Board sets stage for next four years of workplace equity efforts by approving renewed strategic plan

March 19, 2024

Presenters celebrate as the 2024-2028 Workforce Equity Strategic Plan is unanimously approved by the Board of County Commissioners.
After eight months of work sessions, engagement and refinement, representatives of the Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE) received unanimous approval from the Board of Commissioners for the County’s 2024-2028 Workforce Equity Strategic Plan.

The plan, approved March 14, offers a roadmap for renewing and growing the organization’s equity efforts over the next four years. The County’s embrace of a forward-looking strategy to continue building a more equitable workplace environment and experience comes at a time “when other counties, governments and boards are disinvesting in this kind of work,” said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson.

“There has been no more important time to deepen investment and commitment to diversity and equity. So I’m proud that’s not what we’re doing — that instead we are continuing to push deeper into what workforce equity can be and why.”

The County’s first Workforce Equity Strategic Plan (WESP), adopted in 2018 and amended the year after, recommended focus areas and recommendations aimed at meaningfully addressing inequities, employee experiences and organizational practices that harm employees of color and other marginalized groups. The newly adopted plan builds on the infrastructure, practices and other improvements established in accordance with the first plan, presenters said. It consists of 33 action benchmarks across eight categories to be implemented over the course of a four-year cycle.

Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Joy Fowler said County employees should feel confident that those who are responsible for the WESP, and supporting its implementation, will remain fully open to making changes and course corrections to ensure its success.

“Strategic plans in general are not meant to be static or unchanging, and we completely expect the WESP to be no different,” she said. “If there is a feasibility concern, a benchmark that needs adjusting or a performance measure that is off, trust and believe the Office of Diversity and Equity and the implementation committee and this [executive] committee will act.”

Chief Operating Officer Serena Cruz and Chief Human Resources Officer Travis Brown, who co-sponsored the plan and serve on the WESP’s executive committee alongside Fowler, both expressed their commitment to the plan.

“To address so many of the barriers and issues that keep us from moving closer to our vision of a just and equitable workplace isn't just an ask anymore,” Cruz said. “It's an expectation.”

Fowler said the plan will reduce barriers that keep Black, Indigenous and other staff and managers of color from a sense of belonging and professional growth. But the WESP, she noted, is relevant to all County employees at every level of the organization.

Her office’s vision for the process and the plan’s ultimate impact, she said, is “that we thrive as a result of our actions, not just our words that are written on paper, and that we have a more effective, efficient, accountable and progressive Workforce Equity Strategic Plan.”

According to Alejandro Juárez, the Office of Diversity and Equity’s workforce equity manager, the plan is well-positioned to make meaningful changes because “the WESP is not just a project or a strategic plan, but it’s a movement, and now, an institution.”

A diversifying workforce brings new needs

Juárez set the context for the new equity plan, highlighting the origins of the County’s intentional push for equity, as well as the workforce shifts the County has seen since.

In late 2017, County employees of color recounted during a momentous Board meeting the racism, discrimination and isolation they faced in the workplace, setting off a series of efforts that resulted in the adoption of the first Workforce Equity Strategic Plan in April 2018. The plan was amended in February 2019 to include implementation recommendations.

“We would not be here today without the work, commitment and sacrifice that employees of color engaged in seven years ago,” Juárez said. “Their efforts had a monumental impact on the culture of the County for all employees. The movement for workforce equity inspired our organization to rethink the ways we engage and support our employees of color and other protected groups such as employees with disabilities and our employees who identify as LGBTQIA2S+.”

Employees spoke out, he said, because “Multnomah County had a diversity problem.” The organization’s workforce at the time was over 70% white, often leaving employees of color as the only non-white person on their team, in a workplace culture where microaggressions and discrimination went unaddressed. Community organizations sounded the alarm, too, raising concerns that County staff often did not reflect the diversity of the communities they were serving. 

The goals of the original plan were to increase workforce diversity among both represented staff and managers, address protected class complaints, and begin shifting the culture of the workplace. Implementing that plan’s recommendations, however, required investments in organizational infrastructure and other work that continued during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those investments carried the work of the WESP forward in recent years and resulted in the establishment of the Complaints Investigation Unit, equity manager positions in all departments, expanded organizational learning capacity, and the additions of a workforce equity branch and a policy unit to the Office of Diversity and Equity.

Those investments produced the intended results.

“This infrastructure and these efforts shifted the demographics of the County to where employees of color now make up nearly 40% of our workforce,” Juárez said. “In addition, we have nearly closed the gap in opportunities for promotion for employees of color where we are now promoting employees of color at nearly the same rate as white employees.”

But now, amid that welcome increase, the organization must continue evolving so it can sustain and support diversity, Juárez explained. The County’s new equity infrastructure must be leveraged to support a proactive approach to equity concerns that offers systemic solutions.

“The question today is, ‘How do we move forward to protect our investment in diversity and ensure that we can retain employees of color while allowing them to thrive in the workplace?’”

The answer, Juárez said, can be found in increasing collaboration across the County, ensuring predictable and intentional funding for workforce equity efforts, and regular evaluations and reporting.

Process as integral as the plan itself

How the renewal of the WESP plan unfolded was as integral to the plan itself, speakers shared.   

The Office of Diversity and Equity worked with a steering committee of 32 diverse staff and managers from all departments, as well as the Chair’s Office, the District Attorney’s and Sheriff’s offices, and the County’s union partners.  
Throughout the process, the steering committee invited over 20 subject matter experts to lend their insights, said Mariana Parra, strategic initiatives policy analyst with the Office of Diversity and Equity. 

Members of the Office and Diversity and Equity with several members of the WESP Renewal Steering Committee and facilitators from the Multnomah Idea Lab at the March 14 board meeting.
During monthly two-day sessions held from July through November 2023, the group worked with subject matter experts to co-create Community Care Agreements, decision-making practices, key topics for the renewal process to address, and a list of key recommendations. 

The Multnomah Idea Lab (MIL) played a critical role in facilitating sessions, using a Human-Centered Design approach that incorporated adequate time and equity throughout the process. Nearly every speaker thanked the MIL facilitators for their contributions.  

“I want to take a quick moment to share my appreciation for their partnership and leadership in creating a space for all involved to create relationships and trust and to navigate hard conversations,” said Parra. “We fostered a process that encouraged collaboration, feedback and questions.”

Three workgroups — Disability Equity, LGBTQIA2S+ and Managers of Color — also played a significant role throughout the renewal process, expanding the steering committee's representation to include individuals with diverse gender identities, staff with disabilities and
managers of color. All three of these groups met in parallel to the steering committee to identify
and develop workplace equity recommendations to address their unique needs, many of which were ultimately included in the plan as benchmarks.

Parra noted the WESP had a project website sharing information on the renewal process and other resources, along with featured articles in the Wednesday Wire newsletter for County employees, as well as direct briefings with County leaders and key internal stakeholders. 

Two recent forums, focused on Employee Resource Groups and open to all staff, brought in nearly 200 employees.

Speakers from the steering committee and workgroups shared their experiences working on the WESP renewal. 

“I continue to work on the WESP because I think it’s important to try to create change through these documents,” said Ebonee Bell, a steering committee member.

The monthly work sessions included a tremendous amount of both candid and meticulous work that dove into the details, while also nurturing participant buy-in.   

“I would go home and crash each and every single time,” Bell said, detailing the breadth of the topics the committee explored. 

Bell recalled the struggle she and other steering committee members who met in an African-American affinity group felt in trying to find the right words to capture the experience of Black County managers. “We came up with anti-Blackness and that finds its way into the new WESP.” 

“It’s not possible for a document to legislate out or ‘strategic plan away’ anti-Blackness. That’s up to every single individual at the County,” Bell continued. “But first we have to recognize the ways that anti-Blackness shows up in the workplace, and then we have to rid ourselves of the sense of superiority that anti-Blackness lends to its practitioners.” 

Joseph Almond, an Organizational Learning manager and member of the steering committee, described sessions full of wonderful — but also painful — testimonials. 

“There was a portion where I was feeling excited and enlightened by the wonderful colleagues that I had the pleasure of sharing this experience with, but there were also times where I felt frustrated — and that was my time to buckle up and trust the process,” Almond said.  

“I loved the fact that they pivoted at the end of every single session, they met and they shared with one another that this is working, here’s what we could tweak.” 

Disability Equity Workgroup

Ashley Carroll, senior disability equity policy analyst with the Office of Diversity and Equity, said the first iteration of the WESP missed the inclusion of employees with disabilities and disability-centered recommendations.

This time, said Carroll, “there was an explicit focus on disability-related needs.”

A workgroup of seven employees with diverse backgrounds came together to not just do their day jobs but also tackle this equity work, Carroll said. While the group preferred to remain anonymous, Carroll shared her deepest gratitude for their immense contributions. 

They met seven times and reviewed previous reports focused on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation process for employees. 

“Recognizing that seven individuals cannot represent the diversity of disability experiences of the County, the group elected to disseminate a survey soliciting experiences and recommendations to improve ADA accommodation process and overall disability equity work at the County,” said Carroll.

That survey received 218 responses — almost four times the amount than previous surveys engaging with staff with disabilities. Carroll said the high response rate was likely due, in part, to permission to use ADA tracking information in Workday, allowing for accommodation requests for survey participants. 

The same survey also shed light on disparities for BIPOC staff, said Kristen Harbert, another member of the Disability Equity workgroup, noting BIPOC staff were more likely to have their accommodation requests denied.

“It’s something we need to look at directly and intentionally to make changes or we’ll default back to the status quo, which is not accessible or intersectional,” Harbert said. 

As one committee member pointed out, Harbert said, “ADA standards are the floor not a ceiling… The County could be a leader because we believe and invest in our employees.” 

LGBTQIA2S+ Workgroup

Sam Silverman, a senior policy analyst with the Office of Diversity and Equity and a member of the LGBTQIA2S+ workforce equity workgroup, noted the initial plan’s lack of mention of gender or “the unique needs of our transgender staff in Multnomah County.”

Across the County, she said, there's a perception that race and gender are separate issues that receive different amounts of time, attention and resources. “It’s critical for us to take an intersectional approach to what it means to improve the experiences of employees, especially our Black trans staff.”

The workgroup of nine diverse staff members from across the County also elected to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the work, said Silverman.“So I want to share my endless gratitude for sharing their time, vulnerability and emotional labor to elevate the trans community through the WESP.” 

The workgroup reviewed reports from 2016 and 2017 and a more recent report by the Office of Diversity and Equity in 2023. Their design mission was to determine “how can we achieve gender justice in Multnomah County through inclusively leading with race,” said Silverman.
“At the heart of it all, our goal is for trans and gender-diverse people to feel safe, respected and accepted in Multnomah County. I think about this quote from one of our workgroup members as we move through this process: ‘We deserve safety emotionally, physically and psychologically,’” said Silverman. 

Managers of Color Workgroup

Dr. Carlos Richard, a representative of the Managers of Color (MOC) Employee Resource Group, said the first iteration of the WESP did not meet the needs of the group. Nonetheless, MOC continued to sound the alarm around the need to increase support for safety, trust, belonging and transparency for Multnomah County leadership at all levels, he said. 

“I came here to bring a message of hope, appreciation and caution for the implementation of the WESP — specifically as it relates to managers of color,” said Tony Gaines, another executive member of MOC who joined Dr. Richard in addressing the Board. 

“Hope that we’re starting to see our way to a place where equity really exists here in the County. Appreciation for the efforts of ODE, Joy and her team, the WESP workgroup members and others that have brought us to this point, including county commissioners.  

“And finally, caution that we’re moving in the right direction.” 

MOC members said they acknowledge the WESP is trending in the right direction — even if, they noted, it has not yet arrived at its intended destination.

“Equity is messy, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I just mean there’s no straight line to get there,” said Gaines. “But I’m thankful for the work, seen and unseen, that has gotten us to this point.” 
Gaines also highlighted the MOC’s support for the WESP in addressing the needs of LGBTQIA2S+ staff, employees with disabilities, and the MOC, “as it should,” he said.

“I'm hopeful that the conversation will continue and drill down more and more so that we can ensure managers of color experience the same safety, trust and belonging as everyone else in this county,” Dr. Richard said.

Plan’s 30+ implementation actions to be phased in through 2028

The plan’s implementation steps fall into eight topics, which the Office of Diversity and Equity termed “initiatives,” because “we see them as the next level of goals to achieve to demonstrate progress as One County,” explained Parra. 

Parra summarized the initiatives:

  • Accountability: the development of standardized assessments and the tracking of employee responsibilities for applying equity values within the workplace.
  • Infrastructure: ongoing improvements to the equity infrastructure established by the previous equity plan to adapt to the workforce’s changing needs.
  • Retention: strategies for addressing disparities in retaining employees, including evaluation and data collection.
  • Training: improving employees’ understanding of equity concepts through training, leadership development and onboarding experiences.
  • Data: ensuring data collection accurately reflects the diversity of the workforce.
  • Evaluation and policy: assessing the culturally specific needs of LGBTQIA2S+ employees and employees with disabilities.
  • Compensation: assessing equity roles, which may result in reclassifications or the establishment of a new classification for County equity practitioners.
  • Standard practice: ensuring equity efforts and practices are consistent across the organization, through trauma-informed and targeted approaches for each department.

The WESP’s 33 implementation actions, or “benchmarks,” are designed to push the County toward becoming a more equitable and inclusive workplace that meets the needs of a diverse workforce and creates lasting positive change. Each benchmark is tied to corresponding objectives and performance measures.

Fowler said the phased approach to implementation in the new WESP marks a change from the original, which “didn’t provide a plan for what was to get done and when.”

Splitting the benchmarks across four fiscal years allows each department to properly assess the capacity and resources it will need to succeed. Being clear about sequencing the benchmarks also mitigates the sense that they must all be done at once. 

Juárez said the benchmarks reflect several themes that emerged from the renewal process. One of the most prominent arose from the County’s decentralized HR model and concerns that it impedes equity efforts. Executing the WESP, he said, requires processes that invite collaboration between departmental HR units, Central HR and equity teams.

Unlike the previous plan, which relied on unfunded recommendations, the intent this time, Juárez said, is to create consistent funding for equity infrastructure by tying “the implementation process to our budget process to… provide more intentional funding and conversation, but also accountability, as there will be more intentional reporting from every department equity team and HR unit.” 

This was also part of the thinking behind the plan’s phased approach, Fowler said.

Juárez also noted the theme of combating anti-Black bias. This shows up in the fact that even though Multnomah County has a record number of Black employees, both Black managers and represented staff also show a disproportionately high rate of voluntary separations. Many of the benchmarks are designed to address that disparity.

The need to establish more evaluations and reporting to capture organizational issues and the effectiveness of the benchmarks, as well as the gap in culturally specific supports and services, rounded out the themes.

Board comments

All Board members expressed their support and confidence in the direction and decision to renew the 2024-2028 Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. 

“Workforce equity is foundational to our organization,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “It is the heart of our organization and it should be. We as an organization need to be walking our talk. It is our responsibility to show progress and what we've committed to improving.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann recognized the efforts of those who carried the work forward over the years. 

“We all stand on their shoulders because of their courage, their tenacity and their determination,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s the heart and soul and sacrifices that you all make. We have a long way to go but I’m confident with you all that we’re getting there.”

Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards also expressed gratitude for those who co-created the plan. 

“Co-creation is a really powerful way to work,” she said. “I love the descriptive words that were used, implementation, actionable, accountable, not static, the converse of dynamic, and I think that’s really important to be successful.

“I’m coming in mid-stream to this journey, but I know that institutional racism and anti-Blackness has been embedded in our institution, in this community for a long time,” said Brim-Edwards. “Progress has been made, but there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Commissioner Jesse Beason called out the racism that’s baked into public policy, resources and practices.

“And inside the government has not been immune to that,” he said. “I recognize that there’s a lot of work in this, and I appreciate us not running away from the problems that we face. And I also recognize that it took many years to get us here, and it will take some time to unwind.” 

Chair Vega Pederson reiterated her thanks to all those involved and those who spoke from the workgroups, highlighting the necessary focus on specific areas that require attention.  

“All of those pieces give us this path forward and we’re going to learn, we’re going to grow, and make mistakes and fix things and strive to be inclusive,” she said.  

“We have the power, up here, to change these systems, to change the way this government works. But we cannot do that without the participation of your voices, your perspectives, your experiences, your wisdom — and really make ourselves vulnerable in sharing things today.”

Watch the full presentation.