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The Cully Neighborhood Youth Project
The Cully Neighborhood Youth Project

Cully is a racially diverse neighborhood with high rates of poverty located in central Northeast Portland1. Many residents lack easy and close access to services such as grocery stores, medical care, and parks. In 2010, in an effort to revitalize the neighborhood, Community-service organizations Hacienda CDC, the Native American Youth & Family Center, and Verde in partnership with area residents established Living Cully: A Cully Ecodistrict. The purpose of Living Cully is “to introduce new environmental assets into Portland’s Cully Neighborhood […] as an anti-poverty strategy, as a means to address disparities by concentrating investments at the neighborhood scale2” (Bañuelos, et al. 2013).

The development of the Thomas Cully Park and Community Garden are two large-scale efforts underway to improve the social, economic, and environmental wellbeing of this neighborhood and community. These greenspaces are the result of partnerships between Living Cully stakeholders, city and state offices. Recently, a team of student researchers from Portland State University also became involved.

Presenting at the university-wide student research symposium were undergraduate students from the School of Community Health, Dechen Dolkar and Kasey Zamago. Under the direction of Dr. Kelly Gonzales, Assistant Professor of Community Health, Zamago, Dolkar, and a team of 16 other PSU students, graduates and undergraduates alike, in collaboration with Hacienda CDC and the youth of the Cully Neighborhood, developed and implemented the “Cully Neighborhood Youth Project: Perceptions of Cully Park, Safety and Health.”

The project involved gathering, analyzing, and disseminating visual and spatial data on the perspectives of youth in Portland’s Cully Neighborhood in order to provide community members and their neighborhood development partners a snapshot of how youth conceive of the park under development in the area of NE 75th and NE Killingsworth streets, its potential health benefits, and the hurdles children in the neighborhood might encounter when they try to access and use the park. In doing so, the research team assured the concerns of children in the neighborhood were heard by the community leaders shaping the future social, environmental, and economic landscape of this Portland neighborhood. Zamago was involved in the logistics and planning of events related to the study; she also assisted with data collection, analysis, and dissemination. Dolkar helped with data analysis and the dissemination of the study’s findings.

“I am a member of the advisory board for Living Cully,” said Dr. Gonzales, explaining how the project began. “While working to identify the health measures potentially related to the new Cully Park, the board decided it was important to include the voices of the neighborhood’s youth—their thoughts about the park and its potential health benefits.” 

As Zamago and Dolkar explained, there were a few challenges during the early phases of the project. Administrative changes at an afterschool program and disruptive midwinter snowstorms meant the PSU research team had to scrap their original plans to work with children attending the Cully Neighborhood’s Scott Elementary School. Undeterred, the team pivoted and partnered with Hacienda CDC to recruit children from their afterschool homework club to participate in the project. Dr. Gonzales emphasized that all phases of the PHOTO project were led by the PSU research team, including developing, planning and implementing the data collection workshops (gatherings where the children from the Cully Neighborhood were able to discuss their experiences in the neighborhood and talk about the photos they took), facilitating outings where the children photo-documented the physical features of the neighborhood, preparing a report and planning an arts event to showcase the children's photos.

The PSU student research team employed several methodologies to collect the data. Using a technique called Photovoice, the PSU students led the Cully youth on walks around the neighborhood near the site of the future Cully Park. The youth were asked to take photographs documenting locations where they felt safe and unsafe, or that they considered health or unhealthy. They were also asked to talk about their conceptions of the areas they photographed to provide additional context to the images they had captured. The photographs illustrated the day to day experiences the youths had and their words told the story of the environment they are growing up in. The research team combined the photovoice data with GIS (geographic information system) mapping to pinpoint the locations where the images were taken, creating an association between what was captured in the photographs and the thoughts of the youth to actual locations in the neighborhood. By presenting the information in such a way, the team was able provide Living Cully stakeholders a sense of what neighborhood children experience and where so that the community could take action toward improving these locations and thus increase health benefits for future users of the park and throughout the community.

“Incorporating GIS mapping and the photovoice data really had an impact on the way we could communicate our data,” said Zamago. 

Dolkar agreed, adding, “combining the two methods provided specific locations to where things in the community were happening. It is easier to take action in your community if you can look at the pictures and the words and point to them on a map and know that’s where changes need to be made.”

The research team also conducted two community workshops where youth participating in the study were invited to talk about their experiences and perspectives. According to Zamago and Dolkar, this is where they collected much of their qualitative data.

“During the workshops, some of what the kids would say was really unexpected and powerful,” said Dolkar. “I thought they’d talk about the lack of sidewalks and things of the sort, but I didn’t expect them to talk about the mistreatment of greenspaces and the like.”

“It was clear that the youths really knew their neighborhood and could talk about complex issues,” Dr. Gonzales said.

“They’ve been exposed to so much.” Zamago added. “It seemed like some of them had grown up faster than kids in other neighborhoods because of things out of their control. That’s what I hope this project will give them a sense that they have control over what’s going on in their neighborhood.”

According to both Dolkar and Zamago, working on this project has had lasting effects. Both said the project provided them with a strong research background. Each also gained leadership and organizational skills. And both also agree that the experience of working with the community has left an impression on them and will influence their future academic and career paths.

“I think part of what Living Cully and the PSU research team are trying to achieve is getting the community to work together and supporting them as they keep moving forward on the changes they want to see in their neighborhood,” Dolkar said. “That is what I liked most about this research project: working together as a team to empower each other as emerging community-based researchers, and to create space so the voices and desires of the youth and the community are out there, and they can move toward improving their neighborhood."


1. Cully Neighborhood Fact Sheet 
2. Not in Cully: Anti-Displacement Strategies for the Cully Neighborhood


Kasey Zamago is graduating spring, 2015 with degrees in Health Science and Community Health; she plans to apply for Masters of Public Health programs at PSU and OHSU. Upon graduation, Dechen Dolkar plans to complete prerequisites necessary to apply for medical school.

Dr. Kelly Gonzales studies health disparities, particularly those related to diabetes among American Indian (AI) and Alaska Native (AN) populations. She also researches the influence of discrimination within the context of healthcare settings.


Author: Shaun McGillis