The Board of Commissioners on Thursday proclaimed February as Black History Month and Black Future Month in Multnomah County.
The proclamation, sponsored by Commissioner Loretta Smith, recognizes the contributions of African Americans to the community’s “economic, cultural, educational, political, artistic, literary, scientific, and technological advancement, despite historical and current injustices.”
Black History Month has been observed throughout the month of February since 1976, replacing Negro History Month, which was first celebrated in 1926.
“As we celebrate Black History Month, I think it’s critical that we take a minute to really acknowledge our history, to evaluate our present and to dedicate ourselves to our future,” Smith said.
Smith acknowledged Oregon’s history of discriminatory and racist practices, including a Bill of Rights that excluded African Americans and Chinese Americans from voting, among other things.
“Today, in the present tense, we’ve continued to battle racism,” Smith said. “Racism doesn't always look like Bloody Sunday in Selma (Ala.), when protesters were beaten with clubs and fire hoses or even like Charlottesville (Va.) last year with white nationalists carrying torches across a college campus. Racism today is often much more subtle.”
Smith and other commissioners made mention of the ongoing work to address complaints of systemic racism and unjust employment practices at Multnomah County. The County is working to develop a Workforce Equity Strategy that is expected to guide every department and office around recruitment, retention and promotion and to assist in building a workplace culture that recognizes the way multiple identities are able to show up and be successful.
“We as a board recognize that these inequities have occurred,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, promising to do better. “I know that we are headed in the right direction.”
Thursday’s proclamation presentation also served as an opportunity to recognize the work of two County employees: Dorothy Carroll and Larry Turner.
Turner, a clinical services specialist in the Health Department, and Carroll, a data technician in the Department of County Human Services, are “prime examples of black excellence here at the County,” said Natasha Smith, who chairs the Employees of Color Employee Resource Group. Smith said Carroll and Turner strive for change, despite injustices and inequities, and advocate for racial equity, inclusion and fairness in the workplace.
Carroll, who has worked at the County for 21 years, praised the Employees of Color ERG as a space for healing when she faces microaggressions and other inequitable treatment at work.
“We don’t want any apologies, we want action,” Carroll said. “And I think we’ve given the County our ask, now it’s time for the County to take action.”
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said she hoped Thursday’s proclamation would serve an additional purpose as a “call to action.”
“This is about making space for voices and a new way of doing things that brings people together and moves us forward,” Vega Pederson said.