Genny Nelson | University of Portland

Genny Nelson

“What happens when your mind is opened, and the flame in your soul is lit up and tended by a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a friend?” asks Genny Nelson. “And then what happens when you get a chance to test your newfound beliefs, and your mettle? I suggest that this is how we become the change we seek. It happened to me…”

Born in Lewiston, Idaho, in 1952, a graduate of Saint Mary’s Academy in Portland, Genny Nelson was a junior at Portland State University when she started a work-study project on Skid Row. “I was shy, excited, silent, and totally clueless,” she says. By the end of that term she had found her calling: to share and witness the grace and courage of men and women and children who have no place to live amid the wealthiest society on earth, and to stand up for their freedom.

In 1979 Genny and her friend Sandy Gooch founded Sisters of the Road Café, in Portland’s Old Town district. “We didn’t assume we knew best what our community in Skid Row wanted and needed,” she says. “We asked and they told us: create a safe public place for everyone, especially women and children. They knew that every form of violence would walk through our door, and their request was simple and clear. Never pretend indifference to violence. Always try to interrupt it. Be a place where we can build community across class lines. Offer nourishing meals affordable to those with low or no income. Let us exchange labor for meals. Provide job training and a chance to work. Help us to not get stuck in a lifetime of charity…”

So was born Sisters of the Road, in Portland’s Old Town, in 1979, and it became something of a legend, serving more than 300 meals a day, providing an inviolate shelter for its patrons, and growing into, as the years passed, a nerve center for nonviolent social justice activity, information about the facts of homelessness and lack of affordable housing in Portland, and a rallying point for the dignity of every human being. “The bedrock for Sisters of the Road is a resounding no! to any kind of violence, including humiliation, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism,” says Nelson. “Second is a commitment to love, to be compassionate, responsible, and accountable. Third is our belief that change is a creative process that depends on relationships.

“It’s not politicians by themselves who are going to wake up one morning and say, Oh, let’s end homelessness today! It’s people who are dealing with homelessness, and their housed allies, who have identified the root causes of this national problem. It is by building authentic relationships across class and political lines that homelessness will be eradicated. ‘It is when we treat strangers specially that the world is transformed,’ said Dorothy Day….”

There are more great stories about Sisters of the Road than we can tell here—how Genny and her colleagues fought to make food stamps legal tender for a meal (now a federal law); how someone can earn their $1.25 lunch with 15 minutes of work in the kitchen; how that $1.25 lunch tag hasn’t risen in thirty years; how lots of University students and alumni have found their way into the Café kitchen, and washed countless dishes; and how Genny, exactly thirty years after her excellent idea opened, retired from the daily ramble of it last fall. “I am a faithful and hope-filled woman,” says Genny, with a smile, “who believes that Gandhi was right when he said ‘you must be the change you wish to see in the world…’” Her cheerful, honest, direct, unflagging spirit will always infuse this city; and the University today salutes an extraordinary teammate in the work of healing and hope.