Don’t Wait For Permission to Make Change, Says Local Social Capitalist Rukaiyah Adams

"Rabble rouse. Because learning to disregard authority takes time and you guys don’t have time for that."

As one of the most influential investors on the west coast, Rukaiyah Adams believes there's only one way to differentiate herself from the profit-driven investment hive minds of New York and Chicago: better ideas.

As Chair of the Oregon Investment Council, she oversees $92 billion of public employee pension funds and state money. She is also the Chief Investment Officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, created from the Fred Meyer fortune, which has an investment portfolio of $750 million.

For Adams, better ideas means letting her core values of environmentalism and social justice guide investment. It means selling all of MMT's direct holdings in oil and switching to clean water investments. And it means investing in regional businesses owned by women and people of color instead of in foreign currency futures.

We sat down with her to talk about the roots of her philanthropic ideals and the intersection of environmentalism and race in Portland.

G!G: Who in your early life made you think about giving back to your community?

Rukaiyah Adams: When I grew up in Portland, the African American and Vietnamese and Pacific Islander communities were one community and people stretched a dollar by working together, so there was this sense of helping and pitching in. But specifically, my grandfather. He fought in World War II and Korea, and when he came home he was injured and didn't work full-time so his job in the community was basically to help. When Margaret Carter ran for her first election to the state house, he organized a group of kids to make sure that all the seniors and elders in the community could actually get to the polling place. I also remember him organizing us to read for older people that, frankly, couldn't read as well as we could, because a lot of them only went through second or third grade in the Jim Crow South before they moved here. We would come home from school and read the politics section of the newspaper to them. There was definitely a sense of communal help and a connection between very young people and very old people in Portland and society at that time—late 70s, early 80s. And it also was a more contained community, so we would grocery shop for older people if they needed it and I think it was him orchestrating the sense of connection to the community that I've sort of inherited and evolved to a larger scale.

His name was Cleon Hill, and my grandmother's name was Christine. The African Americans who came home from World War II planted the cherry blossom trees that are in East Portland. So, spring in Alameda on the east side, when all those trees bloom, those were the black wives of servicemen who wanted to beautify the community there in memory of all the horrible things that happened in World War II, including the interning of neighbors here in Portland. That generation of African American/black Portlanders, they wrote a love letter to us that we open every spring.

G!G: What geographic or social community in Portland is in greatest need of monetary help? And was that different in the early 80s?

Well, because of redlining I think we would have probably said the community that I grew up in looked as if it needed capital improvements. Having lived on the inside of it, it was quite different. I felt like it was really rich with creativity and the resource constraints created lots of innovative thinking—like my grandfather speaking to me in Italian. But now I think the community here I would say is Lower Albina, which is what you guys know of as the Rose Quarter. One, it's one of the last opportunities for central city development with an affordable plan and the opportunity to design a diverse community. After that part of the city, it's really over.

G!G: Your environmentalist side—is that something that's changed since you were young?

No, I think when I was 24 it wasn't as acute. But I'm an Oregonian—you're born here, you get a pair of Birkenstocks and a bill for the pension system and then you go off into the world. To live here and to be here, and to claim this as home culturally, and physically, is to be an environmentalist. To have played in the parks system that was designed for me to have access to wild spaces in the central city—I loved it. And that wasn't always richly divided as it is today. When I was a kid, the head of the parks bureau here was an African American man, Charles Jordan, and there was a woman who ran county parks the generation before who was a giant. So I never had the sense that I didn't have access to wild spaces and that I shouldn't be there or any of that nonsense. That's all, to me, relatively recent. I'm not quite sure where that's coming from.

When I was a kid, to recreate we would go to Sauvie Island or Kelly Point Park. And those are essentially shipping channels, right, so wealthy white people didn't want to want to be there. But that's why we wanted to be there — because we didn't want to be with them! And now that I'm privileged enough, I'm not recreating in shipping channels. I'm in other places. But I think where people went to recreate were really quite different. It was somewhat segregated, but we did all access the wild spaces. And when I was a kid, the chief of police was African American—Charles Moose. The head of the symphony was African American, James DePreist. So I didn't have the sense that the sort of, you know, "Portland is so white." And I still don't. But apparently that's true. Everyone in my family's black, so I'm like, I see lots of black people.

G!G: What's the status of Meyer Memorial Trust's project to create a real estate investment trust for low-income renters in North and Northeast Portland?

We're down to the last five points of negotiations. The idea is that, for young people, fee simple ownership of property is really hard to achieve, because you've got to save the 20% for down payment or if you're not wealthy and your parents can't give that to you, it can take a long time. And while you're trying to save, your community can basically grow around you and you can't afford to live by the time you've saved up for the down payment. I didn't buy my first house until I was 40. So, what if we could detach the concept of fee simple ownership from having an investment in your community? Basically, you could put in whatever you can and buy into a real estate investment trust—a REIT—and your REIT could own your building, it could own several buildings in your community, and in that way your 401K or your IRA, or whatever young people have, can have an incremental wedge of ownership instead of owning a full apartment or a full house. And in that way you can participate in the upswing in your community.

G!G: How would you encourage young Portlanders to be good citizens?

Don't wait for direction, approval, or permission. Don't wait. Tear this shit down. Just do something. If I could tell you guys to do anything, it would be vote. But don't have the sense that you have to be given a seat at the table or you have to be invited to the power lunch or whatever. Just show up. Rabble rouse. Because learning to disregard authority takes time and you guys don't have time for that.

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