October 15, 2020

Nurturing Resilience and Hope in Trying Times: A Conversation with Joe McFerrin II, President & CEO of POIC + RAHS

Joe McFerrin II is invested in community. As President and CEO of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School (POIC + RAHS), he leads the work of an organization that has been a beacon for Portland’s communities of color, particularly the Black and African American community, for more than 50 years. POIC + RAHS reconnects at-risk youth affected by poverty, family instability, and houselessness with high school education through Rosemary Anderso High School and with career training and work opportunities.

As POIC + RAHS provides a continuum of education, career, and family services, at the same time it pursues systems change, working to address root causes of generations-long economic, judicial, academic, and social inequities. POIC + RAHS was recently granted $150,000 from Oregon Community Foundation to continue their work, and we were honored to hear from Joe how his organization is supporting people and communities during COVID-19 and beyond.

OCF: Can you talk about how the pandemic has personally impacted the young people you work with?

JM: The power of connecting with one another face-to-face was made crystal clear when the pandemic abruptly took that kind of connection away. The biggest challenge our students face stems from this dramatic shift. As everything has become virtual, being unable to visit POIC + RAHS means they have lost a physical safe place they’ve been able to count on for years. For many of our more than 3,000 students, trainees, and program participants—it feels like yet another trauma. And on top of that, the challenges they face in their daily lives have been amplified by COVID-19.

OCF: How have these challenges been amplified?

JM: The youth and adults we serve have had to grow up fast. They have faced barrier after barrier—in education, through gang and domestic violence, houselessness, extreme poverty, and an inability to meet basic needs. They’re also often responsible for rent, family expenses, and caring for siblings or young children. COVID-19 has brought even higher levels of distress and mental exhaustion on top of what they were already dealing with. Youth and adults consumed with meeting basic needs do not have the time, energy, or resources to work towards long-term solutions.

One student’s story comes to mind. His mother passed away when he was young, and he was being raised by his grandmother. Shortly after the pandemic began, he came home to find she had passed away. He was completely alone. POIC + RAHS staff were the only adults with whom he had a positive, meaningful relationship. Our mental health counselor was able to help him process his grief and we stayed engaged with him through phone and video calls. We connected him with Home Forward and advocated for him to be able to stay in his home. He stayed in school virtually during spring 2020 and continues to earn credits towards graduation. We’ll be here to support him as he builds a career and future for himself.

This story is not unique among the youth and adults we serve. It does, however, demonstrate their drive and determination to succeed—the POIC + RAHS family has grit.

OCF: Returning to school amid an ongoing pandemic is difficult for young people in the best of circumstances; it must be exceptionally difficult for the young people and families you work with. How is your organization supporting them?

JM: It is certainly our greatest challenge to date, but we’re in awe of our students’ ability to adapt. We’ve switched to an online model for education and other services, and we’re working closely with our families to make sure they have computers and Wi-Fi hotspots. We successfully provided virtual summer school this year.

We’re also assessing and meeting families’ growing basic needs during the pandemic’s economic devastation, continuing to provide wraparound services for all students, trainees, and their families, like helping pay utility and phone bills and finding ways to make sure they know there are resources and supports for them.

Through it all, we know we must model resiliency. And so, we celebrate all the wins—big and small. We had a graduation rate of over 90% but the success of our students results from so much more than just academic supports. Like I said before, we’re in awe of everything they are overcoming.

OCF: How have the disruptions in our economy impacted your work?

JM: Many members of our families have been laid off or had reduced hours. Quite a few students worked odd jobs in their neighborhood to make ends meet. These economic opportunities have all but vanished. In June, we partnered with Multnomah County to distribute $26,000 in county-funded gift cards. They were gone in a single day. Since then, many families have contacted us requesting similar support.

As an organization, we have also been impacted financially. We were forced to lay off around 10 percent of our staff. We had to cancel our Workforce Connections Breakfast, which provides largely unrestricted funding for staff and overhead expenses of our career and workforce service programs. Some of our contracts have been reduced as well due to governmental budget cuts and an inability to deliver in-person programming. Despite this, our staff are working harder than ever as we not only maintain programs but also pivot to meet COVID-19 guidelines, and we are providing an unprecedented level of direct basic needs support.

OCF: We are in a moment when many people are raising their voices for civil rights and racial justice locally and nationally. How does POIC + RAHS’s work contribute to the movement?

JM: Despite the unsettling past and present pain of being Black in Oregon, I have hope. Although the impacts of systemic racism faced by people of color in Oregon are shameful, sad, and frustrating, there is also an opportunity right now to bring real change while the world is listening and watching.

POIC + RAHS has served Portland’s Black community members for more than five decades, and we remain advocates on the frontlines demanding equitable support and representation for communities of color from the community to the national level. At the same time, we’ve been working closely with Portland and Gresham police to address rioting, community violence, and gun violence occurring city-wide, as well as joining with the Mayor and other City officials to encourage non-violent protest.

During a time fraught with escalating uncertainty, we must continue to draw on the expertise and experiences of the Black community, and the work of those who have built deep trust within. This takes long term investment and relationship building. Now and always, POIC + RAHS has been creating opportunities for wealth building among communities of color. We have built generational relationships in the Black community, and we’re drawing on those now to represent our community and ensure the needs of our people are front and center.

OCF: What will this funding from OCF enable you to do?

JM: First, I would like to commend the Oregon Community Foundation on their commitment to supporting our state’s most vulnerable youth and families. We’re looking forward to partnering with OCF through our participation in their Black Student Success Network and other community initiatives.

The $150,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation will help us invest in our IT system to better serve our students, trainees, and families as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact them. It also helps us make necessary changes to our facilities’ physical structures to ensure the safety of staff and students if they visit to pick up supplies, and to support physical distancing measures once they are able to return in-person.

OCF funds will also support important IT, distance learning, and COVID-19 guidelines training for our staff.

OCF: How can others in our community support your work?

JM: Money, time, and connections!

Donations help ensure we can quickly and flexibly respond to the rapidly changing needs of our communities impacted by COVID-19, police brutality, and other systemic disparities.

We’re looking for online guest speakers and presenters for our students and trainees who can teach a skill, lead an academic presentation, or help expose them to a variety of career fields. For example, PGE is hoping to diversify their linesmen, so we’re partnering with them to provide students with virtual orientations in this field.

Finally, we ask those reading this to share employment opportunities with us. Our goal is to prepare our students, trainees, and other program participants with a variety of career opportunities and workforce tracks to work towards. We want to light a spark that supports their journey to grow, learn, and reach their potential.

We want to demonstrate to our students, trainees, and families that the broader Portland and Oregon community does care despite growing frustrations and continued displacement. Always, but especially now, we need our allies—and we know there are many—to step up and show their support.