September 20, 2023

A month after gathering to design strategies for increasing organizational accountability, the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan (WESP) Renewal Steering Committee came together to address an equally crucial topic: Restructuring. The task at hand in August was to reimagine the organizational structure that defines the relationship between centralized and departmental equity efforts, particularly the respective responsibilities of Equity Managers and departmental HR.

Steering committee members and subject matter experts participate in a fun exercise to explore group communication and collaboration.
Steering committee members and invited subject matter experts spent the Aug. 22 and 24 work sessions exploring the central question: “How might we design County structures and reporting relationships to support the efforts of the WESP and achieve Racial Justice and Equity?”

The first day focused on identifying key challenges within the current decentralized structure of the County that, while offering some benefits, creates barriers to standardizing processes that result in silos. 

An introspective exercise revealed critical areas for improvement, perhaps most notably white supremacy culture and its characteristics that are embedded in current practices. White supremacy culture is, according to author Tema Okun, “the widespread ideology baked into the beliefs, values, norms, and standards of our groups (many if not most of them), our communities, our towns, our states, our nation, teaching us both overtly and covertly that whiteness holds value, whiteness is value.” Participants recognized the need to address white supremacy culture and its characteristics as the most significant factor holding the organization back from meaningful change.

Using visual aids, participants explored the relationships between various departments and offices. They designed ways in which they might work better by balancing agency with collaboration, eventually constructing an improved model for the County's organizational structure. The creative exercise considered all levels of the organization, emphasizing the vital relationships between them. The aim was to transcend individualism and foster community within the County.

On the second day, participants engaged in an innovative approach: Circle Wisdom. This process involved two circles: an "inner" circle made up of those most impacted by oppression addressing challenges, and an "outer" circle silently listening and taking notes.

Building upon the wisdom gained from Circle Wisdom, teams engaged in a Madlib-style exercise to craft action statements connected to tangible outcomes. These statements were converted into a slate of recommendations that provides a clear roadmap toward the future vision of a more supportive organizational structure that facilitates a more equitable future.

Recommended actions include:

  • Investing in equity teams: Enhancing capacity and baseline staffing for departmental equity teams to ensure consistent support.
  • Clarifying roles and responsibilities: Articulating the scope of work for equity teams and establishing clear expectations for all County positions.
  • Enhancing structural collaboration: Fostering collaboration between directors, HR, the Complaints Investigation unit and equity teams to address complaints, investigations and support.
  • Countywide accountability for equity: Establishing an equity council or ombudsman team to drive tangible progress and address concerns.

The exploration of the drawbacks of the County’s current decentralized structure, as well as the ensuing work to identify strategies for improving collaboration, consistency, policy enforcement, support for staff and accountability that took place over the two-day work session marked a pivotal moment in the WESP Renewal project journey. With a deep understanding of current challenges and a clear vision for the future, the committee stands united in its commitment to dismantling racial disparities and creating an equitable workplace. The steering committee will continue to explore other critical topics, including Retention, Training, Compensation and Data.

In the coming months, the recommendations established in each set of topic work sessions will be further refined and integrated into the comprehensive Workforce Equity Strategic Plan for the 2024-2027 cycle that will be presented to the Board of County Commissioners in December. As the renewal steering committee continues to engage deeply with each other and subject matter experts, the Multnomah County community anticipates a transformative blueprint for a more just and inclusive future. Together, we strive for lasting change and a legacy of equity for generations.

The steering committee most recently met this week on Sept. 19 and Sept. 21 to work on the “Retention” topic. A summary and session capture of that meeting will be posted to the “WESP Renewal Project Progress and Resources” webpage soon.