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Mercy Corps picks leader for 'action center' in Portland

United States, April 30, 2009

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Richard Read

The Oregonian
April, 2009

Mercy Corps searched the globe and landed a local -- Julie Mancini, who has inspired troubled youths and drawn celebrity authors to Portland -- to launch its international "action center" in Old Town.

Mancini, 60, will direct a $2 million street-front center at Mercy Corps' new headquarters, where visitors can try out relief work and help change their communities and the world.

Wearing a hard hat, black fleece and dress shoes, Mancini stepped past drywall workers and electricians Wednesday in the space she's helping to prepare.

"We're creating this canvas, but it's not just our canvas," Mancini said. "It's a place for people to enter to figure out what their own canvas is going to be for making change."

Mercy Corps, overflowing from hodgepodge Lair Hill offices, is building a $37 million complex by Skidmore Fountain. The international humanitarian organization is running an ambitious $10 million capital campaign in the teeth of the global recession.

The action center, crafted by New York designer Ed Schlossberg, is intended to put people in aid workers' shoes, raising Mercy Corps' profile and attracting a new generation of supporters. Schlossberg designed a similar center, replete with high-definition video screens, that's up and running in lower Manhattan.

Like the Battery Park enterprise, the Mercy Corps Action Center in Portland will feature video clips of field workers building roads or installing wells. Visitors will use touch-screen displays to size up wars and natural disasters and consider actions. They will be able to volunteer for humanitarian projects at home and abroad, sign petitions or take other actions.

"This will be a place where people can congregate to find out what's going on," Mancini said, when a crisis hits on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami. High school students and others will be able to connect with counterparts abroad and attend talks on relief-and-development issues.

Mancini should have no trouble attracting speakers. "She has a great Rolodex," said Susan Laarman, a Mercy Corps spokeswoman.

As director of Portland Arts & Lectures, Mancini built the speakers' series into one of the nation's largest and most successful.

"Julie sees possibilities," said Nancy Bragdon, who worked for Mancini at the organization. "She's absolutely superb at starting things."

Big-name authors such as Philip Roth and Joan Didion might have been reluctant to speak in Portland, but left charmed and converted by Mancini, Bragdon said. Mancini went on to represent speakers ranging from Paul Theroux to Tracy Kidder at her Portland-based company, The Lyceum Agency.

Could she get Kidder -- whose books include "Mountains Beyond Mountains," about a visionary doctor doing international work -- to speak at Mercy Corps' new center? "By Saturday night," she quips.

Mancini, an outgoing woman with flowing dark, silver-tinged hair, said she won't miss the speakers' agency, which her business partner will continue. The former teacher, with a Tufts University master's degree in child development, anticipates teaching in a new way.

Despite her poise, Mancini said she always writes her name at the top of speech notes -- in case she forgets. She recalls Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson noticing her jitters before an appearance. "It's probably genetic," Wilson said.

But Mancini never let stage fright slow her mission to expand Portland Arts & Lectures into a Literary Arts organization that offers writers' fellowships and cultivates young authors. She helped start Caldera, which offers arts and nature programs to disadvantaged youth, and served on boards of groups including Stand for Children.

Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Mancini moved to Portland with her husband in 1974 for three years and never left. "Oregon was sort of this nirvana -- it still is," she says.

The 4,700-square-foot center Mancini will run is to be part of an 83,000-square-foot complex that will also house the Lemelson Foundation. Walsh Construction Co. aims to earn a LEED Platinum environmental rating for the building.

The action center is scheduled to open in early October. "That's why I have high anxiety," Mancini said.