Editor’s Note: As we strive to work more closely with our local communities, be a more inclusive institution, and connect meaningfully to the issues that affect the lives of those living in our city, I wanted to share a recent interview with Manuel Padilla. Manuel is the Executive Director of Portland Meet Portland, a local non-profit dedicated to welcoming immigrants and refugees to the Portland area, enriching community by creating mutually beneficial mentoring opportunities that promote cross-cultural learning, enhance work skills, and build trust. The Portland Art Museum is proud to partner with Portland Meet Portland on programs, events, and a community gallery related to our current special exhibition Common Ground: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh. This partnership is part of our broader efforts to focus on building community, and the following interview is part of efforts to recognize this work and tell these stories as core to our museum’s purpose and mission.
This partnership and relationship with Portland Meet Portland led to the co-creation of a series of public programs, community events and workshops, an in-gallery resource for reflection and action, and a community-centered gallery space within the exhibition (see 2 photos of the gallery below). I have enormous gratitude for Manuel, everyone with Portland Meet Portland, and all of the community members and organizations that have come together to make this happen. I also want to recognize everyone on the Education team here at the Portland Art Museum for their dedication when it comes to making our museum matter, and the curator of this exhibition for being open to community involvement and for valuing the knowledge, voices, and experiences of community members whose knowledge, voices, and experiences are largely devalued by the institutions of museums. None of this would be possible without a growing community of change within and beyond the walls of our museum, and I have so much gratitude for being a part of this work and for being a learner in this process. -Mike Murawski
The following interview was posted on the Portland Art Museum’s blog on February 27, 2018, and is republished here with permission.
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An interview with Portland Meet Portland’s Manuel Padilla
How is Portland Meet Portland involved in the Common Ground exhibition?
Portland Meet Portland is working with the Portland Art Museum’s Department of Education and Public Programs as, what could be called a “community partner in residence.” We are co-creating the educational and interpretive programming in connection with the exhibition. This involves a broad range of things like designing and facilitating dialogues with museum participants, producing podcasts, working with the museum and refugees to provide content for the interpretive space, training docents, and helping create informational resource guides for visitors and docents alike. It has, and continues to be, a very inspiring and meaningful partnership for us.
How has the experience of working with an art museum been similar or different than other projects and partners that PMP works with?
Working with the Portland Art Museum is a unique and special experience for us. We have worked with the museum before on an Object Stories exhibition, and this is a deepening of that partnership. Words I would use to describe working with the museum are: dynamic, collaborative, creative, and celebratory. Our work together has been synergistic and generative, each person strongly contributing to breathing this project into life. One of the most fundamental points I want to stress is the museum’s direct, hands on participation with refugee community members. This experience was crucial to the cross-cultural learning and growth of everyone involved and gave vital context to exactly what it takes to make sure refugees can be truly relevant in their participation in projects like these. Institutional flexibility and change are at the heart of that level of participation. Ownership and agency of refugees’ own work and needs, throughout this partnership, was always prioritized.
What do you hope that visitors learn about their own community through the Common Ground exhibition and related programs?
Primarily, I hope people visiting this exhibition, and interacting with all of the great programming, are challenged to examine their own narratives of refugees and the narratives that are manufactured for them. And I want visitors to not only learn, but to find moments where they are outside of their heads and more into their hearts. Learning information means little if it does not become instrumental, in some way, in our own lives.
I would like visitors to understand how truly segregated Portland is and how different things could be if we made a decision to remove barriers and injustices that divide us. How quickly the black and white of segregation could turn into a Kodachrome of connection. But desegregation and cross-cultural relationship building with refugee individuals and communities requires that dominant culture give something up, and that is the primacy of its interpretation of the world. And dominant culture must leave open the possibility of being transformed by that. This is no less true when thinking of dominant culture’s relationship with any historically marginalized or underrepresented community. Yet, when we do this, we find we gain so much more than we have given up.
It’s important, too, to realize that refugees are more than just the sum of their experiences fleeing violence and persecution. They are more than victims. Thinking about refugees only as victims crystallizes their identities and marginalizes them even further. We should honor those experiences of suffering AND understand they had lives before and after that. We are all more than the worst moments of our lives. Right relationship with refugees means a “walking with,” sharing in the full nature of our personhood together.
Lastly, I want people to understand that refugees have often lived longer in Portland than the person reading this sentence right now. I want to blur the lines between newcomer and local. Also, resettlement to a new country and community can be the most traumatizing event in the experience of becoming and being a refugee.
Do you think or how do you think about the power of art to serve as a platform for big/ tough conversations?
I love this question and the answer seems at once both obvious and elusive. In my work I have dealt a lot with something called Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. There is a book called Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. The idea is that our entire cognitive structure, how we navigate and make meaning in the world, is determined by the foundational metaphors that emerge linguistically and pre-linguistically in our culture and society. The fundamental comparison of one thing to another in terms of “like” and “unlike” forms the building blocks of our worldview. If we think of art in terms of symbol, sign, and metaphor, then art IS the conversation. Aesthetic, in that sense, is not simply mood to us, but morality. What we consider beautiful or ugly takes on much more significance than simply being a matter of taste.
So, if we can challenge or change cultural aesthetic, if we can change the “art” on which society is built, then we have not only been able to navigate tough conversations, but we have, in doing so, changed the composition of the conversation itself. Art (and the people who create and consume it) are individual and collective manifestations of moments in dialogue. Photos, painting, dance, music, pottery, comics, movies, and other forms of art are part of the syntax and grammar, punctuation and silence in the language of art that we use to speak aesthetic reality into being for and with each other. Therefore, they are also the tools at our disposal to be able to speak and be different to one another. Through this we have emergent relationship, we can challenge one another and create mutual understanding and build trust.
How can people learn more and/or get involved with Portland’s refugee community?
Well I would be remiss if I did not answer with “get involved with and support the work of Portland Meet Portland!” It’s a little shameless, but true. I am proud of our organization, what we are doing, and where we are headed. But, coming to visit Common Ground is certainly a place to start as well. The museum is hoping, through the exhibition, to provide perspective on the continuum of life “as a refugee.” This might help to ground and encourage you to take a step toward being in closer relationship with refugees in your own neighborhood and the larger Portland community. From there, I would point people toward the printed and on-line resource page [PDF] on the museum website that is connected to this exhibition. That should give you what you need to start to get involved.
Anything else you want to share?
I just want to thank all of the people who were instrumental in making this project happen. All of the people in the Department of Education and Public Programs at the museum, other staff of Portland Meet Portland, and particularly the refugee community members that are sharing their time, expertise, and lives with us through this museum space.
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Learn more about some of the organizations working to support refugees and immigrants here in Portland and Oregon, and find ways to get involved.
Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization
Lutheran Community Services Northwest
Muslim Educational Trust
New Portlanders Program
PDX Friends of Refugees
Portland Meet Portland
Refugee Care Collective
Please visit Refugee Volunteer Organization (refvol.org) for more complete information on organizations that provide services to refugees in Oregon.