Atia Werah ’18 Wins Lions Club Speak-Out

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Following is the text of Atia Werah’s winning speech at the Lions Club Speak Out:

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the doctor will say things like “I’m afraid there is bad news”, or they will tell you that this is not a death sentence and they’re doing everything they can but it is difficult. Cancer is when the abnormal cells grow and spread very quickly. Sometimes, these cells group together forming tumors that cause damage to the body’s healthy tissues. Often, these cells break away causing damage to other parts of the healthy body, and this is the best definition of gentrification that I can give.

I live in a city where they are tearing down neighborhoods quicker than they are building affordable living. For families of color, gentrification is an execution; because you can’t renovate a neighborhood without burying the people already living there. When the new white residents call the police on children of color for “suspicious behavior”, they are trying to stop our heartbeat. When they complain that the athaan in the Masjid rings too loud, they’re trying to strip our community of its religious diversity.

To gentrify is to take the body and gut it. It’s to treat the entire city like a slaughterhouse, and these butchers don’t even have the decency to make use of the entire carcass. The city will not care that our families will not be able to afford the $10 cup of coffee at the local store or shop at the Whole Foods, as the cancer will not care that the body will never be whole again.

In our own city of Portland, the East End is being transformed in front of our own eyes. For those who don’t know, the police department is receiving more calls by white residents who moved into gentrified neighborhoods. As a result, they’re sending more police to patrol these vulnerable environments, despite there being no increase in crime. Families of color who are the majority in these neighborhoods will begin to feel like there is no way to escape being targeted unless they move, and so they do.

There’s a saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So when families of color are told they have 30 days to move out of their homes because the city is tearing their apartment complex down, and beautifying what it was before at a higher price, I wonder… what are these people seeing? Because this concrete won’t forget whose blood built it; and this dirt is nothing but an accumulation of our footprints, something the rain can’t wash out. Our neighborhoods are more than your vacation home. Our neighborhoods are a space where we share beautiful moments. These cracked streets and wired fences are a physical representation of our imperfect world. What they saw was the beauty of integration, but we saw the horror of elimination.

Gentrification is an attempt to beautify our city by removing its own inhabitants. They say gentrification is an attempt to clean up our streets, but they are really trying to clean up our people. People of color are becoming outsiders within their own community. It’s important to keep in mind that gentrification might make a neighborhood beautiful, but only for a select few people. If we truly believe in improving and redeveloping our neighborhoods, we must do so for everyone – regardless of social, racial, or economic status. Essentially, beauty cannot exist in the eyes of one person, when it impacts a whole people. Instead, it must be a collective vision that encapsulates the beauty of all.