Land use activist remembered, at Portland City Council

See why many honored Bonny McKnight recently at a Portland City Council meeting, and learn why she’s also remembered for her volunteer work in outer East Portland …

At a 2008 event, Bonny McKnight, Co-Chair of the Russell Neighborhood Association, greets guests at the welcome table. East Portland news archive photo

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

The spare obituary listing, “Bonny McKnight; March 11, 1936 – January 7, 2019”, tells little about the woman reportedly died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 82.

A lifelong resident of outer East Portland, Bonny dedicated her abundant energy and intellect toward bettering her community, and speaking up for everyday neighbors.

Her public activism started with fighting the annexation of the unincorporated area of Multnomah County between the then-city-limits and Gresham, by chairing the Mid-County Future Alternatives Committee to create a new city. Although that effort failed, and annexation rolled across the area, Bonny became active in the city’s Neighborhood Association system, serving as Chair and Land Use Chair of the Russell Neighborhood Association.

Helping out at this Neighborhood Bulky Waste Clean-up event, Bonny McKnight checks in volunteers. East Portland News archive photo

For her leadership of the Citywide Land-use Group, which she organized and moderated until her passing, she received a Spirit of Portland Award in 2003.

In a volunteer capacity, Bonny worked with then-Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association Chair Mark White and other volunteers to revamp the East Portland Neighborhood Office (EPNO) newsletter, which had featured primarily neighborhood association meeting minutes and reports, into a full-color publication that included articles about many community organizations.

Volunteering with the EPNO Neighborhood Small Grant Committee, Bonny also insisted that community groups partner with neighborhood associations to help integrate and better serve both groups.

On March 20, friends and co-volunteers of Bonny gathered at Portland City Hall, where the Portland Commissioners allotted the group the first 15 minutes of the meeting.

Ron Glanville and East Portland Land Use Committee Chair Linda Bauer listen to stories told before the Portland City Council, honoring Bonny McKnight.

At a gathering in the Lovejoy Room, across the hall from the Portland City Council chambers, Ron Glanville recalled how he took over leadership of the Russell Neighborhood Association from Bonny.

“I guess you could say that I’ve been a ‘Bonny follower’ in that I also became active in the EPNO [now renamed the East Portland Community Office],” Glanville said. “This included taking leadership with our newsletter, and other outer East Portland projects that she started. Bonny was great woman, and I’ll long remember her.”

As this Portland City Council meeting gets underway, Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Amanda Fritz, Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Commissioner Nick Fish listen to stories told honoring the late Bonny McKnight. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty arrived later, after the session was underway.

As the City Council meeting began, Claire Carder, of the Maplewood neighborhood, said, “Bonny kept her fingers on the pulse of the city, and provided us with very good information; and she always seemed to know which issues were about to come to full boil.

“In honor of her, I am suggesting to the Office of Civic and Community Life [formerly known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement], in Commissioner Eudaly’s portfolio, create a ‘Bonny McKnight Award’ as part of the Spirit of Portland awards, to recognize an individual or organization who has done extraordinary work in the field of community engagement.”

In the Portland City Council Chambers, Linda Nettekoven, Claire Carder, Hannah Kuhn, Arlene Kimura, Linda Robinson, Roberta Jortner, Maryhelen Kincaid, and Mary Sipe remember Bonny McKnight.

Many of the speakers focused on Bonny McKnight’s efforts to keep people engaged in land-use planning issues – including former City staffer Hannah Kuhn. “She was passionate about our Portland; Bonny believed our city could be livable – while protecting the environment, preserving historic homes, and extending sidewalks to all corners of our community.”

Also crediting Bonny for her work to in outer East Portland were Hazelwood neighborhood leaders Arlene Kimura, Linda Robinson.

A stalwart land-use issues volunteer, Maryhelen Kincaid, of the East Columbia neighborhood, shared several stories about working with Bonny over the years.

Maryhelen Kincaid shares a note about Bonny recently sent to her from former Mayor Sam Adams.

“Former Mayor Sam Adams sent me a message, adding it that it may not be something to share, but I will anyway,” Kincaid said with a mischievous smile.

“Sam wrote, ‘I always knew how much trouble I was in, [measured] by the thickness of the folders Bonny brought to my office’.”

Adams also wrote, Kincaid read his message aloud,

I’m so very sad to hear about Bonny’s death. She did so much good for so many people. The countless hours that she gave for outer East Portland, and all Portlanders, to get fair treatment, smart land-use planning, and distribution of services, is a loss to all of us. God bless her. I hope she is at peace knowing what an inspiration she was to us in so many other civic minded people.”

Looking at the timer, Kincaid said, “Bonny requested no memorial service, so this 15 minutes is kind of scaring me. It’s a full moon, the Ides of March, the first day of spring – and here we are, doing something that Bonny didn’t want done!”

While statues and plaques in honor of someone are okay, the memory of Bonny McKnight deserves more, Kincaid asserted. “We need to work to continue her legacy of advocacy and action, to make this world a better place; she’d like that.”

Responding to hearing the many memories of Bonny McKnight is Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

“I want to thank you for coming here to remember Bonny McKnight; we all have, in some way, been touched with her great volunteer experience,” remarked Mayor Wheeler. “The way that Bonny could communicate complicated ideas, and simplify the choices we had to make, and what her options were, was highly valuable to me.

“Secondly, look at all the leaders that are here in this room, who were all inspired by one person,” Wheeler continued. “This is not a government official; not somebody who ‘on paper’ would be seen as having a great prominence. But her activism and passion in the community in which she lived, and her desire to make it a better place, made this incredible impression on everybody she came in contact with.”

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish reminisces about Bonny McKnight.

“Once are introduced to Bonny, you become a lifelong correspondent; and I was the beneficiary, even before I was elected, of regular tutorials by Bonny,” said Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish.

Fish said Bonny provided “Lots of nudging, lots of advocacy work; there was no one else like her who was focused and persistent on land-use issues from a citywide perspective. And she was the most knowledgeable person I’ve ever dealt with from the community.”

Commissioners Eudaly and Hardesty said that, although they’d never known McKnight, they acknowledged her work in the community, calling her, and the females who testified, “empowered women”.

Fighting back tears when talking about Bonny McKnight is Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

“Bonny was a strong woman, she was my friend, and I thank all of you for coming here,” said Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz with dewy eyes.

Fritz talked about having monthly lunches with Bonny at Old Wives Tales, and other conversations. “The last phone call that I had with her, we just laughed and talked; she had a wonderful philosophy that inspired so many of us.”

Fritz also commented that several speakers had also honored Alice Blatt at the morning’s celebration of McKnight. “One of the important lesions I learned from Alice is the importance of just ‘showing up’ – at important meetings. If only for a few minutes, Alice showed up,” she recalled.

Christina Scarzello shares thoughts about Bonny McKnight.

Although she didn’t speak in Chambers, retired Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability planner Christina Scarzello, a close friend of Bonny who regularly visited her at her assisted living facility, spoke afterward.

“Bonny was interested in everything, even the homeless issue,” Scarzello said.

Together at a joint Russell Neighborhood Association and Wilkes Community Group National Night Out event are Bonny McKnight and Alice Blatt. East Portland news archive photo

“A funny thing I’ve always remembered about Bonny and Alice Blatt, who we’re also honoring today. When Bonny was getting involved in Columbia Slough issues, Alice would always show up to make sure that Bonny was talking about the ‘right stuff’ and, and ‘not go over too far in one direction or another’ while she monitored Bonny,” Scarzello recalled.

On a personal note, years ago, when this reporter started “reporting to, and advocating for outer East Portland”, Bonny was the first neighborhood association leader who spoke with me at length.

Bonny filled me on her view of how local government worked, told of otherwise hidden agendas and motives of elected officials and groups, and pointed out potential political snares – helping me navigate and better understand the area.

Although her stories occasionally seemed implausible, bordering on fantastic – over time, every story, data-point, and piece of information turned out to be absolutely, 100% true.

When we talked on the telephone about a week before she passed away, this reporter felt embarrassed when, in a weak voice, Bonny thanked my for my efforts in reporting, publishing East Portland News, for my part time work with EPNO, and for helping her try to start a city land-use planning website – a project that yet remains unfunded.

So, I’m glad I had the opportunity to thank her for her advice, friendship, and counsel. I’ll always appreciate you, Bonny.

© 2019 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News™



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