Hate crimes, discrimination in employment, housing and justice. Communities all over the world are struggling to find solutions to the problem of discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and Portland is no different.
That's why this week, after four years without any governmental office whose mission is dealing with discrimination, Mayor Potter brought legislation to the city council that will create a new human relations commission, to handle discrimination claims, educate the public about the issues, advocate for equality and advise other agencies and organizations.
"I'm truly excited by the possibilities …," Mayor Potter said last week. "I think the time is right and the growing diversity of Portland demands it.
"It's time – it should have never gone away and we're looking at ways to make sure it never goes away again."
The Council was set to vote on the proposal Wednesday night, past press deadlines for The Skanner.
Yet even with a framework in place, the commission's job description remains open. That's because the commission will have to set its own priorities as it goes along, says consultant Lew Frederick, who helped research and write the recommendation to create an independent city-funded commission.
What is clear is that to ensure the rights of all people are respected, the commission will use four strategies – education, research, advocacy and intervention.
"There are a range of expectations," Frederick says. "Some are very much advisory and others are very hands on. We decided that enforcement wasn't going to fit for Portland. We're not taking the enforcement tack so the commission can focus on education, advocacy and can lobby for change."
The list of citizen concerns is long. Frederick, of Northwest Ideas, LLC, says he filled up three pages worth of discrimination concerns, from the availability of health services to discrimination against gay, lesbian, or transgendered people, before he realized the commission would have to define exactly what kinds of societal discrimination to focus on.
"The list got to be so long … (the commission) can't take them all on," he said.
Frederick and fellow consultant Frances Portillo, of Portillo Consulting, International, recommend a proactive, as well as reactive, organization, similar to those found in Seattle, Eugene, Boston and other municipalities and states across the nation. Mayor Potter agreed.
"It can play many important roles in providing education and advocacy," Potter said. "And it can act to address a problem before it becomes a big issue."
Potter pointed to racial profiling as an issue that the city likely would have addressed sooner, had a commission been working to ensure equal treatment for all. "Police started collecting information on profiling in 2000 but it wasn't until 2006 that they released it," he said.
The commission will work under the umbrella of a newly formed Office of Human Relations, which would also house the Racial Profiling Committee. It will also use the recommendations created by the Immigrant and Refugee Task Force. The task force was formed, Potter said, because there was no commission to go to that could help the city reach out to Portland's newest minority residents.
The commission will have its hands full, says Portillo, because discrimination tends to be more subtle these days then when the original Intergroup Relations Committee was formed in 1948. That said, one form of racism currently has been particularly brazen in the public square – racism against Hispanics. Portillo says the recent spat over the renaming of Interstate Avenue to Cesar Chavez Way offers a perfect example.
A human relations commission could have addressed some of the overtly racist comments made at several heated public meetings, Portillo said. The commission could have done four things: 1) Educate the public about the contributions of Chavez in Oregon; 2) Research claims about the negative impacts of the name change; 3) Teach people the value of effective advocacy to reduce the effect of racist/hateful rhetoric; 4) Act as mediators between the two groups unable to reconcile differences.
"(The Commission) can't fix everything," says Portillo, acknowledging that the group is only one force of change in the city. While the outcome of the Chavez debate might have been the same, she says, the damage to the city's Hispanic community might not have been as great if the commission had been there.
Crimes and discrimination against gays and lesbians also remain a problem in Portland. And Portillo says some people remain ignorant of the plight of minority groups in society. "I'm not sure we're as progressive as we think we are," she said.
Paulene Bradford, president of the Harriet Tubman Club and longtime resident of Northeast Portland, says the need for a human relations commission in a city as diverse and dense as Portland is great. And the need for a diverse commission will be a key to its success or failure, she said.
"People feel different ways depending on their experiences," Bradford said. "Things that might not be important to one person could be taken very seriously by another."
The battle against bigotry and discrimination in the Northwest has been long and hard and a commission could help to ensure those battles weren't fought for nothing.
"There is a tendency to regress … to drop back," she said. "You'd hate to fight the same battles again."
Throughout the years of its existence, the human relations committee changed names and forms several times until the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission was formed in 1978. That county-wide commission was written off the city budget in 2003 after being put under the control of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement – partly because of costs, partly because of ineffectiveness and political infighting, says Frederick.
Although the old commission's problems were many, most of its problems boiled down to personality conflicts, lack of a defined mission, the uncertainty of political accountability and internal political battles. Portillo, who was a member of the commission right before and after it was transferred to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement said many of the problems boiled down to personality conflicts.
Whether any government body is immune from such personal conflict indefinitely is debatable, but Frederick says he hopes that several safeguards, built into the structure will prevent politicians and individuals from exerting undue pressure on the new commission. These will include hiring a strong, experienced director and creating separation between city council and the commission, by for example, siting it away from city offices.