Multnomah County Making Strides toward Investing in Culturally Specific and Community-based Organizations during Pandemic

April 19, 2021

It was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when Terralyn Wiley, a senior program specialist for the School Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) Service System, and Robyn Johnson, a planning and development specialist at the Department of County Human Services (DCHS), were faced with a difficult undertaking: distributing $1 million in County financial assistance to communities most affected by the pandemic in six weeks. 

But Wiley and Johnson didn’t view this challenge as a task, but as an opportunity to completely transform the way Multnomah County interacts with culturally specific and community-based partners by breaking down barriers.

“Terralyn really emphasized that we needed to invite our partners to the table to give feedback on the project and the process before it was finalized,” Johnson says. “With that feedback we were really able to adjust our approach.”

Informed by the feedback of community partners who understand the needs and barriers of the community members they serve, the County settled on distributing the funding through $250 and $500 cash cards. In all, 2,720 households received assistance, uplifting more than 8,700 community members who had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Multnomah County has worked closely with dozens of community-based organizations to distribute financial assistance to struggling community members.
However, the work of getting the cards into the hands of real people was driven by the County’s partners. Forty-seven community-based organizations ended up taking part in the distribution efforts. Of those 47, 15 had never worked with Multnomah County before and were brought into the work thanks to Robyn’s and Terralyn’s efforts to engage potential partners early in the process. Some of these new partners, Robyn said, reached “community members that are the most marginalized, particularly during COVID and the exacerbation of racism and exclusions from systems of education and work.

The project was so successful that a second round of distribution took place just months later to distribute $3 million in CARES Act aid. This time, 39 community-based organizations helped distribute funds through unconditional cash cards or digital Zelle disbursements. In total, 8,015 households and 22,667 community members received direct aid.

Wiley and Johnson’s tremendous work is just one example of the strides being taken in Multnomah County to work with and invest in culturally specific and community-based organizations over the last five years. 

The increased investment comes 10 years after a report from the Coalition of Communities of Color that described Multnomah County as “uniquely toxic to communities of color.” Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan described this report as a catalyst for the investment, calling it “a public challenge both to honestly and openly acknowledge the systems of racism and discrimination that were baked into governmental and societal structures, but also a challenge for us at Multnomah County to do our work differently, to grapple with foundational questions of reparative and distributive justice, and to invest in services and build capacity in communities that were most negatively impacted by institutional and systemic racism.”

In the last five years, from FY 16 to FY 20, the County’s General Fund investments in culturally specific providers increased from $8 million to $16.5 million. Adding in state and federal funding to General Fund investments, the County’s total investment in these providers has doubled, from $14 million to $28 million, shared Chief Financial Officer Eric Arellano. 

The biggest takeaway from this work, according to Johnson, Wiley and others involved in the distribution of funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, was the importance of bringing the voices of community-based organizations to the table and reducing the barriers experienced by the people the County serves. These lessons are what made these projects so successful and should continue to be followed when working with culturally specific organizations, says Johnson.

“We have to prioritize this accountability to our community, but also our accountability to our partners. We need to streamline these processes, and if I’m gonna make an ask of this process, it is this: let’s document what went really well and use those as a starting place for a conversation about how to reduce barriers, not only for our community partners but also for the people we serve,” Johnson said.

Wiley agrees.

“When we shift our attitudes from purse holders to partners, we create a space and an environment where relationships can really grow and thrive, and where trust is built,” she said. “That’s where we see success as partners — as an entity that’s doing its best to serve communities.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury commended Wiley and Johnson for their hard work and dedication to underserved communities throughout the pandemic, and acknowledged the progress Multnomah County has taken to invest in culturally specific organizations.

“It’s clear that through intentional actions and investments, Multnomah County has made significant headway in terms of identifying and supporting effective culturally responsive ways of meeting our Black and Brown, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color. That progress is definitely worth noting,” Chair Kafoury said.

“I think the last several years has shown that Multnomah County is all in on this work. I know I am committed, and I know we all are committed to continuing doing the right thing for the community, with the community, and doing it the right way… It’s our responsibility to leverage our resources to support and uplift the strength, resilience and creativity that exists within our communities.”