Three members of the Inclusively Leading With Race design team reflected on their experiences at a Board of County Commissioners briefing Tuesday, March 30.
Alejandro Juarez, an equity and conflict resolution specialist with Multnomah County Central Human Resources’ Organizational Learning and the chair of the Queer and Trans People of Color Employee Resource Group, joined the Inclusively Leading With Race (ILWR) design team in 2019.
Since then, the national conversation surrounding racial inequities has reached historic levels.
“When we began having this conversation, we were a little scared,” said Juarez. “We were nervous about talking explicitly about the impacts of racism and white supremacy culture on staff of color. There were a lot of conversations around whether the organization was ready to hear what would be said.”
But the committee members’ work and dialogue with each other pushed forward with a foundational acknowledgement that race must be discussed within its historical context, which became an important element of the Inclusively Leading with Race letter and call to action.
“So often the conversation begins as though it just started yesterday — and that after the Civil Rights Movement, now we are in an equal society, and we are trying to clean something up. But we are dealing with the legacy of our history and the decisions that were made,” said Juarez.
The group emphasized the disparate outcomes that communities of color — and particularly Black communities — face in education, health, the criminal justice system and COVID-19.
And lastly, the design team held conversations around intersectionality and how “these systems impact our communities and also our demographics,” said Juarez. “When we are talking about queer people or LGBT people, we actually have to ask, ‘How are queer people of color impacted by decisions or by the spaces we’re in?’”
The police killing of George Floyd last May and the resounding cries for accountability and racial justice across the country “really changed the national conversation around race,” Juarez said.
The events of the summer gave the design team more questions to wrestle with — specifically regarding the role government agencies occupy in dismantling institutional racism — but also gave them a renewed sense of urgency.
“That really changed the tone of the conversation for us in a way that we felt a little braver to say it — to actually talk about what those impacts were.”
While not everyone agreed throughout the team’s discussions, their commitment to the conversation itself was paramount.
“We sit with our discomfort and work through our discomfort. If we learned anything this past year, we have to answer these questions,” Juarez said. “We have to look at the entire climate, ‘How we are contributing to the climate? What ways can we mitigate the harms we cause and repair them?’
“We got to really look at the community and assess our own work and our own relationships with racism. And I think that part of having this letter is to broaden that conversation with the rest of the County.”
Aimeera Flint — a policy and engagement equity manager for the Chair’s Office, as well as a representative for the Employees of Color and Managers of Color employee resource groups — reflected on key moments of Multnomah County’s reckoning with its history of practices that harmed employees of color.
“I was there when employees of color walked out on Human Resources,” she said. “And I was also there when employees came to the boardroom and expressed their concerns and frustrations with how our colleagues were being treated at the County.”
“Our collective organizing, our collective voice and collective advocacy has gotten us here today,” she said.
Flint recognized the critical role that employees play in raising concerns, asserting their dignity and speaking up for each other in order to push Multnomah County to be better.
The Board of Commissioners responded “not just in word, but in action,” Flint acknowledged, through adopting and then continuing to support the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan — which included the creation of the Civil Rights and Complaints Investigation units — as well as other Board investments, actions and commitments.
These meaningful steps weren’t made without disagreement or dissension, Flint said, “but we have made a difference. Social justice, racial justice, diversity and equity and inclusion — this work is not easy.”
Experiencing racism, oppression and discrimination as a Black woman, hearing about it from colleagues, and seeing it in the media is tiring, she shared, but she sees her and her colleagues’ advocacy as part of a larger story.
“I’m reminded that my voice matters, your voice matters and the voice of the collective matters,” Flint said.
“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and we’re also changing systems and structures for those who come after us.”
Whenever you get weary, tired and want to give up, she said, “just remember the fight for justice is a lifelong journey.”
Wendy Lin-Kelly, a research evaluation analyst for the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Immigrant and Refugee Employee Resource Group, described her journey in taking action against systemic racism.
“I had so much to learn about racism and the ways it shows up,” she said. “How my own thoughts, behavior, stereotypes and judgments need constant checking. And how the systems you think are fair and objective are probably not and are built to keep some in power and hold others down.”
Lin-Kelly recognized the courage of many of her County colleagues speaking out and taking action against systemic racism and white supremacy. And she appreciated the County’s willingness to provide the space to do so.
“People have been harmed by systems that I had never questioned before,” Lin-Kelly said. “I had been ignoring and excusing behavior that was inappropriate in an effort to get along and not cause trouble.”
But today, Lin-Kelly takes inspiration from her colleagues, being more honest and participating in the work of making the County a more racially just and equitable place.
“I needed to learn to be a better person and be braver, and open to hearing and seeing when things are wrong so that I can strive to make them right,” she said. “That I matter in making a difference and have power to set things right.”
As a data analyst, she seeks assignments related to racial justice work. Being part of the Inclusively Leading with Race design team, she said, has led her to care more and feel more protective of the people behind the data.
The Sheriff’s Office can often believe that it’s not responsible for why people enter the criminal justice system, and that it’s the result of individual actions and other agencies that led them there.
“But we are, and I believe there are things we can do to be more just,” Lin-Kelly said.
And while being a driver of change in her office can be difficult, Lin-Kelly is glad that her Sheriff’s Office unit recognizes these truths.
“I understand how hard this is, but know that I have changed by being part of a process that the County has supported,” Lin-Kelly shared as a final message to colleagues.
“I listened, questioned myself and my knee-jerk reactions. I sat with knowing I have to unlearn and take back some things I thought I had learned.
Seek out learning experiences, training and interactions about addressing racism. Strive to get over the fear of making mistakes, offending people or being labeled a racist.
Show up with sincerity, and practice using the equity lens when you can.”