The city of Portland has unveiled a plan to help communities of color connect with their city government. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement will award three grants, totaling $200,000, to community organizations working in ethnic minority and immigrant and refugee communities, to help improve access to city government.
The grant program, called the Diversity and Civic Leadership Organizing Project, aims to build community partnerships, improve communication, create leadership opportunities and foster links between underrepresented communities and city government.
"It's going to allow people to get involved," said Jeri Williams, the program's coordinator. "You are going to see increased engagement in City Hall."
The program comes on the heels of a resolution passed by the City Council in December 2006 that encouraged all levels of government to improve access for immigrants and refugees. While the resolution was mainly nonbinding and ceremonial, it did establish a task force of immigrants, refugees, city representatives and others to investigate barriers the community faces and identify solutions. Immigrants and refugees packed the City Council meeting to applaud the resolution's passage. The task force is scheduled to release its findings in September.
Amalia Alarcon, bureau director with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and task force member, said although both initiatives aim to solve similar problems, they are running on parallel but separate tracks. The task force will offer recommendations, but it will be up to City Council leaders to decide which policies to adopt. The Diversity and Civic Leadership Organizing Project will allow organizations already working in ethnic minority communities to develop their own action plans.
So why isn't Portland's traditional neighborhood association system including these communities? One reason, Williams said, is that the system – developed in the 1970s — was designed mainly to represent homeowners. Renters and other low-income individuals were largely left out of the loop, an oversight that disproportionately affected communities of color. Immigrants and refugees face similar barriers. Most are renters; are not native English speakers, and many come from cultures where governments censor participation and criticism.
"As a person who lives day-to-day, works from 9 to 5, working to change how the city operates is not something we learned," Williams said.
Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Urban League of Portland, says many people need basic assistance, but don't even know about helpful government services available to them and their families.
"All large bureaucratic engines can do a better job to let the community know about what is even available," Mundy said.
The Urban League plans to apply for one of the grants, and is even talking about partnering with another community organization to maximize the grant's effectiveness, if they receive it. Mundy says he's positive the program is a step in the right direction.
"People ask, 'Is this just another wasted effort?'" he said. "This effort is just as real and relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Not as much has changed as you might think. Whether it's political or not, it's no panacea, but it's a cog."
Immigrants and refugees face variations on the same issues communities of color have traditionally faced. Once the barriers to accessing government are addressed, Mundy would like the city to turn its focus on improving economic disparities. Without getting the business and the larger communities on board, he says, the government's plan won't be as effective
"I know you have to do it a piece at a time," he said. "But how do we engage the business community?"