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Birth of a Beach, Audrey McCall Beach {Part 3 of 3}

May 23, 2019

By Ringleader Willie Levenson


In the first two parts of this story about the forming of Audrey McCall Beach, HAP worked to address the creativity gap to unearth a beach (Part 1) that was buried in concrete, rip-rap, and abandoned pilings (Part 2).

The aspect of activism I love the most is cultivating and sharing encouragement and support from peers. Collaborating with peers to solve problems. These peers who do thankless work, inspire me with their daring to care.They are gluttons for disappointment, yet eternal optimists. They fight for seemingly impossible outcomes against all odds — artists looking to shape the culture of how our community interacts with the natural world. Many of these people work much harder and longer and make greater sacrifices than I. These are the kind people who lift me up when I have a hard day. 

Very naively, when I entered the world of activism and made a conscious decision to get off the couch and take action to affect matters that are important to me, I figured that the environmental and political community would embrace me (and this concept of HAP) and be excited that there was a new team member with an earnest desire to contribute in this eco-system. It did not start out that way.


Make no mistake, people with power generally do not surrender it easily, or make room for others. I don’t think it’s conscious for a lot of people, but in a practical sense, it is tempting to make decisions with fewer people chiming in on how to get something done. It makes decision making simpler. HAP was left out with no seat at the table, an unknown quantity. There are no shortcuts to getting a seat at the table. It’s the hard work of paying your dues, being effective, getting things done, pushing through trying moments of adversity.


It occurred to me early on that what I wanted more than anything was to earn some benefit of the doubt. I knew it would take some time but this was critical in getting things done. If you cannot have some base level of trust with people you work with, it is not possible to collaborate to develop creative solutions, critical in solving hard problems. There were lots of new people to get to know. I decided I would seek out and put energy toward people who did get our work and provided encouragement.


I stood true to what I believe to be the science of politics. As a rule of thumb, outside of the rare occurrence when a politician champions your work, politicians do not like taking risks. However, if a constituency can be developed that believes in your work, it becomes riskier for politicians to ignore this constituency. Conversely, your cause may then be viewed as something that will benefit them.


So I had a path. Get to know people that can help. Work to earn the benefit of the doubt. Be strategic and develop a base of people who see the value in HAP’s work and have faith that it will lead somewhere.


I put together a PowerPoint presentation and started to make the rounds to share what HAP wanted to do: Transform Portland’s Relationship with the Willamette River. Our vision: A City in Love with its River. I shared the idea that people protect what they love. I emphasized that there is much more work to do on our river, but that it is a good thing to celebrate that our river is swimmable and to cultivate pride and love for our river.


To demonstrate HAP’s ability to get things done, I would point to the Audrey McCall Beach concrete removal and the progress at Poet’s Beach, and the rising attendance at The Big Float and growth of the River Huggers, our daily summer “recreational protest” swim team. Some people got this message and our work right off the bat. Some were just polite, but dismissive.


I made the rounds at City Hall. I received a lot of polite encouragement but no action. It seemed to go nowhere. At one point, I must have made some headway. I was asked by Mayor Hales Office to testify at City Hall about the Willamette River. I was told it would be helpful. At that moment in time I felt like I had said everything I could say over and over again to City Hall, which I nicknamed “The Temple of No”. Testifying once more felt humiliating for myself and the river. But I didn’t want anyone to say, “If only you would have testified”. So I figured I might as well try something new to make an impression. In that spirit and somewhat in the spirit of my own personal protest to what I viewed as City Hall indifference, I wrote a song and decided I would make City Council listen to it. Keep in mind, I sang it (with some attempted harmony with a friend) with my very basic guitar skills. I thought my raw vulnerability might pierce their hearts a bit and demonstrate my earnestness, whatever it takes.


After singing to City Hall, I walked away and shifted gears. The implied message I took away by polite words with no action was, “We don’t care enough about your work yet. You have more work to do. You have made a lot of payments but you have not quite paid your dues. You have done enough work to get a meeting, but you have not developed enough of a base to demonstrate that your work can compete against the other important needs of the city.” I listened, and returned my focus to cultivating our base and continuing the search for champions. I reapplied energy to build on our successful, creative programming and develop access points to the river.


I continued to knock on new, unexplored doors. As I was networking, time and time again I kept being told I needed to meet former City Commissioner, Mike Lindberg. He was a champion for the Willamette River and could be an ally. Everyone loved him. A meeting was set up and we met. For anyone who has had the good fortune to know or work with Mr. Lindberg, it is no surprise that I was immediately disarmed and charmed by his good nature. We got along famously. Right off the bat, Mike saw the value of HAP’s work and became an instant champion, mentor and advisor. After that initial meeting I was struck that maybe Mike’s secret sauce in getting things done and his good reputation is that he is a very nice person. That meeting informed my advocacy voice. I committed myself to be civil, transparent, honest and fun. Maybe nice guys can finish first. Plus, I didn’t want to grow into a grump!


But wait, you might be thinking — “Hey, I thought this was about Audrey McCall Beach?” OK ... I am getting back to the beach!


The year was 2015.We had now been removing concrete chunks for the prior two summers and Audrey McCall Beach was showing potential. At that time, there was a surplus in the City Hall budget. Mr. Lindberg suggested that we make a renewed run at City Hall with a proposal to fund a study to create a beach park at the Audrey McCall Beach site. He helped me write up a proposal. Board member Mike Faha, Principal of the landscape architecture firm GreenWorks, offered to create a rendering for the presentation of the future beach park. We then submitted it to Mayor Hales Office. A little time passed and I was invited into a meeting with Mayor Hales, the meeting went extremely well and ultimately led to $300,000 of funding towards a community process to design a beach park.

From a political perspective, what I have learned is that you will have better chemistry with some people than others. You don’t need everyone to love you, but it’s very helpful to have at least one champion in each bureau or agency. They are out there, you just have to find them! It’s a better use of time to try to find the people who get your work than to spend time trying to convince someone that your work has value. If someone does not get what you are doing, move on and have faith that at some point they will come along.


It’s important to seek out people who share your values. In time, your own critical mass of peers will form around these values. The work of earning the benefit of the doubt is never over, but I am proud to say HAP’s work and actions have earned some level of benefit of the doubt, and frequently a seat at the table. This makes advocacy work more fun and productive, although as the stakes and expectations increase, the work continues to be fully engaging and rewarding when things get done.


The greatest thrill of my work is seeing the empowerment of people that get our message and run with it. Witnessing people playing in our river, evangelizing and having a renewed sense of stewardship for our environment. I am grateful to you (who took the time to read this to the end!) for supporting HAP’s work and being a part of the Riverlution. We’ve faced many obstacles, but our collective effort is making an impact.We may fall short, but who knows, it may truly transform our community’s relationship with the Willamette River. Thank you for daring to care and your willingness to try.


Stay tuned for the next installment — from planning to present day.