“Programs don’t change people, people change people, period. And the only way you’re gonna change another person’s life is you gotta be nearby and be available to build relationships.”
Whatever you pay attention to grows
For longtime coach, mentor and pastor Eric Knox, building a community of support and developing young men and women into the next generation of community leaders is a calling that drew him to Portland over 30 years ago.
Before coming to Oregon and playing on the men’s basketball team at Oregon State University, Eric grew up in the streets of South Central Los Angeles—home to vibrant Black businesses and middle-class families, yet with too many external distractions for a young man who dreamed of hooping in the league one day. His opportunity to tryout with the Portland Trailblazers arrived in the late 80s, and although he didn’t make the roster, he did find respite in Northeast Portland, eventually feeling called to minister basketball and the Bible—and mentorship.
“Coming from South Central LA, North/Northeast Portland actually helped me find myself, it helped me become the kind of man I wanted to become,” says Coach Knox. “Portland has a pretty eclectic Black community, but I think to a certain degree it suffers from not having a solid Black middle-class community with an abundance of doctors, business owners, activists and artists.”
He was intentional about his time, energy and purpose from tipoff. He invested in the local community, buying his first house near Northeast 16th and Shaver. He worked with a local church to organize pick-up basketball with kids from the neighborhood followed by a Bible study, feeding both the soul and the jump shot. Fast forward to now, as he’s the head coach for the Benson High School girls’ basketball team and founder of Holla Mentors, Coach Knox has been able to guide generations of Portland youth, creating experiences and exposure to new careers and possibilities.
“You know, as I mentor, a lot of Black kids see their only opportunity as a rapper or a ballplayer; they have not been exposed to other opportunities,” he says. “There’s also an exclusionary history in Portland that has kept the city from economically growing at a rate that other mid-sized cities have, in terms of the Black community.”
Looking ahead to future infrastructure projects in the region, Eric is able to connect the dots and encourage students to look beyond the court and pore over the possibility of a career in architecture, engineering or construction.
“The way you inspire a kid to be interested in these jobs, or anyone who wants to make a career pivot, is you gotta expose them to the industry. And if you can find someone that looks like them, that comes from the same community and understands their experience—man, that that is the inspiration that these kids need. A lot of them don’t get those opportunities.”
Recently, Eric invited a high school student to sit down with Jeff Moreland—the owner of Raimore Construction. The three met at Raimore’s main office on Martin Luther King Boulevard to learn more about the industry. Jeff gave them more than just a casual introduction to careers in construction, presenting to them as if they were an official client. Then came a moment Eric will never forget.
“[Raimore] had a project up the street from this kid’s house, so when I was taking the kid home, we approach the project site and the kid sees a truck and turns to me and asks, ‘Is this Raimore?’ I nodded and they were floored!” he says. “That kid was able to make the connection between this project happening down the street from his house and meeting the CEO of that company, who is Black. That’s invaluable, you can’t put a price tag on that kind of experience.”
At 55 years old, Eric has experienced enough of his own wins and losses to know it take a village to raise a child. “Whatever you pay attention to grows,” he says. Eric cites a book by Paulo Freire—Pedagogy of the Oppressed—when he talks about one of the most important things you can do when you teach, educate or mentor: help others think critically about their conditions.
“At the end of the day, programs don’t change people, people change people, period. The only way you’re gonna change another person’s life is you gotta be nearby and be available to build relationships.”
Eric remains optimistic an ecosystem of Black economic empowerment and entrepreneurship will continue to grow and thrive. “I think the best days that the Black community are ahead of itself. Despite gentrification and displacement, I see as things are growing here in our city, I see the Black community growing as well. And I think there’s gonna be some beautiful things happening.”