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Service in Stumptown

Rotary Club of Portland, Oregon

Portland club members (from left) Blake St. Onge, Kate Ertmann, Ruth G. Shelly, and Maynard Orme.

Image credit: NashCo

As a conservation biologist, Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo, has fed hungry condors and coaxed polar bears to walk on a treadmill for the sake of climate science. The group of sandwich-eating humans he’s speaking to today are comparatively docile. But they do ask tough questions.

After hearing Moore’s talk on the zoo’s conservation efforts at a special off-site meeting of the Rotary Club of Portland, Maynard Orme approaches the microphone. “Do you think we’re going to lose a lot of those endangered species, or can we save many of them?” he asks. “I’m just very curious, because it scares me to death.”

Moore, who has spent decades studying our warming planet and booming population, says it scares him, too. But he adds: “You can’t be a conservation biologist without being an optimist. I’m optimistic on some level that humans can change their behavior and can change technology so that all of those species don’t go extinct.”

If Moore’s message is that humans can save the day, he is speaking to the right crowd. The Portland club, one of the largest Rotary clubs in the world with more than 200 members, has the people power to solve daunting problems locally and globally. The club’s 22 committees work on issues such as homelessness, domestic violence, and global conflict. “The opportunities that we have in front of us to positively affect our communities with our service work as Rotarians — near and far — are truly limitless,” Kate Ertmann said when she took office as club president.

Members are heeding that call in a number of ways. The club’s current showcase project is a youth treatment and activities center designed to address the roots of homelessness. Project 2020, developed in partnership with a regional nonprofit that provides child and family services, will be a community center that provides treatment services, recreation opportunities, and group meeting spaces for local families struggling with issues related to mental health, addiction, and housing instability.

Although Portland has its share of big-city problems, it feels less urban than some other big cities. Its downtown is flanked by lush residential neighborhoods where a disproportionate number of hardy bike commuters brave the often-wet weather to reduce their carbon footprint. The Rotary Club of Portland holds its regular meetings in the Grand Ballroom at the elegant Sentinel Hotel, which, like the club itself, dates to the early 1900s. It’s within walking distance of Portland landmarks like Powell’s Books and the Willamette River waterfront, as well as numerous places to stop for an artisanal doughnut, a locally roasted coffee, or a craft beer.

In addition to supporting the club’s service goals, Ertmann has a broader mission for her presidential year: defining Rotary for today’s Portlanders. “I want to clarify the public perception, across generations and industries, of who we are now in the 21st century,” she said in late June.

Today, about a quarter of the club’s members are women, and a third are under 50. The club’s U40 program, a four-year-old leadership development program, brings in 10 to 12 under-40 members each year. Ertmann hopes that when those members see their peers in leadership roles, it will “get that snowball of representation rolling,” she says. “If you don’t see it, it doesn’t seem as possible.”

Blake St. Onge can attest to the program’s success. He joined in 2015, when then-President Agustin Enriquez invited him to be part of the club’s first U40 cohort. St. Onge’s dad and grandfather had been Rotarians, but he had never looked into joining. “Through this U40 program, it was much better because it was joining with my peers,” he says.

Ertmann wants to help members form a bond with Rotary that will stay with them no matter where they go.

Each U40 member is paired with a Rotary mentor and elected to co-chair a club committee. St. Onge ended up co-chairing the U40 program in 2017-18 and has chaired it ever since. “I really like that focus of the group, getting some younger and diverse folks into the organization,” he says. “That’s what the future is.”

The day of the zoo meeting, Ertmann starts the proceedings as she always does, with a nod to the location’s history. “I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on the traditional lands of the Clackamas, Cowlitz, and Chinook people, and pay our respect to elders both past and present,” she says. The ritual was inspired by a similar action at the 2018 Rotary International Convention in Toronto; Ertmann adopted it to emphasize the importance of diversity and inclusivity.

After the conservation talk by the zoo director, Ertmann ends the meeting by thanking club members for taking time out of their busy lives to be there. Later, she explains the significance of that closing statement: “Society is different these days. The workplace is different.” Millennials tend to change jobs and locations more frequently than previous generations, she says. Though she has no illusions of retaining all of those members long term, she wants to help them form a bond with Rotary that will stay with them no matter where they go.

Her hope is that they learn to see Rotary as she does: as “a great volunteer plan for the rest of my life.”


• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.