Walking the talk for an Office of Equity and Human Rights

By Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Mayor Sam Adams

Portland has the reputation of being a progressive and innovative city, however, not all Portlanders have access to opportunities or feel welcome. People of color and people with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty and unemployment, and have shorter lifes compared with other Portlanders.

Despite past and current equity-related efforts of various bureaus in the Portland City government, significant disparities persist.  The median income for black-headed households is $30,000, while the median income for white-headed households is $46,800 (State of Black Oregon, 2009).  Although 26.3 percent of the people living in Multnomah County are of color, nearly 30 percent of people who are unhoused are of color (Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile, 2010).  The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities living outside of institutions in Oregon is 74 percent (U.S. Dept of Labor).  These numbers do not reflect who we want to be as Portlanders.

What city government has done in the past hasn’t resulted in the desired outcome of everyone sharing in the riches of our city. Disparities persist in city hiring, promotions and contracting, and services in neighborhoods. To achieve different outcomes, we need a different approach.

We need to design a system that aligns the efforts of all staff in all city bureaus, and guides our investments to end disparities and achieve equity. These are some of the reasons the city is planning to form a new Office of Equity and Human Rights.

This proposal is rooted in the community discussions of the Portland Plan. The Portland Plan is a 25-year strategic plan due to be voted on early next year. It defines equity as when everyone has access to opportunities necessary to satisfy essential needs, advance their well-being, and achieve their full potential. Equity is both the means to healthy communities and an end that benefits us all.

The Portland Plan calls for the City to implement an Equity Initiative with 19 recommended actions, one of which is the formation of an office dedicated to building the City’s capacity to serve all Portlanders equitably. It defines actions to achieve Portland’s community values: Equity was the number one value identified by thousands of Portlanders in 2007’s visionPDX report.

The purpose of the Office of Equity and Human Rights is to develop a focused, strategic approach to foster equity and reduce disparities in city government; to identify best practices that produce measurably improved outcomes; and to work with city and community partners to promote equity, inclusion and protection of human rights throughout Portland and the region.

The new Office of Equity and Human Rights will incorporate the current Office of Human Relations, and provide staff support for the Human Rights Commission and the Portland Commission on Disabilities. A maximum of three new staff may be hired the first year, after careful assessment of what skills are needed most.

The Office of Equity and Human Rights is not intended to do all equity-related work for the city. Each bureau will continue to be expected to provide their bureau-specific services to all Portlanders. The Office of Equity and Human Rights will not police or enforce equity-related rules. It will train, provide tools and report results, with required revisions until equity is achieved.

The city cannot achieve equity goals alone. Each Portlander must play a part. We must leverage public/private partnerships, and we must work all with those most affected, to help shape solutions. “Nothing about us without us,” is the rallying call of one local activist on rights for people with disabilities.

On Aug. 31, City Council heard testimony on an ordinance proposing to create the new office. For three hours, community members, who filled Council Chambers, gave eloquent beautiful testimony about their experience of Portland’s challenges, and the need for this office.

City Council will consider the ordinance to create the Office of Equity and Human Rights at a public hearing on Sept. 21 at 11 a.m. in City Hall. All are welcome to participate.

Equity supports a more resilient city – a city that is less vulnerable in times of economic downturn. It is both the means to healthy communities and an end that benefits us all. All should share in the opportunities and riches of our city. The future we share depends on it.

City Council will hold a public hearing, 11 a.m., Sept. 21 in City Hall to consider the ordinance to create the Office of Equity and Human Rights.

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