Employee-led Letter and Call to Action lay out sweeping vision of leading with race in Multnomah County

March 31, 2021

“We, the members of the Inclusively Leading With Race Design Team, write this letter to affirm that Multnomah County is unequivocally committed to leading with race, and that commitment requires ongoing accountability and action. So we send this letter as a way to share what is in our hearts and minds, to paint a picture of what leading with race looks like, so that we can all share the vision of what the County continues to aspire to and look toward.”

Those words marked the beginning of a call to action that a broad and diverse team of Multnomah County employees presented to the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, March 30. The letter — composed by almost 50 members of the Inclusively Leading With Race Design Team — marks the latest milestone in more than 18 months of work envisioning a new future for leading with race in Multnomah County. After an informational briefing about the design team’s work and process, seven members of the team read the letter and call to action aloud in segments to the Board. 

Kim Melton, the interim Chief Operating Officer, presented with members of the Inclusively Leading With Race Design Team

The document defines and affirms the organization’s commitment to inclusively leading with race, addresses the County’s needs in this moment, and invites colleagues across the County to join the work. The design team also presented actions the County can take to demonstrate its commitment to leading with race.

The letter acknowledged how systemic racism has historically shaped institutions, contributing to and perpetuating inequality. It also honored the prior work of County employees of color to build a more racially just workplace in spite of the institutional resistance they met along the way.

In order to inclusively lead with race, the letter said, the County must be “bold, creative and radical.” It called on County leaders to change policies and practices to ensure those most affected by inequity are involved in influencing decision making. The letter also called for racial justice and equity to be embedded in policies, practices and training. 

“They gave so much of themselves to make this work real and give it life — they gave their time, their wisdom, their expertise, their soul, their hearts, emotions to the spaces that they created, and ultimately, to a product that I think will be monumental for our organization,” said Ben Duncan, who directs the Office of Diversity and Equity. “I would argue that we have been as bold as any jurisdiction in the country and are looking towards moving the needle on the persistent disparities that we see across our populations.” 

In September 2017, the Board adopted the Workforce Equity Resolution, which laid out a vision for addressing workforce inequities through targeted investments, education, and cultural transformation. The Workforce Equity Strategic Plan (WESP) created actionable goals to move the work forward under five focus areas; each one includes high-level goals to be tracked over time. Human Resources, the Office of Diversity and Equity, and the Chief Operating Officer measure progress on each goal through yearly reports. 

The letter emerged from the fifth focus area of the WESP, which called for developing “clear county-wide communication that supports and deepens understanding of ‘Leading with Race’ - Multnomah County’s intersectional approach to workforce equity.”

Kim Melton, Interim Chief Operating Officer and Chief of Staff to Chair Deborah Kafoury, said the concept of co-creating a letter was inspired by the 2017 book “Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times,” a collection of letters written by award-winning activists, poets, artists and thought leaders following the 2016 Presidential Election.

“One of the things that the editor of that book said was that a letter can be an antidote to despair, found in connection, shared words, shared thoughts, and voices, and that sometimes in a well-timed meaningful letter we can find a rallying cry, a power source, a beacon, a sanctuary,” Melton said. 

County staff representing nearly every department, central office and work unit, employee resource group and AFSCME Local 88, participated in the two-phase process. The majority of participants were Black, Indigenous and people of color — by intent.

“It was one of the first ways we started leading with race,’’ said Mary Li, who directs the Multnomah Idea Lab in the Department of County Human Services. 

The first phase of the process, consisting of 13 weekly, three-hour sessions, resulted in a draft definition, a case statement, and a list of action recommendations. But the group, she said, ran into challenges. There were interpersonal disagreements. There was structural oppression at play and people stopped adhering to their working agreements.  

“We broke those agreements and we broke trust with each other,’’ Li said. “And when that happened, it was painful, and it was difficult and a number of us thought that we were not going to be able to get back together again and finish this work.”

Li said that in order to finish the work, the team had to face what had happened and try again, rebuild their relationships, and resume their efforts, “and that’s exactly what happened.” Only for the second phase, they relied on a “sprint model’’ in which 27 people spent two full days in Zoom sessions, finally landing on the concept of the letter and an overview of shared values and actions.

“We have an equity lens in that design practice, which fundamentally changes the way that we approach this,” said Li. “One of the biggest pieces we used as we moved through this human and equity design process was the need to understand the history of what happened in this organization related to racial justice and equity, and to build empathy to heal from that.”

The design team landed on five shared values: explicitly naming and centering race and intersectionality; calling for radical imagination and revolutionary love; seeking systemic change and shifting from white supremacy culture; committing to consistent practices; and expecting accountability and commitment.

Melton told the Board that the authors are “calling for radical imagination and revolutionary love in a way that offers hope and acknowledges the harm and trauma and apathy. 

“How are we going to commit to change in order to radically transform the culture of the County to one that we believe has a foundation that is more just and is more rooted in racial equity, committing to consistent practices that we would apply... not only to our internal operations, but the way we approach services?”

Finally, she said, the team addressed leadership and the need for a clear plan, measured outcomes and sufficient budget investments.

Chair Kafoury acknowledged that the process of crafting the letter as a group was arduous, but ultimately worthwhile.

“I remember from the beginning of this journey, this specific journey right here called the Inclusively Leading with Race definition... It means something different to each person,” said Chair Kafoury. “There was a time there, maybe many of you thought that you would never get to where you are today. But by persevering and sticking it out and trying to come back from a different angle… what you have come up with is so uniquely beautiful.” 

Among the action items that emerged from the sessions, the team highlighted 10 recommendations for the County to show its commitment to inclusively leading with race:

● Provide two-way performance review

● Provide clear Inclusively Leading With Race (ILWR) implementation plan

● Provide employee experience (Safety, Trust, & Belonging) report and plan

● Promote internal departmental communications

● Promote participatory decision-making

● Promote repair over punishment

● Provide understanding that equity work is fundamental to the work

● Engage in a truth and reconciliation process

● Require Equity and Empowerment Lens

● Integrate ILWR within hiring practice/recruitment

"I cannot think of another government, another institution, who has taken on this urgent, necessary, difficult, complicated but ambitious work so wholeheartedly, and really put the effort into the place to build this foundation, so that we can have a clear pathway ahead for all the work that’s needed,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said.

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal added, “We have got to look at it with those four words in mind — radical, imagination, revolutionary, and love — as unlikely as it may seem for a county government to be using those words. I think those, indeed, absolutely should be a mantra.”

The letter communicated a vision of a workplace where all employees can be their true selves at work, where diversity and inclusion is reflected at every level in the organization, and where people of color can “work free of fear, retaliation, microaggressions, and the pressure to assimilate into white supremacy culture.” It also pictured a workplace where white colleagues stand next to their colleagues of color, not in front of them.  

“We are in a critical moment of our organization’s story,” said Lonnie Nettles, a manager from the Department of Community Justice, reading from the last lines of the letter. “We have worked fiercely to gain momentum. And together, we are building a movement of radical love for each other, our colleagues, and our community that pushes us toward racial justice. We will not let the urgency of transformation pass us by.”

The letter is more than just a standalone document, said Chris Lenn, the interim human resources director for equity and workforce development, but equally a call to action. Lenn said that Human Resources will work with equity leaders across the County to ensure the vision is implemented throughout the organization.

“I think that it was such a true love letter to our community and to our employees, and I just so appreciate you taking a stand and saying that this is important,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “Not only is it important, but it is something that we must do and that we must move forward with by leading with race.” 

READ: Three members of the Inclusively Leading With Race design team reflect on their experiences