LaNicia Duke is the leader of Oregon's new Black Rural Network, which recently held its first meeting of Black community members from areas around the state (Photo by Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography).

A new Oregon network is knitting together the state’s small number of Black rural residents into a larger system of support.

The Black Rural Network will help Black leaders connect with colleagues living in similar communities around the state, said network leader LaNicia Duke.

“[This] space is going to [aid in] co-creating space and community for Black leadership in rural Oregon communities,” Duke said at the inaugural meeting of the group on June 30. The project will help participants “to share unique perspectives and lived experiences, to have opportunities to network, [and to take] an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to being a Black leader in rural communities throughout Oregon.”

Black residents constitute less than one percent of the population in the state’s rural areas and small cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Statewide, Black residents comprise 2.2% of the population.

Duke discussed her experiences talking about race in her home of Tillamook County, where Black residents make up about 200 of the county’s 27,000 people, according to Census estimates.

“I’ve experienced enough resistance being told that there [are] not enough Black people in our community to have conversations about racial equity,” she said.

Oregon established laws in the late 1840s and ’50s to exclude Black people from becoming residents, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. “Although the exclusion laws were not generally enforced, they had their intended effect of discouraging Black settlers,” wrote Greg Nokes in an article about the exclusion laws. Today, 2.2% of Oregon’s population identifies as Black.

A New Network Comes Together

The attendees came from organizations such as the Southern Oregon Coalition for Racial Equity, Family Building Blocks, the Oregon Youth Development Division, and the Oregon Department of Justice. The Black Rural Network is using this as an opportunity to share resources and make connections with rural, Black people.

The online gathering was sponsored by The Ford Family Foundation and Rural Development Initiatives.

While almost all participants live in Oregon, Duke aims to expand the network to the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

Chantal Ivenso of the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District commented, “Part of why I’m here today [is] just to meet other black folks in rural spaces and [learn] how to navigate that and what that looks like for the future, [a] healthy future for our communities.”

Nearly two-thirds of Black Oregonians reside in the state’s largest county, Multnomah, which includes the city of Portland, according to the Urban League of Portland.

Most attendees reside in urban areas; however, they are using their positions to reach out to rural Black and African-American people. 

“I’m curious to see what issues are going on for others in rural communities, said Bruce Watts from Astoria, Oregon. “And I want to see what I can do to assist and support efforts that are going on.” 

To help build the network, Duke connected with a project coordinator for The Ford Family Foundation, Denise Bacon. Based in Roseburg, Oregon, the foundation serves rural Oregon and California’s Siskiyou County and “designs, manages and funds programs that aim to improve the well-being of children, families, and communities,” according to their website.

“As a Foundation, we have been supporting dialogues and convenings about diversity, equity and inclusion throughout rural Oregon and are always looking for more partners in that process,” Bacon said. “It’s rare to find someone who has such a deep lived experience around racism and racial inequity and who also understands how to navigate the unique culture of rural Oregon communities.”

In a follow-up interview, Duke, the network’s leader, discussed its future. She said, “Part of the work I’m doing with the [Rural Development Initiative] is to create not just an operational budget, but doing some programs…so I can make this a functional organization.” Duke also hopes to expand the network to rural Washington, Idaho, and Northern California.

Correction: A previous version of this story referenced future compensation for board members of the Black Rural Network. That reference has been removed based on updated information from the source.