💖 Talking “deep, pragmatic work that’s a little revolutionary” with Q Center

Folks, we’re ending Pride Month on a strong note: We had the honor of interviewing the executive director of the Q Center, Ian Morton, on how this nonprofit pivoted during the pandemic, what they’re doing to lift up fellow direct action organizations, how our city stacks up when it comes to serving LGBTQIA+ communities, and how you as a Bridgeliner reader can help.

You know you wanna scroll down — and we’re not going to stop you. 😉

Tell us, what is the Q Center and what services do you provide to LGBTQIA+ Portlanders?

Q Center is a physical center on Mississippi Ave. We provide information, referral services, resources — among other things — to Portland’s LGBTQIA+ community. One of our specific in-house focuses right now is food insecurity. We have a partnership with Hand Up Project where we produce a pantry every Monday, which we hope will become a permanent pantry soon. 

Partnerships are at the core of our service model and that manifests in a couple of different ways. 

We also work with 4D Recovery — they have a queer drug and alcohol recovery program person who’s stationed here now. We work with Brave Space and hold their supply of gender-affirming clothing for the free trans and non-binary store that is hosted in our parking lot. That’s the sort of thing we do in terms of services.

Many support and affinity groups have been hosted here at the Q Center but once COVID-19 hit, we moved in-person events to virtual and increased our Zoom channels to accomodate big meetings. And now, we’re slowly having people come back in here. Outside of that, when we’re fully reopened, we’ll be a drop in space where we have a library collection of about 6,000 queer titles you won’t find other places. We just hosted a vaccine event over the weekend, as well as a clean and sober Pride Parade viewing for folks who would have been compromised going to something like a mimosa brunch. 

It’s all about partnering with organizations with deep roots and creating space where you can manifest your dreams.

How long have you been helping these communities in Portland?

In some way, shape, or form, Q Center’s been arounds since around 2005. Hand Up Project started partnering with us right around the time COVID-19 started and these other partnerships have happened since then. 

Historically, Q Center has leveraged its offices toward queer organizations, but not necessarily ones providing a direct service. That’s my own goal: To take it one step farther and any space that we have should be leveraged toward that — anyone who walks in the door should be able to find something they need. And that’s a bit of a different vision than past directors have had. 

What was it like for the Q Center navigating the pandemic while still providing services?

Before COVID, we’d had a very robust number of meetings that were going on for folks in recovery, youth groups, groups for trans individuals, and groups for seniors. It was a big challenge to pivot quickly, especially with our senior services. One of our staff members has been really instrumental in building out those services. We are getting ready to launch a new project where we send purchased tablets, coloring books, and novels to LGBT seniors who’ve been isolated and need a way to connect.

So many of our groups have done well virtually and it’s allowed an expansion to happen — we’re seeing folks from rural Oregon who’ve been able to connect with their communities in a way they haven’t been able to before. That’s our dream — to have enough tech to allow for hybrid meetings where someone can still call into a meeting no matter where they live in Oregon.

Not only does the Q Center provide direct services to these communities, they also work as a directory to connect organizations with folks who need those services the most. (📸: Courtesy of Ian Morton)

When it comes to equity for the LGBTQIA+ community in Portland, how is our city doing (what’s good, what’s bad)?

That’s a big question — and it’s been an interesting experience for me personally to have as a new Portlander. What’s going well is that there are a lot of folks who have a true desire, whether it’s in activism or advocacy to help, when I sit down at the Mayor’s office to talk.

There are folks across the board who want to see this enacted and manifest in a way that lifts everyone up. I think that speaks a little bit to what the Q Center’s position should be. When we talk about equity — again, I get invited to tables that other folks are not going to, so the most important thing I can be doing is sitting down with boots-on-the-ground community members and activists who’ve been doing this work for years and have much better knowledge than I have. 

At the very least, my voice should be a reflection of their needs and desires. When I’m at my best, I should be saying to folks in power, “Sure, I’ll come to your table, but it’s also important that these folks come with me, and we make this introduction.” 

I think that trying to broker a sense of community and collaboration is something that is very important to me. I understand that there are so many systemic issues that are barriers to true equity. Those systems are not going to be shut down overnight. We can march against them and say they should be, but there also needs to be pragmatism — as long as we have to work within these systems, how do we create equity? When I’ve looked around Portland, within queer organizations, I would say professional development is one piece that is really missing.

And that is what I’m working with partners to try and build now — to look for funding for things like that. I don’t want to replicate things that are already working — I’d prefer to ask those folks “Hey, can you spend a couple days a month here at Q Center doing the work you do really well instead of me trying to duplicate your position and be in competition?”

Because that competition doesn’t serve anybody. Professional development is one of those pieces that I experienced myself. 

I went to Bible college out of high school, and I experienced a very violent assault my first year and was treated horribly by the administration. I ended up leaving college at 19, and I never got back into it full time until I was 43. That was my own story of having my career path derailed, and year after year, working two to three jobs at a time — entry level jobs, a cashier, a stock boy, a server, just trying to make ends meet. 

It took me a long time to get here, just doing the work and putting myself through school. I see that reflected in folks, whether they’re in the process of transitioning, and that getting derailed. Folks who are queer and coming out of incarceration. And folks like myself who experienced a major life event that knocked them off their path. Folks who are living with disabilities, people who are a part of the BIPOC community — how do we start equalizing that field and provide some of those services and some of that intel that you don’t get if you’re not at white, cisgender tables of power? 

The reason I know how to navigate what I do is because I’m biracial — my mom is white and my parents divorced, she and my stepfather moved us out to white suburbs — so I know how to navigate those tables and I know what those power structures look like, but that is not inherent to all people. So how do we start equipping folks to navigate toward equity and also use our position to challenge what those systems look like? 

I know that’s a long answer to your question — we’re trying to do a lot of deep work that is both pragmatic and a little bit revolutionary. 

What are some things that our city needs to improve on when it comes to helping these communities?

From what I know there are more staff members specifically around LGBTQIATS+ inclusion when it comes to city staffing. Which is a good first step!

I’ve had a few conversations with them, and they do come to a monthly queer roundtable that we host, where we invite all LGBTQ+ folks to the table in order to hear each other. Those are good first steps. The next step is having listening sessions that are transparent in their action. 

There has to be a plan, and there has to be specifics: “This is our plan, and this is the time we hope it will be enacted.”

Going back to discussing challenges — there’s still dissonance between how does a police force represent itself to someone who is struggling in their life and suddenly they are faced with an individual with all of the trappings of authority that could represent anything to them, based on their experiences? 

I have had those conversations with folks — everyone is the hero of their own story, so I don’t doubt that there are many well-intentioned police officers in the world. What isn’t understood is that, once that uniform comes on, they look [to others] like the same person who kicked them down the street when they were a homeless queer youth. Or criminalized them for having to engage in sex for survival just to make ends meet. And I know that is a question around Pride and LGBTQ+ centers, most of us now don’t allow officers in our spaces in uniform, outside of them performing their duties. 

Having that understanding of what accountability and power represents and how that reflects on the city. Ultimately they are a city employee who is making choices that cause individuals harm. Having some sort of reconciliation of that dissonance is really difficult, and that’s the work that has to continue to happen. 

To have that discussion around figures of authority, what does it mean for you to choose to experience that same helplessness, that lack of weapons, the lack of trappings of authority, when you come into a space with folks who’ve experienced trauma from that authority. And those are deep, hard conversations to have, and then to determine how that actualizes itself. 

“We’re trying to do a lot of deep work that is both pragmatic and a little bit revolutionary.” — Ian Morton, Q Center. (📸: Courtesy of Ian Morton)

What are some of the best ways that Bridgeliner readers can support the Q Center and LGBTQIA+ Portlanders?

As we get ready to open, we’ll be doing a volunteer drive — and a lot of organizations will be doing that as well. At Q Center, one of my commitments, as we rise, if we aren’t pulling up other organizations with us, we’re doing it wrong. 

If there’s something you care about, you can reach out to me and ask, “how can I help make that happen?” If you reach out to me and say “I want to give you a donation to fund youth services,” I’ll tell you, “We have a youth group that meets regularly, but there are two other organizations that are directly doing that. I would love for you to have Q Center as part of your portfolio, but make sure if this is the thing you care about, here is the organization you can give to.”

If you want to support someone who is doing the fundamental work for Black and Brown communities, BIPOC communities, there are other people who deserve that funding more than us. 

Individuals who determine their passion and their talent — don’t be afraid to reach out and come and exist in those spaces. If you are not of the identity of the folks you want to be serving, come in with an open heart and an open mind. You’ll need to leave your ego at the door, and you’re going to get challenged sometimes, and you’ll feel uncomfortable, so be prepared for that. 

As a biracial man who has had some leadership in Black-led organizations, I have to do the same thing. I recognize that my level of privilege is different because of the way I look. Just be ready to have deep conversations, and if you’re challenged, be ready to respond with, “Thank you.” Go home and lick your wounds if you need to, but don’t let that stop you from coming back. 

Folks need to be ready to be uncomfortable if they’re really in it to help. 

A huge thank you to Ian for speaking with us for this interview. FYI — this upcoming Monday, June 28, the Q Center is partnering with Hand Up Project and Rudy’s Barbershop to host a spice donation market. Spices are often overlooked when donations come in for folks in need, and this market is all about making sure that donated food also tastes nourishing and delicious. Donations can be dropped off at the Q Center, 4115 N, Mississippi Street, between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. 

To learn more about Q Center and their services, follow this link.

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