A Christian activist group leverages Portland’s DIY mojo.
“The Micah Challenge is a worldwide campaign to end extreme poverty. We mobilize churches and Christians to push policy makers on poverty-related issues. We’re advocates, basically. Other organizations are so good at delivering relief and aid. We try to be the political face of that aid. As one example, we mobilized conservative evangelical churches to pressure the Bush administration to keep funding developing-world AIDS relief.
We’re in about 50 countries, and have a small global staff in London. Portland is our only US office. We can be here because Portland is a culture-making city. There’s an abundance of creative genius just walking around on the street.
Earlier this year, a fundraising site called Live58.org planned to feature the Micah Challenge—a huge opportunity for us. In fact, we built money into our budget based on it. There was a mis-communication about who was making a particular video we needed that came to light just six days before we needed it.
I sent an e-mail to three people I sort of knew. It started, ‘I hate being this guy, but somehow here I am.’ A freelance art director named Daniel Palmer got back to me with an incredibly detailed list of what equipment we needed, and a very firm sense that it could be done. That was Tuesday.
Wednesday and Thursday we called all over town to rent the gear; it came to about $300. Daniel shot the video on Friday in our offices downtown. We edited it Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, Daniel’s wife wrote the text that appears on screen, and they composed a musical score. We submitted it Monday.
Right away, the feedback from the site was that this was some of their best content ever. That $300 video—Daniel and his wife worked for free—helped us raise $8,000, which is 8 percent of a budget that funds our activism.
I think that’s almost an only-in-Portland thing. People here, and not just religious people, get us and want to help. And there’s just a ton of talent.” As told to Zach Dundas
A globetrotting Portland record label helps musicians stranded by war.
The West African country of Mali produces musical superstars: Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, Amadou & Mariam, and others have made the leap from domestic renown to global success. Even as those artists rack up Grammy nominations, however, the small villages and towns of northern Mali conceal a wildly diverse musical universe, where musicians create everything from bluesy acoustic jams to the latest in glossy, digitally processed hip-hop.
Since 2009, Portland native Christopher Kirkley has traveled northern Mali (and neighboring countries) armed with only a recorder and a keen appetite for musical discovery. After his blogged recordings achieved some underground popularity, he launched Sahel Sounds, a tiny record label that releases a vivid array of vinyl records and downloads from off-the-grid Mali.
In the past year, however, the landlocked nation at the center of Kirkley’s effort has gone silent.
“It’s chaos,” Kirkley says. “Everyone in the northern part of the country has left. It’s a mass exodus.”
Islamist militants have seized control of northern Mali, leaving the once stable democratic nation in a state of civil war. The rebels have instituted strict Shariah law in the territory they control, banning music and displacing artists Kirkley works with.
“My friends are in refugee camps,” he says, “or they’re fighting, or they’re in a village somewhere with no electricity.” Last fall, Kirkley put together Songs for the North Country, a benefit compilation of tracks he recorded in the region. It’s a beautifully curated collection, with delicate acoustic ballads and a cappella laments melting into the sounds of a market in the city of Gao or the groan of camels recorded in the Sahara.
For Kirkley, the most important part of this download-only set (sold exclusively through online retailer Bandcamp) is that all money earned will go straight to the six featured artists. Sales had generated a modest four-figure contribution at press time, but Kirkley says even small payouts go a long way in the conflict zone.
“I don’t like to sell this idea of my friends being victims,” he says. “But I have to balance that with my own concern with their needs. That’s all they talk about. They say, ‘We don’t care how much it is, we just need something right now.’” —RH
A Portland brand’s fashion-forward East African operation
When Liz Bohannon worked in Kampala, Uganda, after college, the Kansas City transplant discovered an odd problem: a mandatory nine-month gap between high school and college often derailed qualified female students. “They’d go home to their villages, and there was no work,” Bohannon says. “So they couldn’t afford to start school.”
From Portland headquarters, she and husband Ben Bohannon now run Sseko (“say-ko”) Designs, Uganda’s largest footwear exporter. (“That says more about Uganda’s exports than about us,” Ben says.) And they employ 35 people to make sandals and bags—some as regular full-timers, others in “university-track” positions that earn tuition-matching grants.
Portland attracted the couple in 2011 partly with its apparel industry, but also because they felt at home. “Kansas City isn’t that entrepreneurial,” Liz says. “People supported us, but we were the oddballs without 401Ks. In Portland, it’s more like, ‘Oh, you too?’” —ZD
Sseko’s flagship product consists of a base and a separate ribbon-like strap that can be configured at least 150 ways. “How do we create variety and novelty,” Liz says, “but not have it be disposable fast-fashion?”
The Tote Bag
For its newest product line, Sseko began manufacturing in Kenya. “You can make beautiful, high-quality merchandise in East Africa,” Ben says. “I’d love to sit down with Nike or Columbia one day and say, look, this is what’s possible there. A major production facility would make a huge difference in Uganda.”
The company’s expansion into new products, like its line of clutches, reflects a desire to mature and employ college graduates as well as hopefuls. “Education is obviously crucial,” Liz says, “but qualified people also need an economy that’s more developed. We’d like to hire managers and designers.”
A new nonprofit links a Portland couch to Cape Town kids
In 2004, Justin Zoradi graduated from college in Santa Barbara, burning with idealism. His mentors told him to ditch dreamy California for somewhere real. He agreed, and a stint in Belfast counseling Catholic and Protestant kids on conflict resolution led to a trip to Cape Town, South Africa.
“I met these cool, smart South African high school students, top-10 in their graduating classes,” Zoradi says now. “And they couldn’t afford the $2,500 college costs there. I had my $40,000-a-year degree. Something gripped me.”
Today, Zoradi, 30, leads a nonprofit called These Numbers Have Faces from a brick-walled loft in Portland’s Central Eastside. Zoradi and four other Portland staffers steer about $200,000 a year in scholarships to students in South Africa and Rwanda. Recipients are starting to graduate from colleges and trade schools; each must pledge a year’s tuition for someone else once they’re working.
Zoradi’s progress says a lot about how a rising generation of no-budget organizers use Portland as a global base. His path from here will test our DIY ethic’s capacity to scale up.
Zoradi founded TNHF after landing in Portland for grad school, with the help of a how-to book he bought at Powell’s. In 2008, his first year, he scraped together about $8,000, enough to help two South African kids he already knew. “I thought that might be it,” he says now. “I had no money myself.” Then he started to hear from other students, whom he’d never met. “I was like, ‘What have I done?’”
At first, TNHF was Zoradi and his laptop, stationed on the couch in his Chinatown apartment, begging friends and relations for money. Then the attic of a rented house at SE 84th Avenue and Foster Boulevard became his offices. “That’s where my first intern showed up to work,” he says.
But from the beginning, Portland contacts helped Zoradi look good and get organized. He recruited an ad hoc board of advisers. At one point, he traded some Nike swag he’d acquired for graphic design services. “That’s this town and this time,” he says. “People from organizations elsewhere are shocked at what we spend on marketing and design: basically nothing.” The Central Eastside provides cheap rent; Skype and a popular free global-texting app provide communications.
Zoradi now faces the challenge of making scrappy success last and grow. Eighty percent of TNHF’s current money comes from individual donors—Zoradi hasn’t quite tapped the richer veins of corporate or foundation funding. The organization is relatively unknown even in local international-development circles. And expanding ambitions—TNHF plans to launch in Uganda this spring—make him just as nervous as excited.
“I live in fear every single day,” he says. “All of a sudden, I’ve got employees and dozens of kids in Africa depending on me doing my job well. Will we get funding? And is it working? The forces we’re up against are just immense.”
Still, he’s determined to sustain the spirit that got him off the Chinatown couch. “I have friends in the tech start-up world,” he says. “I take their mantra: fake it till you make it. Throw the wings on while you’re going down the runway.” —ZD