The Long Road to Equity

By Don MacGillivray

For many years the disadvantaged and diverse members of our community have not had an effective voice in the civic affairs of the Portland.

There have been long standing challenges and dissatisfaction with police activities in some communities, our schools, difficulties in finding well-paying jobs, displacement, and gentrification. It is often difficult for the disadvantaged to maintain good homes and happy families given these circumstances

It became clear more than a decade ago that local government leaders could address many of the problems of ethnic and low-income communities if there was more organized leadership and advocacy within these groups.

Recent studies have shown that those with different ethnic heritages have greater difficulties and are less successful in the American culture.

The Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR ) and the Office of Diversity and Equity in Multnomah County (ODE) are today leading the progress being made in these efforts.

OEHR is based on the Americans with Disability Act and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The programs are designed to remove barriers and conditions that prevent under served groups from accessing government assistance and justice.

The office provides education and technical support to City staff and elected officials leading to fair treatment, access to opportunities, and addressing issues of race and disability.

Much of the work of OEHR is accomplished with the help of the Human Rights Commission that works to eliminate discrimination and to strengthen relationships; the Portland Commission on Disability that helps to make a City more accessible; and Black Male Achievement that works to improve the life outcomes of African American men and boys in the areas of education, employment, family stability, and criminal justice.

One of the important players in increasing the interest in equity and diversity is in the work of the Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF); a partnership of over seventy organizations and individuals that work to improve the changing physical and social environment of the Portland region.

A great tool that they’ve developed is the Regional Equity Atlas first published in 2007, updated in 2013, and now available on their website,

The Atlas of our region provides insights into how we can create a more equitable region through targeted policies and investments. The maps in the Atlas show the distribution of different populations and key resources such as food, transportation, affordable housing and education. Using the Atlas, it is easy to see inequities among important health and quality of life resources within the city.

For many years, City commissioners and other local leaders were expecting neighborhood associations to become more diverse in their representation. This was difficult for these democratic, volunteer organizations that do not have stable funding.

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) recognized the importance of supporting ethnically and culturally specific civic engagement and urged change. The first major collective effort to address this challenge was with the Portland Future Focus strategic plan in 1992.

In 1995, the Office of Neighborhood Associations, (ONA) formed a task force to study the neighborhood system and they introduced the idea of “communities beyond neighborhood boundaries” and proposed support for the diverse communities in Portland.

In response, the City changed the name of ONA to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI). In 1998 ONI changed the neighborhood association guidelines to formally acknowledge ethnic communities that meet the criteria of Portland’s neighborhood association system.

In 2000 the “Interwoven Tapestry” project was a focused effort by ONI and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to take a more active part in civic life and collaborate with neighborhood associations.

Then SE Uplift neighborhood coalition began a “Diversity and Civic Leadership Committee,” representing a broad range of community and neighborhood organizations. The resulting three years of work explored continuing opportunities for greater public involvement for disadvantaged residents.

Tom Potter was elected mayor in 2004 on a platform of championing greater civic engagement. One of twenty task forces organized to examine and improve City governance was known as “Community Connect.”

The goal of the three-year project was to suggest methods to strengthen community involvement, to welcome public participation, and to improve the partnership between community and government.

As a result the Diversity and Civic Leadership program was created in 2006 focusing on communities of color, immigrants, and building partnerships with diverse organizations.

The Neighborhood and Community Engagement Initiative provided funds for language interpretation and translation, child care, and ADA accommodations to make their events more accessible.

In 2007 an ONI grant developed the Diversity and Civic Leadership Academy. From the perspective of participating community members, the programs and activities are the illustration of the City’s commitment to a new model of civic engagement that has yielded excellent results.

Recently, Portland was a major sponsor of the Governing for Racial Equity conference that hosted over 450 governments from all over the nation. It was an unparalleled success with many compliments and inquiries about Portland’s work to address equity issues.

A definition for Equity is when everyone has access to the opportunities necessary to satisfy their essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential.

Equity is both the means to healthy communities and an end that benefits everyone.

The Long Road to Equity

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