Taking Ownership PDX; Helping Black Neighbors Stay Housed

by Feb 14, 2023

ELLEN CLARKE | When he became a parent to twins at age 19, Randal Wyatt wanted to build a better community for his children. Fatherhood led Wyatt, a hip hop artist, to involvement in social services. That was seventeen years ago. In 2020, he founded the organization Taking Ownership PDX. Now he is devoting his time to helping Black homeowners to stay in their homes by providing landscaping, maintenance, cleanup and whatever is needed that they don’t have the immediate resources for.

“I knew from a young age, as soon as my twins were born, that I wanted a solid foundation for them. I dedicated my life to giving back to my community. Even before I was a father I wanted to be active in my community and give back however I could,” said Wyatt. “That passion was amplified when my twin sons entered the world when I was 19 years old. I knew it was up to me to do my best to better the community and potentially the world around them, so their generation can live more peaceful and stable lives than mine.”

2020 was a year of change; the pandemic hit, and soon after Black Lives Matter protests took place in Portland, following the murder of George Floyd. Wyatt was asked by neighbors and friends to help out. In response and with a focus on reparations, Wyatt stepped up and Taking Ownership PDX was born.

Wyatt says he founded Taking Ownership PDX “as a protest.” The City of Portland was built on a history of white supremacy and legalized exclusion, and those roots run deep today. Black families continue to be priced out of their homes and pushed East. As the cost of living rises, some Black homeowners are put in desperate situations and are targeted by predatory lenders and buyers who offer to buy houses for far less than their value. There are also a disproportionate number of liens and complaints to the city against Black homeowners, putting Black families and especially seniors at risk.

Taking Ownership has expanded rapidly in the last few years with a focus on building communities that look out for one another. Wyatt encourages people to reach out to their neighbors if their home looks run down or in need of help– instead of reporting it to the city, as they might get saddled with fines and forced from their homes. Likely, the homeowners might not have the time, funds or physical ability to take care of their home, and a neighbor reaching out with the offer of support can make a world of difference.

Says Wyatt, “Our home improvement program uses the funds we raise to hire licensed, bonded and insured professionals to do structural and/or permitted work to assure the work is done correctly and with high quality.”

Volunteers continue to be the backbone of Taking Ownership PDX and Wyatt has help from some community members. Jed Overly, a friend from the music scene, is the volunteer organizer. Overly said “With Taking Ownership, we started doing reparations [in Portland]. We are part of the corrective change and we are creating Black history now. That’s the thing about history. It’s hard to see while we’re in it and we’re making history in real-time. It’s beautiful and we don’t have to accept what’s in the past but we have a path forward to correct it. Keep that forward thinking. What does it look like for the next generation? I think we’re making ripples that we’re not even aware of.”

“What does it look like for the next generation? I think we’re making ripples that we’re not even aware of.” 

— Jed Overly, Taking Ownership PDX Volunteer Organizer

Wyatt called on Zack Mills, a contractor and friend since high school, to do a walkthrough on the very first house they fixed up. Mills now donates his time and the use of his truck every week. Referring to his skills and the vehicle, Mills said, “This just worked out to where I could utilize both and get some cleanup done. That’s one of the more empowering things.”

Wyatt grew up in Portland and is well known in the Pacific Northwest for his music career as a hip hop artist, emcee and songwriter. He expressed his beliefs about equality and justice with his former band Speaker Minds. Most recently Wyatt toured with Gangstagrass, a band that combines hip hop with bluegrass.

This young father was a social worker for over ten years, working at Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, Community Healing Initiative, Folk-Time, Latino Network and Portland Youth Builders. He worked with youth incarcerated within the juvenile justice system. Along the way, he earned a degree at Portland State University in Social Science with a double minor in Black Studies and Sociology. Without much guidance, he took the road of being a youth mentor and found his own path, which eventually led to starting Taking Ownership PDX.

“Last year we raised $963k and served 115 homeowners and small business owners through our home improvement program, business grant program and volunteer program. The volunteer program served 52 homeowners and did just over $50k in free labor,” Wyatt said. The organization is growing to serve a long list of folks who need help with home projects. This could be anything from clearing blackberries to cleaning up indoors, replacing windows, roofs and flooring along with electrical work and carpeting. They find people in their community, people are referred by neighbors and friends and anyone can sign up on the website with the home referral form.

At about 10:00 on a cloudy Saturday morning in February five volunteers showed up at a cul de sac in NE Portland to clear brush and trim trees at the home of an elderly woman recovering from RSV. People trimmed trees in the backyard and cleared blackberries with pruning shears and clippers. Branches piled up and were loaded on the truck. The atmosphere was cheerful and industrious, typical for a crew helping with Taking Ownership PDX.

There is currently a list of over 300 volunteers and more projects in the future as Taking Ownership PDX continues to grow. Financial as well as material donations are welcome. Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up here.

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