Tony Hopson Hopes Historic $400M Investment Will “Make the Difference” for Black Portland

Phil and Penny Knight’s investment in the newly established 1803 Fund is earmarked for the fund’s Rebuild Albina project.

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Last week Phil and Penny Knight pledged to invest $400 million to help rebuild Portland’s historically Black Albina neighborhood. It’s the founding investment in the 1803 Fund, described on its website as a fund that will “combine elements of private investing and philanthropy to create a fund focused on helping people thrive and communities prosper.”

The fund is new but led by a team well known in North and Northeast Portland: CEO Rukaiyah Adams was, until last summer, the investment chief at Meyer Memorial Trust and is the founding board member of the Albina Vision Trust, which also has a mission to restore the historic lower Albina neighborhood. The fund’s board members include Larry Miller, chair of Nike’s Michael Jordan brand; Ron Herndon, founder of the Portland chapter of the Black United Front, CEO of Albina Head Start and president of the National Head Start Association; and Tony Hopson, founder and CEO of Self Enhancement, Inc., a Northeast Portland nonprofit that supports at-risk youth.

Oregon Business spoke with Hopson about how the investment happened and what’s on the horizon for the 1803 Fund.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

What’s the backstory behind this investment?

I think it’s twofold. I think this is a combination of a 40-year career for me, a 40-plus-year career for Ronnie Herndon, and the work that we’ve done through our respective agencies during that time, and because of both of us being connected to Nike and being connected to Phil Knight — for much of that 40 years — through their support of our respective agencies. Phil and Penny personally provided support over the years. So you have many, many years of relationships that are growing and mutual respect — for what he was doing in the philanthropy world and what we were doing in terms of our services. That’s kind of part one.

Then you get to George Floyd, you get to Black Lives Matter. Nike — as well as many others — decides that they want to do something, to put resources back into the Black community. So with Nike’s $40 million [investment in 2020] and the Jordan brand’s $100 million [investment the same summer], Phil gave me a call to let me know that that was happening, because he felt like we should be involved with whatever was going to occur in Portland through those resources.

I mean, you know, $100 million over 10 years and $40 million over four years from Nike is a nice investment. But I just felt like something more substantial was going to be necessary for us to truly impact the African American community. So I asked him, would he and Penny consider something larger for the Black community of Portland? And he didn’t say no. He said, “Well, what would that look like?”

So when he said that to me, I contacted Ronnie Herndon and Rukaiyah Adams, who is actually an alumnus of SEI and Albina Head Start. We started the conversation of what that might look like so that we can take something back to the field for a larger gift. Long story short, [Phil] said yes. After over a two-and-a-half-year period of time going back and forth — and many, many, many conversations that included others like Larry Miller and Nike CEO John Donahoe and others — we were able to get to a point of him saying, yes, he wanted to make that kind of investment.

You mentioned that Nike and the Knights have both been really supportive of Northeast Portland in the past. Can you give some examples of that?

Well, I’m saying they’ve been supportive of us [SEI and Albina Head Start]. I don’t know what all he’s done in Northeast Portland. But Nike has supported SEI, the agency that I run. They were the first corporate sponsor back in 1981. They have provided tennis shoes, T-shirts, awards and cash donations to SEI every year from 1981 to the present. Then, as we as we were looking at expanding our services — I don’t even know when this was, maybe 2007 or 2008 or something along those lines — Phil did a $5 million gift to SEI, which also supported our only replication in Miami, the Overtown Youth Center, which, you know, an NBA Hall of Famer, Alonzo Mourning, actually hits up. So he made that gift at that point in time, but Nike has continued to provide ongoing resources throughout.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the 1803 Fund? This is brand-new, right?

It is an investment entity, such that we will be taking some of those real resources to do some investment and development, so the resources can actually come back to the fund. I mean, $400 million certainly is a large chunk of change. But, you know, you can make that go away pretty quick depending on how you use it. And we want this to be sustainable over a very long period of time. So therefore, [Adams] has some ideas with her financial and investing background as to how we might take some of those resources to invest in a way that resources would come back to the entity — as we continue to provide services in the education arena, the cultural arena and then the place arena.

Are there any specifics that you can share as far as conversations that you’ve had, or even just general areas where you’re looking to invest?

Well, the general areas are those three. With education, Ronnie and I, that’s our background. And we’re the reason why the resources were brought to bear, and the community feels belief and confidence in the work that we’ve been doing. The foundation of the educational services will come out of our two programs. But we’re smart enough to know that we can’t do this by ourselves, so there will definitely be conversations with other partners who are doing good work within the African American community of the Portland metropolitan area.

This isn’t the first time there’s been some money that’s been brought to the community, certainly, but we’ve never seen $400 million. But when you bring money, if you do it the same way that has been done in the past, then you can expect possibly the same result. We make a difference but we don’t make the difference — the outcomes don’t change much. So we’re going to take our time.

There’ll be a lot of folks that will want to know, “Well, how are you going to spend the money? Who are you going to work with?” We want to take our time to design an effort that is different, one that is collaborative, one that includes partnerships — but one that is put together in such a way that we can drill deeper into the root causes of what is occurring in our Black community. We want to be able to go deeper and wider and serve more individuals.

I think one of the reasons we’re so excited about this in Portland [is because] there’s only something like 66,000 or 67,000 African Americans in the Portland metro area. That’s a doable number to get your arms around and change the game for that population. Unlike going to Chicago or L.A. or New York, or many other big cities — the numbers are just staggering. But the numbers here are not. We already serve 16,000 African Americans through our program already, and Ronnie serves several thousand. So we feel like, with the right design of activities that go from early childhood to adults, we can put something together that, as I said, makes the difference — instead of just making a difference.

Is the focus going to be on North and Northeast Portland? With gentrification, the Black population of Portland is kind of all over the metro area. Are you interested in services in East Portland?

We have to be. We don’t know what the numbers are now. But there would be many data that would say that there are more African Americans who live in East Portland than live in Albina. I mean, the first project was being touted as, you know, rebuild Albina — and we’re OK with that as a start. Certainly, historically, that’s where the African Americans resided, and there are some things that need to happen there to rebuild. But certainly, if we’re talking about changing the game for African Americans, there’s no way you can just stay in the Albina area and reach the population we’re talking about — because there are such a large number of them who do not live in Albina and will never have the opportunity to come back. We hope that by rebuilding Albina, there will be some opportunities for many of them to come back, but certainly not all. So yes, these services will extend beyond Albina. It may start there, but it will certainly, over time, be very inclusive of the African Americans throughout the Portland metro area.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I’m saying this to every reporter I talk to, because I’m waiting for somebody to say no, that’s not true. I believe — we believe — that this is the largest private gift ever given to an African American community in the history of Black America, in the history of this nation. So there’s something to be said for those of us who have been working on this and put this together, and for Phil and Penny night to make the difference. This magnitude is really very historical in our nation. So I’m waiting for somebody to say “No, somebody in Chicago did XYZ.” No one has said that yet. So I’m going to keep saying that until somebody tells me there’s something different.