Making Silverton better: Encouraging diverse voices is one step

February 2021 Posted in Community

By Melissa Wagoner

It was a happy accident when John Pattison stumbled upon the town of Silverton on Christmas Eve 2009. But it wasn’t an accident he stayed.

“My wife Kate and I both grew up in smaller towns,” Pattison explained. “We were living in Portland and felt drawn back to rural life. But we also wanted to stay close to family in Portland and Salem. Over the course of about 18 months, we looked at seemingly every small town in the Willamette Valley – or so we thought, because somehow Silverton was never on our radar.”

That fateful first encounter is now 12 years in the past, but the attachment Pattison felt that first night is still just as strong.

“Silverton has so much going for it,” he enthused, “a walkable downtown, proximity to the state park, natural beauty, great businesses, and so on. But my favorite thing about living here is the people.”

A self-proclaimed, “community practitioner” and author, Pattison has written extensively about community, both in his book, Slow Church, as well as through his work as Content Manager with Strong Towns – a nonprofit aimed at inspiring communities to embrace the changes and adaptations that can make them stronger. And it is through this lens that Pattison is now – 12 years into his residency – able to objectively appreciate Silverton’s strengths while, at the same time, recognizing its challenges.

“When I describe Silverton to out-of-town friends and colleagues, something that consistently impresses them – and often makes them jealous – is how often our town gets together,” Pattison said. “In normal years, in the spring and summer, it seems like there’s always some festival, parade, or shindig going every weekend… And non-Silvertonians kind of can’t believe how often the town eats together in normal times… It’s very special”

But not all people feel welcomed or included in events such as these, as Manuel Borbon, a Mission Developer for Immanuel Lutheran Church who moved to Silverton with his wife two years ago, has seen firsthand.

“I personally love Silverton,” Borbon said. “But I’m in a privileged position. I am bilingual, bicultural and I have a leader’s role.”

Which is decidedly not the case for everyone. Many, as Borbon has discovered – whether due to feelings of discomfort, disconnection or even sometimes fear – do not take part in the amenities their community offers.

“The people that live here, they go under the radar,” Borbon said. He sits on the board of SACA and offers a view on why so few Latinos take advantage of this and other organizations that might benefit them.

“The reality is, our community has a group that is not willing to expose themselves and their family, even to get food. They prefer to feel safe.”

But while safety is one issue that needs to be addressed in order to make programs like SACA useful to the entire community, it is not the only detractor. There is still the matter of connection and belonging.

“There are people coming into town who don’t feel represented,” Borbon said. He noted that while there have recently been some steps toward remedying this – a proposed multi-cultural mural and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest among them – the city as a whole has a long way to go.

“It is through those public reflections that we feel related to a place,” Borbon said. “I believe our Latino community and the families that have a different ethnic background have had a hard time developing that connection regarding
our town.”

One way to achieve this freedom, Borbon believes, could be found in the encouragement of listening and respect.

“It’s an important part of developing intercultural relationships – respect and creating a space to listen,” he said. “We are so much about our assumptions. And when we are based on our assumptions, we lose the ability to relate to someone. We make people feel uncomfortable because instead of asking, we think we know. Listening gives us the opportunity to understand people. That’s one way of creating that safe environment in our community.”

Another way, according to Borbon, is the encouragement of diversity, in all ways, both cultural and otherwise.

“As a resident of this town, I do believe we can do more for diversity,” he said. “I believe there can be more expressions of openness and more places we can let our new generations know they are heard and appreciated.”

Silverton native Micole Olivas-Leyva agrees.

“We are strong when we are diverse and have a multitude of opinions and references,” Olivas-Leyva said when asked why diversity is important. “We really are poor if we don’t have diversity and have different experiences.”

An Asset Preservation Specialist with DevNW, an organization committed to supporting communities through financial counseling, education and affordable housing support, Olivas-Leyva has spent her career watching the trends in the rental and housing markets and their effect on the overall population.

“I’ve seen so many of my peers leave because they can’t afford to stay here,” Olivas-Leyva, 31, stated. “And the folks that do stay are increasingly marginalized because their population becomes less and less and less,” she observed.

That doesn’t mean there is no chance for remediation. In fact, according to Olivas-Leyva, quite the opposite is true.

“I feel so positive,” she said. “I feel based on the elected leadership that we have the majority of our citizens wanting to see affordable housing and diversity. And I’m seeing that folks are open to the examination of previous norms and policies. I really feel like – and I’ve felt like this from a young age – that Silverton has a small town feel and that we really care about each other.”

Pattison agrees.

“In my experience, Silverton is special for just the sheer number of people who are taking tangible, daily action to make it a better place. A problem arises and someone steps up to fix it. This is true at the organizational level – our churches, clubs, nonprofits, etc. – and at the personal: neighbor helping neighbor.”

Because solving problems doesn’t always mean an overhaul of the entire system all at once. In fact, Pattison suggests the best method to address most issues begins with a simple three-part process.

To start: “Humbly observe where people in the community struggle,” Pattison began.

“Ask the question: What is the next smallest thing we can do right now to address that struggle?”

After that, simply take those steps, without delay. And repeat.

“What I love about this is that it’s rooted in humility,” Pattison said. “It relies on small bets that can provide valuable feedback, and that it doesn’t end.”

It also doesn’t always necessitate building from the ground up. In fact, most community problem-solving can – and should – utilize organizations that are already in place.

One such possibility in Silverton is the local Grange, which has been running as since 1867. 

“The Grange is nice because it’s that nondenominational center where different people from different backgrounds can come together,” Cayla Catino, the 31-year-old president of the Silverton chapter, said.

“One of our values is to support our individuals and members to be political citizens and stand up for what they believe in…to be a place for dialogue. We really see a need for this in our community and our society – it’s not left or right, wrong or right but just having conversations and getting to know people on a deeper level. Our vision now is to be a community of neighbors.”

With that mission in mind during the summer of 2020, Grange members began searching for ways to be more inclusive of their Latino neighbors located in a farmworker housing complex near the Grange Hall.

The answer, they discovered, lay in common interests – in this case gardening.

“Last year we offered our garden space to them for free,” Catino said. “There are a lot of women and grandmothers who have agricultural roots. They so appreciated that and they could grow food in that little plot. We want to be a community of neighbors. Bridging that gap between us and our Spanish speaking neighbors in Silverton is huge.”

It is huge, agreed Borbon, who sees that seemingly small steps – the offering of garden space or even the support of a local, Latino-owned business – can have an inversely large impact.

“As a resident of this town, I do believe we can do more for diversity,” Borbon said. “I believe there can be more expressions of openness and more places where we can let our new generations know they are heard and appreciated.”

In order to be heard, he added, it is important to speak up. Borbon hopes more young, diverse leaders will step forward. Leaders like Olivas-Leyva.

“I think there’s a lot of people with good hearts and good intentions here in town willing to serve our whole community,” Borbon speculated. “But I believe in order to get that response we have to develop that trust. It’s not until you realize all the things people are going through that you can help and be – not just this nice little town where tourists come – but this place where people find a home.”

“We definitely need more voices at the table,” agreed Olivas-Leyva, who currently serves on the board of Sheltering Silverton and the Silverton Planning Commission.

“We want to hear from you. Your voice is important. I want folks to know that the invitation is there, and you should go and grab your seat.”

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