By Lisa Loving, Hey! Neighbor
Already a member of the Eliot Neighborhood Association Board, entrepreneur Jimmy Wilson is the newest member of the NECN Board of Directors. Hey Neighbor! spoke with him recently about his vision of community leadership, his experience in the local business economy, and his family roots in North and Northeast neighborhoods.
Hey Neighbor! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Mr. Wilson.
HN!: What made you choose to be on the NECN board?
Jimmy Wilson: First of all, there was a vacancy there and I wanted to be connected to the larger community, not just Eliot — I wanted to be connected to all the boards. All the neighborhoods that are under the banner of NECN are the neighborhoods where I grew up, and I feel like I can be a good asset in that. And I didn’t see a number of people of color around that board? It could be that there is a lot of valuable information that needs to be shared — that the board doesn’t know — from a different perspective.
HN!: Can you talk about where you grew up and started your businesses?
JW: I’ve been in Portland, Oregon, all my life of 60 years. And that’s a lot of changes; right now I see that I’m one of the few still left, over on Williams and Vancouver Avenue, as a Black business owner — I’m one of the lone survivors. I’ve been doing this ever since 2003. Back then I started seeing a lot of us leaving? But I wanted to do business. I wanted to be an example. I wanted to be a role model. I wanted to let people of color know that we can survive in this, you know?
I had my start in business when our church had a Black-owned grocery store on Killingsworth and North Michigan Avenue. Bishop A A Wells gave me the opportunity to oversee that 28,000 square feet building with a promise: He said to don’t forget where you came from and to do unto others as I’m doing to you, help someone else. This is why I give back.
Then I started my own business — dry cleaning. And I found out that the dry cleaning wasn’t making a lot of money? So I decided to go ahead and do a food cart. And I started doing a food cart in 2006 and that went off really well. It started making more money than the dry cleaner.
And then I hooked up with a group called MESO (Minority Enterprise Systems of Oregon). That’s when I was over on Williams Avenue and Fremont. Then I moved from Williams and Fremont to Vancouver and Fremont — maybe a block away? And in moving a block away, I found out that my income dropped tremendously. Just a block away.
I didn’t want to get too discouraged but — my business was dying. And MESO hooked me up to a financial respirator machine. They hooked me up to a tube of training? They hooked me up to a tube of finance? They had a tube of “hang in there.” I had all these kinds of tubes hooked up to me? And then all of a sudden as I hung in there, I got back focus, the desire to want to quit left. I saw income coming in.
I was doing well with my first food cart and then I said: Maybe I should quit the food cart and just start renting the food cart out so that it could free me up with time? A lot of business owners don’t have a lot of time. So I leased the food cart out and every month it was giving me income and I didn’t have to be there (except when there was a problem I needed to come down and fix).
So I got another food cart and another food cart and I started leasing them out, and that was a revenue stream coming in. So I ended up with about seven food carts and they aren’t the fanciest, but they are sustainable. And that’s where I’m at now. I’m a food cart pod owner.
HN!: Talk a little bit about where you grew up. What was the neighborhood like?
JW: I grew up really in the King neighborhood. And then I moved over to the Piedmont area, over by the post office there.
But my upbringing was about survival, meaning that you live in a situation and you gotta deal with it at the time. You know? I wasn’t a bad guy, I’ve never been to jail. I never did anything that caused me to have to worry about looking behind my back. I always was a giver. Now that I’m older and I’m in the church, I’m involved in about 11 different areas — finance, the head deacon, I’m on the trustee board, I can go on and on and on with that list. As far as community ties go, I’m very involved with the Latino Network, the Laotian community, Chinese community, Ethiopian network, I’ve got some ties with a little bit of everybody in the community.
That’s why I’m on the NECN board — I want to be utilized in a way to make a difference. But you’ve got to let me be me? Because I’m solution-based. I tell a lot of people that I’m the aftermath of what the past did. I’m talking about wealth; I’m talking about health; I’m talking about the economy and what it coulda, woulda, shoulda. You say you wanna help? But what does that help really mean? What does that help really look like?
Because I’ve been speaking out a long time in the community. I’ve had my voice unheard. I’ve had my voice heard but not been given recognition for it. And that is a cold feeling; that is sad.
HN!: What issues do you see that are important in the neighborhoods?
JW: I think mainly, involvement. You have reasons why people get involved, you have reasons why people don’t get involved. And you’ve got to find out — for the core group — the reasons for that? Why aren’t people talking to people? Why aren’t people listening to people? Understanding how to have patience, and listening, are very important.