: Improv can be part of everyday life. When we take risks, observe without judgement and let our imaginations run - we are improvising.

Most interesting perspective from another student: I'm taking this class with my mother's graduate school professor and my life-long family friend. I'm learning what makes him laugh and what he struggles with each day. I'm in my twenties and he's in his seventies, so our perspectives are quite different, but we both leave class each week with smiles.

Best thing about PUGS: PUGS has opened my mind to untaught histories and alternative ways of living. PUGS has allowed me to learn from and alongside my neighbors, finding shared interest and commonality among people I may never have connected with otherwise. In an often isolating time, PUGS creates community spaces that are accessible, engaging, full of curiosity and critical thinking and free of judgement.

I care about lifelong learning because: Learning connects me to my community and my surroundings, and gives me continued inspiration. There is always more to learn.

Dream course you want PUGS to offer: There are so many! Navigating the Portland Night Sky, The Engineering Behind Portland's Bridges, Social Justice Design, Designing Inclusive Places

What makes your instructor amazing? Marilyn embodies all that she teaches: be in the moment, let go of expectations, withhold judgements - she seems to do all of this in her own cheerful, quirky and humble way.