The Importance of Land Use in Black History

Nicole Johnson Byline

My name is Nicole Johnson, I use she/her pronouns and I am a Black woman in Portland, Oregon. I also happen to be Community Engagement Manager here at 1000 Friends of Oregon. 

Though I gladly live in Portland now, my ancestors were not welcomed here and were technically not allowed to reside here (Article XVIII, Section 4). And I’m not talking about distant ancestors — there are still plenty of houses in Portland today with deeds that prohibit Black individuals (and other people of color) like me from owning them. Those racial covenants are crossed out with ink, but that doesn’t fix the fresh wounds that the language — and the enforcement of it — caused. 

Fast forward to 2021, and I work for an organization that advocates for the livability of all people in Oregon. I ask myself all the time how someone who went to college for social work (that would be me) ended up working for an organization that focuses on land use planning. Zoning itself was one of many tools historically used to shut out previous generations of people that looked just like me from building generational wealth, achieving homeownership and having decision-making power. However, I’ve come to see that land use planning is one of the most powerful tools for building and advocating for equity.  

During this year’s Black History Month, I reflect on the interconnections between Black history, land use, generational wealth and livability along with the work I do day in and day out. 

Through much pondering, I’ve realized land use has impacted my life all along. 

Since my youth, I’ve always been a proponent of public involvement and civic engagement. In middle school I helped organize and host school-wide assemblies. In high school I participated in a leadership course where I worked directly with the principal to shape school policy regarding security and initiated the following student body awareness campaign. 

Everything changed during my sophomore year. I was selected by the City of Portland to participate in the initiative put forward by Mayor Tom Potter called Vision PDX — the result of a city-supported, community-led project designed to create direction for Portland's development for the next 20 years and beyond. This project thrust me into a level of access to civic engagement like I had never experienced. I toured city hall, shook hands with the mayor, was on a first-name basis with the city commissioner and spoke to the media. 

For the first time, I felt authentically seen, heard and needed.

My mind was blown when I learned that city planning didn't just happen, it was, well, planned… often more than 20 years in advance. On top of that, the city had a process for everyone to influence the plan. My experience with Vision PDX changed the way I viewed the world. From that moment on, my young brain knew that my greatest ability to create change would be through policy. 

Even though I work in a political science-adjacent field, my only formal education in that area was an 8 am poli sci lecture in college — let’s just say it wasn’t for me. Fortunately, life experience and the help of mentors led me into social work. I fell in love with the thought of social work at the macro level: changing systems, policies and institutions for the greater good. After graduating from college I worked at the more-focused levels of social work — building grassroots people power for transit campaigns and direct youth-specific social services. My previous positions made clear to me the level of systemic change needed to solve the social injustice impacting our transit-dependent folks, youth on the verge of homelessness and students facing public health inequities, to name a few.

The formative years of my life led me to land use and its connection to environmental justice. I’ve found a place at 1000 Friends, where I am able to advocate on behalf of the public and simultaneously connect and train the public on how to engage and navigate public policy.

I'm celebrating Black History Month by continuing the fight of my ancestors to see the day Black folks — degree or not, low-income or high-income, young or old — shape public policy. I want to help others build equity by owning land, building wealth and benefitting from previously exclusionary laws and policies. 

2020 brought to the forefront the ignored and intentional racism that has caused so much generational trauma and pain. Our nation — and our state — has no choice but to recognize what’s happened, and what’s still going on. Masses of people hold space in the streets and on social media, choosing to acknowledge national social injustices. 

We are now in a place where I’m hopeful that racism is not only acknowledged but regarded as intolerable with clear policy initiatives to make real change. Equitable people power has to be intentionally built. I’ve seen firsthand the social good it creates, and I will not stop fighting for it, because in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “An injustice anywhere, is an injustice everywhere.” 

I look forward to the day that “Black lives matter” statements are not only written, but that they are implemented and upheld completely and unapologetically.