Metro Portland

Community Voices: Al Barkouli

Dr. Al Barkouli is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of David Evans Enterprises, Inc., a nationwide firm in the design and management of complex transportation, land development, water resources and energy projects, and its subsidiaries, and an OCF board member — one of more than 1,600 OCF volunteers across the state.

How are you doing in these interesting times?

I try to approach these interesting times, and life in general, from a place of gratitude. COVID-19 is a stark reminder to me that we can take so much in life for granted, including life itself. Approaching these times with gratitude, I see a great opportunity for me and all of us to appreciate the things in life that we may have taken for granted—even little things like sitting down with my friends and having a cup of coffee in a café. In a nutshell, I am so grateful for my existence and all that comes with it.

My heart is full of empathy for the people in our community who have been disproportionately impacted by a number of the recent challenges such as COVID-19, wildfires, and on-going disparity in opportunities and social justice.

Could you tell us a little about your background and how you came to OCF?

I am the Chairman and CEO of David Evans and Associates, Inc. (DEA) and its parent company David Evans Enterprises, Inc. (DEEI). I have been with the company for over 32 years. I started as an engineer in training and made several career moves within the company until I became the CEO in 2011.

I came to OCF through knowing and having so much respect for two of OCF’s board members, Kimberly Cooper and Pete Nickerson. I met with the two of them and Max Williams. Their description of the mission and values of OCF resonated with me at a very deep level. The alignment of OCF’s purpose and my own life’s purpose, which is about leaving a beneficial influence on people and the world, was obvious to me. I felt OCF would be a great way for me to make a positive difference in our community. I joined the board a couple of years ago, and today I think it was one of my best decisions. OCF has been more than I hoped for. I am truly grateful to OCF’s leadership, staff, and for the meaningful community work. I especially appreciate the leadership position that OCF took during the recent crises that hugely impacted our Oregon community.

How did growing up in Libya and emigrating to the United States shape your views?

I came to the U.S. after high school on an academic merit scholarship to study engineering in the late 1970s. Before coming here, I grew up in the Sahara Desert of North Africa in a small village with very few amenities. For example, we did not have running water or electricity for much of my life there. On the other hand, the social network and sense of community were extremely strong. This upbringing influenced my personal values, three of which are humility, gratitude, and community. Unless a person has traveled and seen the rest of the world, there is so much that can be taken for granted in America. It’s important to recognize that there are many different ways that people live their lives. We need to value and appreciate those differences rather than look down on people who do not fit our mental models.

Tell us about what you do in your role on the OCF board of directors.

In addition to being on the board, I serve on two committees: the Development and Marketing Committee and the Education Committee. Board work entails setting the strategic direction for the Foundation, and this is important work because it establishes the goals and trajectory of the Foundation. I engage with my colleagues on the board in a series of strategic conversations designed to take into account that, like all organizations, OCF must adapt to an ever-changing context. I see this part of the work as the most important and most interesting part of my role on the board. The board also ensures the financial health of the Foundation and involves itself in several initiatives in any given year. Two examples are last year’s COVID-19 and wildfire relief work. I am also involved in the review and approval of grants. In addition to the leadership role that OCF plays in our community, grant making is another way that OCF makes a positive difference.

What do you find rewarding about your service on the board?

My work on the board is very meaningful to me. It allows me to live my own life purpose of leaving a beneficial influence on society and the world at large. I love OCF’s mission: “To improve the lives of all Oregonians through the power of philanthropy.” Through board work, I am getting to know different parts of our Oregon community, and I find that very fulfilling as well. I also have enjoyed getting to know other board members. I appreciate and learn from all of the knowledge and different perspectives that they bring to the board.

Which of OCF’s responses to community needs stands out to you most?

I am very impressed by OCF’s response to our community’s needs, especially in 2020. All of the events that arose—from COVID-19 to social justice demonstrations to the Oregon wildfires—all created urgent needs. COVID-19 has hit many Oregon communities hard, and it hit marginalized communities even harder. The response from OCF was great, not just in terms of grants, but in terms of leadership. Alongside other community leaders, I was part of OCF’s Black/African American Communities Task Force, which looked at the needs of this community. We focused on how to quickly deploy funds to nonprofits that were working to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The task force was a great way of bringing leaders together and giving grants to all nonprofits who applied and were qualified. I think the wildfire work was also very effective. In addition to dispersing money that came from OCF donors, OCF facilitated the state’s response to the wildfires. It was very impressive work.

What do you think about how Oregon’s people and institutions responded to the crises of the past year?

In one year, we experienced a confluence of three significant crises: COVID-19, stark social disparities in our society, and wildfires. Inequality has been with us for many years, but there is newfound awareness surrounding social justice. I’m impressed by how many in our community have worked well together under very difficult circumstances.

People in Oregon want to help each other. I so appreciate our OCF donors and how they stepped up to help the people experiencing such critical needs. It’s hard to express how grateful I am to people who can donate and increase their donations in these times of greater need.

OCF also assisted our state and local governments with administering federal and state money, helping them quickly deploy funds to Oregon communities most impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. While this required OCF to stretch its limited resources and capacity, I appreciate OCF’s nimble and adaptive response to the COVID-19 crises as well as the public and nonprofit partnership.

The crises of 2020 highlighted and exacerbated disparities. How can we move toward a more equitable society?

We need to dive in and do the hard work. We need to close the opportunity gap and help people become self-sufficient. Giving grants is important, especially in these times. But the work needs to go beyond this. OCF’s work is also about giving people the tools to become self-sufficient. One example is the work that OCF is doing on the Black Students Success Initiative, under the excellent leadership of Marcy Bradley. OCF’s work is helping to close the opportunity gap by facilitating people's ability to get a good education. That's just one small example.

I think, more than anything, what we need is leadership. Leaders can help us develop a sense of responsibility toward our fellow human beings and a sense of accountability to others. I don’t believe it’s useful to try to make people feel guilty. The kind of leaders I’m thinking of are those who help us develop solutions and give us a sense that we’re moving forward. And we need to realize that nobody has figured things out 100 percent. We’re going to need to experiment, to find what actions work and discard those that don’t; but we can't simply sit and study. We need to have the courage to learn while doing and adjust as we move forward. Much of this is adaptive work or the kind that requires learning about all facets of the problem and also about the different solutions. This is a whole-system issue, in my opinion.

What do you think is most important for prospective donors and volunteers to know about OCF?

I didn't know much about OCF before meeting with Kimberly, Pete and Max. Since learning about the organization, I have fallen absolutely in love with it. The Foundation has great integrity and is full of people who care deeply about doing good. This is an organization that wants to make the world a better place and be of service to our community. The OCF team is driven by purpose.

I really cannot recommend OCF enough—to donors and volunteers. My family and I have become donors through a donor-advised fund. We love the way the Foundation works with us, how closely the advisors listen to us, and how much they help. It’s not about how much you donate; the organization works with whatever you can do. It is a first-class organization.

I want to express my deep gratitude to all those who currently donate to OCF or volunteer. Thank you so much for caring deeply about the lives and livelihoods of our community in these times of great need.

What gives you hope?

By nature, I'm really a pragmatic individual, but I feel a lot of hope right now. My hope is that through the crises we have experienced this past year, we have become more aware. We can't solve or address challenges that we don't see. I think we are seeing and more aware now.

The threats of wildfires, pandemics, and social inequity are not new, but acute awareness can be very good for us as a society. As a community with awareness, we can act in new ways. This gives me great hope.

Is there anything we didn’t ask about that you would like to share?

One thing I would mention relates to research I did for my most recent graduate degree in Leadership and Change. The research focused on fear, fear-related emotions, and how debilitating fear can be for people. Right now, there is a great deal of fear in many of our communities as a result of threats to both our lives and livelihoods. While most, if not all of us, experience fear when we are faced with threats, our responses may vary. There are adaptive responses, in which people focus on the threat. There are also less than adaptive responses, in which people focus on their fear of the threat. We need to find ways to help all of us adapt. I want to appeal to people who have the ability and means to help those who do not. After all, we are in this together. One thing that can mitigate fear is the support of other people. Just as fear can be contagious, calm can also be contagious.