As some of the most contentious Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 erupted in Portland, Ore., last spring, 29-year-old Cameron Whitten started getting a deluge of messages. Friends from all corners of his life were checking in on him.
“At first I was like, ‘Did something happen to me?’ ” says Whitten. Realizing people were just concerned about his well-being, he reached out to other Black people to ask: “Are you having white people message you too?”
It wasn’t just that people were wanting to discuss with him the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Whitten says. They wanted to make sure he was genuinely OK. This was a first. “Never in my lifetime of Black Lives Matter activism ever has that happened before.”
He was OK, but he saw an opportunity to leverage this new-found concern from the white community to help those who weren’t. On May 31, he posted on Facebook asking for donations from white allies to give cash to Black Portlanders who were struggling. The first day he raised $11,000, the next day $55,000. On the third day he raised more than $155,000.
The Black Resilience Fund was born.
In less than a year the organization raised more than $2 million in donations from corporations, foundations, government and thousands of individuals.
Co-founder Salomé Chimuku joined the project as it got off the ground in those first few weeks. When Whitten told her about the project she had a hunch it was going to take off.
“I was like this is gonna be a lot bigger and take a lot more work than you think,” she says. “I became the systems person.”
With a background in community engagement, Chimuku worked to quickly build internal structures of accountability and process. Needing infrastructure, they legally folded the Black Resilience Fund into another Portland-based nonprofit Whitten had already established: Brown Hope.
They found an office, hired staff and solicited volunteers, of which there were many. Trapped at home during quarantine and watching the Portland protests, people were eager to help. At one point Chimuku oversaw a team of 400 people a day who had joined the effort.
Elected officials including both of Oregon’s U.S. senators endorsed the project. Researchers from Princeton studied them and wrote a report on them.
Through all this work, they’ve helped more than 7,000 Black Portlanders through payments of a few hundred dollars.
One recipient, Trayla Lomax, found herself living out of her car with her three young children after an eviction.
“It was devastating,” Lomax says. “It was really, really hard just getting them used to living here and there, having to go shower at peoples’ houses.”
Historic forest fires were raging across Oregon last summer and Lomax was at times dodging evacuation zones, when a friend told her about a guy named Cameron Whitten who was helping out people like her. She completed an online application and brief screening process in which she asked for money to put a security deposit on an apartment.
Lomax says the process of receiving aid from the Black Resilience Fund was a compassionate one.
“It’s so hard for me to ask for help sometimes,” she says. “It didn’t make me feel ‘less than.'”
Whitten understands first-hand the necessity of trusting recipients.
He landed in Portland in 2009 after fleeing an abusive father and hitching a ride with two friends from the Virginia suburb where he grew up — a Black, queer kid with no place to go.
He spent years crashing on couches and living in shelters, but eventually worked his way through college and took jobs in government and the nonprofit sector. Now that he’s in the position of helping others, he’s determined to make the process of getting aid less dehumanizing than what he experienced.
For that reason, the organization is committed to a minimal screening process, without requiring extensive paperwork or proof of income in the form of paystubs, eviction papers or bank statements. Black Portlanders, says Whitten, have long been in crisis.
“Black folks have always needed a real economic jumpstart, like a stimulus package, in order for there to be parity with our racial wealth gap,” Whitten says.
That wealth gap is laid bare in the kinds of things recipients report using the money for: food, rent and power bills. There are also many unique stories: The woman who needed to fly home for her sister’s funeral, the mom who needed equipment to homeschool her child with autism.
More recently, donations have waned and the Black Resilience Fund has struggled to keep up with requests for help. But the founders are planning a new fundraising effort around the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death.