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Eric: Mentoring In The Inner City

Eric: Mentoring In The Inner City

Eric Knox saw a need to help the youth of color to gain inner respect and help them realize their own power and ability to move beyond their limitations. With a passion to transform these youth and break the molds they have been living in, Eric is making a significant impact within the inner city of Portland through the organization he founded, HOLLA. Providing a much needed positive role model and mentor to these youth, Eric is undoubtably a hero! He shares his story...
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On December 27th, 2013 I moved back to Portland, OR with my family from LA. To my surprise, Portland had become strangely unfamiliar. As I moved back into my precious neighborhood of northeast Portland, I instantly noticed that the streets which once represented the hopes and deferred dreams of black residents and struggling business owners had now become a playground for young white hipsters and the creative types looking for affordable homes in the urban corridor. Vanquishing a community through gentrification pushed one-third of Portland’s black residents eastward into deep southeast Portland.

A few weeks later, after thinking about how to engage this section of the city, I bumped into two of the students I had formally mentored now running organizations in Portland. The rest is history in the making. They gave me my first two contracts with schools in East Portland and over the past five this work has grown to 50 mentors across many different schools in East Portland.

When I decided to create a mentoring organization, I named it HOLLA, which I coined from a song by Tupac Shakur called “Holla If You Hear Me”. This song captures the existential angst of young black males growing up in America who suffer from “narration sickness,” which is the imprinting of the patterns of dominant culture upon the oppressed in an effort to disempower them.

In constructing HOLLA, I knew it needed to be different. I knew that the system in which these kids were being mentored and educated was not transforming their lives.

It is our attempt at HOLLA to mentor these kids in a way that frees them from this “narration sickness,” the mode of teaching where the teacher or mentoring agency simply talks on and on and the students must sit patiently and listen like little receptacles of knowledge.

In an effort to consider the perspective and experiences of kids of color, HOLLA’s mentoring strategy has shifted toward the premise that education and empowerment must be a dynamic process that is going both ways.
This is the goal of HOLLA – to not only do mentoring for kids of color, but with them.

Learning to deconstruct personal and social oppression and moving toward transformation only comes by participating in a healthier process of mentorship. It requires turning our process of education and mentoring on its head. It must be done
with, not for those whom you mentor. Both mentor and mentee must recognize that transformation happens symbiotically. This requires rigorous reflection and critical thinking. I am convinced that children of color will not be transformed until they understand the cages and structures they are in that keep them roped into oppression. It is hard to for them to break free of something until they understand that they have been habituated into a lifestyle that is counter-productive to their maturation.

As I look back on my education, I am baffled at how poorly educated I was. I was never truly taught to think critically. I was never pushed to ask hard questions about my upbringing, nor my parents’ and my grandparents’ upbringing. I never understood as a child why my grandfather could not read. I never understood why gangs existed in my neighborhood or why my dad sold drugs and later became addicted to them. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the crack cocaine epidemic swept through South Central LA, overnight parts of my neighborhood turned into a scene
from Night of the Living Dead. People turned into non-people. Lives were decimated, families destroyed, and kids roamed aimlessly in search of their parents who had been claimed by this devastating drug. Yet I was never taught to ask why. I was not once taught to question these conditions. I was never asked to reflect as a teenager to think through the structural and physical violence that was designed to keep the inner cities of America poor and disadvantaged. If anything, I was taught that this was black America’s fact of life. For every successful black person, black business, or black success story of someone who had gone from rags to riches, there were crowds of thousands of black, brown and copper tone faces of inner-city children that would never escape the bracketed conditions of their oppression. It is these kids who live on the eastern edges of the city of Portland who may never know why they were pushed to these margins. It is these kids for whom HOLLA exists, not as an organization that comes to teach, though there will be teaching, but as one that comes to be educated. To stand in solidarity with them and exchange roles by valuing, experiencing, sharing and reflecting on their conditions, knowing that their conditions are my conditions. That’s how I see HOLLA: the mentor and mentee being transformed together as they engage in authentic praxis, which requires reflection, critical dialogue and action.
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