Walking our talk: County employees brief Board of Commissioners on progress of workforce equity efforts

February 26, 2020

Library employee Israel Fin (right) addresses the Board of Commissioners as Chief Diversity & Equity Officer Ben Duncan looks on.

Though they’ve only been a County employee since June 2019, library assistant Israel Fin has a decade’s worth of experience doing equity work. And as soon as they began pursuing a job at the County, they knew something was different. 

“What tends to be a trend is when we do equity work… we give ourselves a pat on the back for doing just the bare minimum. However, my experience at the County has been not that,” Fin told commissioners at a Feb. 25 board briefing. 

Fin was among the many County employees with a passion for, and expertise in, equity who filled the County boardroom to hear an update on the progress being made to address inequities within the Multnomah County workplace.  

As a Black cultural library assistant, Fin recalled feeling refreshed by the Black women they encountered at every stage of their hiring.

“My onboarding experience was such that I could see the work that the WESP [Workforce Equity Strategic Plan] was creating without even knowing what the WESP was,” said Fin. “The WESP is addressing what is needed to make staff of color feel safe in their job.”  

The Multnomah County Workforce Equity Strategic Plan was unveiled in April 2018 to address workplace harm experienced by employees belonging to marginalized groups — particularly County employees of color.

This week the Board of Commissioners was apprised of the work done over the last year in the form of the 2019 Workforce Equity Strategic Plan Annual Report.   

Before diving into the findings of the report at Tuesday’s briefing, Multnomah County Chief Diversity & Equity Officer Ben Duncan set the tone, reading a land acknowledgment that recognized the historical atrocities faced by Indigenous and Black peoples in the region.

Following the acknowledgment came a dedication to the life of Dana Thompson. Thompson, a beloved member of the Employees of Color Employee (EOC) Resource Group and Health Department employee, passed away suddenly in July 2019.  

Dana Thompson
Dana Thompson
“Dana was an amazing woman who I was lucky enough to call my friend,” said fellow EOC member Natasha Davy at Tuesday’s briefing. 

According to Davy, Thompson was at first hesitant to get involved with the Employees of Color resource group.   

“[Thompson] felt supported in her position at [County] Health… It took me two years to convince her to attend an EOC meeting,” said Davy. 

But when Thompson heard the stories of pain and frustration shared by other employees of color, she was moved to action, taking a leadership position within the EOC Employee Resource Group. 

“She overcame fear with faith,” said Davy. “Dana would be proud of the progress we’ve made.”     

Key findings 

During Tuesday’s briefing, Duncan and Interim Chief Human Resources Officer Holly Calhoun shared a broad overview of the progress made by the County over 2019 in meeting the goals outlined in the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, including:    

  • The creation and staffing of the Civil Rights Policy Unit.

  • The creation and staffing of an independent Protected Class Complaints Investigation Unit.  

  • The placement of equity managers within each department.

  • The formation of equity teams within each department.  

  • The development of department-specific workforce equity plan approaches. 

  • An update to County rules that allows for increased involvement in Employee Resource Group activities.

  • The reorganization of Organizational Learning (formally Talent Development) and talent acquisition resources within Central Human Resources.

  • The development of not-yet-finalized drafts for:

    • An Inclusively Leading with Race definition  

    • A Shared Language Guide 

    • Leadership Expectations and Accountability Plan (LEAP) model 

Employee- and department-led innovations that were not mandated in the strategic plan, but helped move the County toward its equity goals, were also highlighted in the report and shared during the presentation. Those efforts include, but are not limited to:

  • The County’s Information Technology Digital Access Team that focuses on Americans with Disability Act (ADA) accessibility, accommodation and disability justice. 

  • The Library Equity Toolkit designed to support and assist library staff in gaining cultural awareness and sensitivity.     

  • The Health Department Equity Leadership program, which offers Health employees the chance to shape the future of the department’s equity efforts while gaining valuable project management and leadership skills.   

The importance of leadership support 

Employee Engagement and Inclusion Analyst Estelle Norris (right) addresses the board as Equity Manager Casey Layton and Division of Assessment, Recording and Taxation Director Mike Vaughn look on.

During Tuesday’s presentation, Estelle Norris, a 13-year veteran of the Department of County Management, described how her drive to make her department’s business practices more equitable was encouraged by Division of Assessment, Recording and Taxation Director Mike Vaughn.

With Vaughn’s support, Norris was able to explore professional areas of interest within the division and eventually secure a limited duration Employee Engagement and Inclusion Analyst position. She also played a key role in developing the division’s Recruitment and Selection Procedure. 

“Managers matter,” Norris told the commissioners. Though she knows her story is unique, Norris said she wants people to understand what’s possible when employees are allowed “to spread their wings and show up in places and ways that may be outside of their normal job duties.” 

Challenges ahead

Despite the positive outcomes, the annual report and accompanying board briefing also highlighted areas that need special attention as Multnomah County moves forward in its workforce equity efforts. One such identified need was more flexibility around processes and timelines.

Due to the emotional toll associated with racial equity work, on employees of color in particular, various workforce equity committee organizers emphasized the need for adequate time to create collaborative and trusting spaces.   

Additionally, some committees had to slow their work during the course of the year to judge the efficacy of their respective approaches. Other times, work was paused to allow for other components of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan — including more coordinated infrastructure — to take shape.

“We’ve all experienced feeling off-key and the various growing pains that come with practice, learning and progress,” Casey Layton, equity manager for the Department of County Management, said Tuesday. “It’s important to strike the right balance and rhythm between highlighting progress in the work and knowing we still have much more work to do, especially around keeping all levels of this organization accountable to truly achieving safety, trust and belonging for all.” 

Chief Diversity & Equity Officer Ben Duncan echoed Layton’s caution.

“Progress is messy,” said Duncan. “While we should be proud of the work we’re doing, today is a chance to pause and reflect, but not a day of celebration.”

As the County makes progress towards racial equity and employees “actively reimagine what we can be,” Duncan warned that “the reality of systemic and institutional racism and oppression shows up and operates every day.”

“We will stumble. We will fail. We will learn,” he said. 

Looking forward

Chair Kafoury
Chair Deborah Kafoury

When faced with the option of doing equity work in the organization quickly or doing it right, Chair Deborah Kafoury said the choice was clear:  

“We chose to do it right,” she said. “We’re two years into our journey together and I know that our path to transformation is still in its early stages. Building up workforce equity isn’t easy... but making sure our walk matches our talk is absolutely worth it.” 

“I want to personally thank every single County employee who has been a part of this work so far,” she continued. “The innovation and the dedication that we heard today is already transforming this organization.” 

Read the Multnomah County 2019 Workforce Equity Strategic Plan Annual Report in its entirety