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Walking Both Sides of the River: An Interview with Carl Talton, Ex-Officio Chair of the United Fund Advisors

Carl Talton is the Ex-Officio Chair of United Fund Advisors and Managing Director of its affiliate, the National Partnership Fund. Throughout his long tenure in Portland, Carl has tackled the challenge of a changing community landscape, working hard to instill opportunities within different communities. He’s been described as someone that can “walk both sides of the river”, and has used his talent for connecting resources and communities to consistently serve the people he represented in his career. He is an inaugural member of the Community Advisory Council, so we sat down with him to better learn about his work.

Q: If you were to describe to a high school or college student what it is that you do, what would you say?

I would say I have been fortunate enough to blend the professional roles I have been paid to perform with the community efforts I have chosen to support. I spent about 30 years in the utility business, and one of the early lessons I learned in achieving personal satisfaction and trying to manage that business was that in order for the utility business to be successful, it had to serve a very healthy community.

What that meant was I had to think about not only managing the internal operations of the company, but managing the social, political and economic environment in which the company operated.

And so that’s become the lens I view the world through. I look for win-win scenarios which may not always be possible, but earnestly looking for them creates a great deal of benefit for all parties. Businesses, communities, government all become stronger and more aligned when we look for wins all the way around.

Q: Why was it important for you to get involved in this work?

Aside from personal and professional interest, neighborhoods and communities, as I knew them growing up, are under duress. Affordable housing, economic stability and safe communities offer more significant challenges each year. I was raised in the black community of NNE Portland, and saw that community reduced from one that had a relatively high level of home ownership, numerous small business owners, almost no unemployment and a relative sense of safety and security.

That picture has changed significantly. The cost of living is rising, and fewer of our children are being prepared to step into careers that will allow them to afford to live in our community. Our future as a community appears darker and darker.

Q: In your line of work, what’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward?

Well, I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent most of my working career in Portland, which is a community that I happened to grow up in. So I have seen the business districts as well as the neighborhoods transition. From a financial standpoint, all have not done well. The citizens in these communities have not consistently fared well. Many of these economically enhanced communities have suffered displacement of longtime residents.

Several years ago, I worked with a community-organizing effort that was considered one of the most innovative and promising in the country. It included local government, local businesses, social service agencies, community development agencies and neighborhood coalitions. We worked together to develop a vision and plan that would stabilize lower-income communities through economic development strategies, home ownership initiatives, education programs for children and crime and gang reduction. Infrastructure was in need of repair. Vacant and abandoned buildings, homes and autos were everywhere. It looked and felt like a community that was dead, or on its last leg.

Over the next five years, the community had remarkable success in bringing its vision to fruition. What makes this a sad story is that the people of this community, for whom this transition was planned, were pushed out, and while the geographic area was vastly improved, the population was being rapidly displaced.

When I see underserved communities now, I don’t see the physical improvements as the challenge; I see the challenge as those improvements accruing to the people to which they were intended.

Seeing a community come together and generate a successful vision and plan, and attracting the political and financial resources to bring it to fruition, was exciting and fulfilling. Seeing this successful effort hasten the demise of that very community has been one of the more disappointing experiences of my life.

Q: What motivates you to keep going?

The need. I mean, it’s still out there.

Given that the need is still there, and the hit-and-miss nature of past community efforts, I have more recently started to work with a younger generation, whose ideas, values and approaches may differ from my generation. They have their own strategies and goals they want to achieve. And I saw my role as a cheerleader and a pretty good rear-view mirror. I can tell them what’s already been tried. I can tell them what was successful, what didn’t work, and why it didn’t work, and maybe even give a few suggestions as to how they can avoid it.

Even this approach has been met with limited success, and two things happened. The first was people continued to disregard history and experience, and second, I became more of a nuisance than facilitator to the process. I didn’t sign up for that; I signed up to be helpful, not a hindrance.

So I’ve since stopped doing that, and have started initiating other things I believe are critical but more narrowly focused. One of them is to control as much commercial property in our traditional community as possible, and see if we can’t attract and support more businesses of color to offset as much of the damage that some of the gentrification has done to the community as possible.

And then we’ve also started an educational project focused on STEM education. We’ve formed this coalition with the idea that we’ll build our own workforce. We’ll train these kids; we’ll get them prepared to be able to operate and compete in whatever environment they decide to, but hopefully some of them will stay and own and operate businesses in that community, because we’ve now provided not only the talent but we’ve provided the commercial real estate opportunity to support it as well.

Q: What’s one of the greatest lessons that you’ve learned through your experiences?

It’s tough to be effective if you operate in a vacuum.

I don’t care if it’s community, business, whatever it is. You just can’t do it. There have been a number of young Black business people who have come to Portland as a result of being employed by major corporations. They almost always have an interest in supporting the local Black community but are generally unsure of what they can or should do. So they get together as a group, but they only talk amongst themselves. I have tried to encourage these groups to meet with local people or organizations; to get involved with local formal and informal politics. This gets them outside their bubble, and of course, political engagement is a major factor in personal and organizational success, as well as a connector to other community players.

Q: Last question. If there’s one thing that people can walk away with, whether it’s about your work or you as an individual, what would it be? What should people know about Carl?

Something that people in Portland say about me is, “Carl is one of the few people that can walk both sides of the river.” What they mean by that is, there’s a downtown business crowd where the traditional power brokers are… And the other side of the river where the traditional neighborhoods, social service agencies, and nonprofit community activities are housed. Typically the two don’t mix together very well. If you do well in either of those communities, you tend to not do well in the other. If you ask folks on the community side about me, what they will typically say is, “Well, you know, Carl’s a downtown guy but he really understands our problems, he supports us, and he’s with us,”. And if you ask the downtown crowd, they’ll say, “Well, you know, Carl’s really a community guy, but you know, he really understands and supports the needs of the business community and what they need to be successful.”

So each side sees me as really belonging to the other, but clearly understanding what their needs are and being an integral part of their success.



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