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Soul District Business Association taps tech to uplift Portland’s Black youth

John Washington

“When the technology train left, a lot of us Black folks weren’t on that train,” said John Washington, President of Northeast Portland’s Soul District Business Association. Washington has been working to revive and advocate for Portland’s historically Black neighborhoods for over 25 years, 15 of those spent at the helm of the SDBA.

His particular focus: helping local Black youth access opportunities from which they have typically been excluded.

I sat down with Washington and SDBA Outreach Coordinator, Fawn Aberson, to talk about SDBA’s Green Lighting Black Lives Matter Youth Media Project and the PDX Black Rose Podcast. Both programs recruit and train next-generation Black entrepreneurs in the use of cutting-edge video technology, film, and video production equipment.

The goal?

“We want to inspire Black youth in Portland to express themselves by way of new and emerging technologies,” said Aberson. “And hopefully through this exposure, we will encourage them to consider pursuing careers in the exploding film, video, and tech industries.”

Washington, who is also the CEO of the Black-owned media agency, Flossin Media, and publisher of Flossin Magazine, recently incorporated digital technology into the pages of his publication through augmented reality features.

Washington knows the particular importance of having a storytelling platform in the public square. “When Black people come to Oregon, they often feel invisible because they are not represented in the state’s official marketing campaign. Many have expressed to us that they are happy to see platforms out there reflecting our presence and experience here,” he said.

The GLBLM and PDXBlackRose aim to build on the momentum he has created with Flossin Media by extending media and technology literacy and opportunities to youth.

The program also seeks to help Black youth break the cycles associated with mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline that has disproportionately plagued them, Washington said. When iterating on the program in its initial stages, he looked at how to use existing technology to uplift the community and tell their own stories.

Funded by a technology grant from the Mount Hood Cable Regulatory Commission in 2016 and 2020, the GLBLM & PDXBlackRose hit a rough patch at the onset of the pandemic. As Aberson and Washington began tapping local technology companies to help support the youth entrepreneurship program, a slew of social distancing and quarantine orders put their plans on pause.

Depending on the status of the pandemic and its impacts, the two plan on kicking off with the program’s next cohort later this year.

This includes a partnership with Instrument, a digital agency located in the heart of the SBDA’s own neighborhoods, and Iltopia Studios, a Black-owned creative studio that specializes in augmented reality, digital art, visual storytelling and podcasting.

“As a Black kid growing up near Silicon Valley, I know how difficult it was to exist in an area that is predominately white, but also pushing the conversation of innovation with technology,” said Steven Christian, founder of Iltopia Studios. “By giving youth access to a new and emerging technology like augmented reality, I believe we can open doors that have traditionally been closed. This means exposing the cohorts to higher-paying jobs and explosive career growth opportunities.”

By tapping resources and mentors at Instrument and Iltopia Studios, the GLBLM and PDXBlackRose will allow participants to create a multimedia project and the opportunity to tell their stories of what it’s like to grow up Black in Portland. Pending buy-in from venues around town, SBDA will showcase these projects through screenings and film festivals.

“We’re committed to providing material support to the communities and causes we believe in, and in 2021, we’re focusing our community engagement efforts on the amplification of Black voices, fighting systemic racism, and the pursuit of a more just and inclusive future,” said Instrument Partner and Creative Director, JD Hooge.

Although the future is uncertain with the ongoing pandemic, Washington and Aberson remain vigilant in getting the program honed this year. Interested youth ages 16-24, or those who want to support these programs, should reach out to Aberson at outreach@NNEBAPortland.org.


This is part of a regular guest column written by the Technology Association of Oregon in the Portland Business Journal.

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