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Helen Silvis
Published: 14 October 2010

The Skanner interviewed both the candidates for Multnomah County Commissioner. Here is our interview with Karol Collymore, who came to Portland eight years ago to work in a development role for NARAL, then went to work for the American Heart Association before becoming an assistant to Multnomah County Chair, Jeff Cogen. 

The Skanner: Why do you want to run for Multnomah County Commissioner?

\"> Karol Collymore: I've worked at the county for three and a half years, and over my 10-year career working in issues of choice –in issues of gay and lesbian equity and in issues of health at The American Heart Association --  I feel that the county is the one place where it is an amalgamation of all the things I care about and you can affect each piece of those.

So, when Jeff (Cogen) decided to run for chair and was successful in that, I decided to follow in his footsteps. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the right time. I would get to continue the work that I'd already started doing. And Id get to do some of the other work that I'm interested in doing, but haven't had a chance to touch upon yet. But really, I love working in North and Northeast Portland and that's what I've been doing for the last three and a half years. Really it just feels right and feels like the right thing to do and I'm really excited to do the work.

The Skanner: You know the budget coming up in next biennium is going to be a ticking time bomb budget: What would you prioritize and what would you cut.

Karol Collymore: I think it's important to recognize that the county isn't just funded on property taxes and that other money comes into the county. We have state money and we have federal money so when the governor decides it's necessary that they need to cut 9 percent across the board -- that means a lot of our money is getting redirected or we're not getting it at all. So I think that the priorities are: obviously our most vulnerable populations need to be served.  We need to protect services for children, such as SUN schools, in-school health clinics. We need to protect programs for folks that are disabled, whether it's mental illness or adults with disabilities or anything in that realm. We need to protect services for drug and alcohol treatment. And I think we need to protect services for the elderly.

That said, I think there are spaces where we are just going to have to cut. There is no pretty answer to how this goes. It's a tight budget so I think at first we say OK what's the even split between departments and programs and everybody take their constraint. I think our departments have done a very good job of saying 'OK, we're not going to fill positions that are open.' and they have positions that have been open for a long time. They have done a good job of holding positions open just to see what happens at the state level.

I think moving forward that there have to be tough decisions. We can rethink about how we fund animal services. I think they should be funded, but I think there are innovative ways to do that through, maybe, a nonprofit channel, and by creating a foundation structure the way we have with the library. Money comes in differently for that. We should think about how much money we spend on jail beds, when maybe they should be mental health treatment beds. And we can work with our nonprofit community on how to make those models work.

Lifeworks NW, for example, does drug and alcohol treatment and they keep folks 4-6 months, but then they follow them for a year with therapy and job training. And they help them get housing. So we need to consider maybe that's more effective than letting people be arrested and sent to jail. Sure, they have done bad things. But is that bad thing related to feeding their addiction? If so, maybe we should be solving addiction issues.

There's no doubt that we definitely will  be doing some cutting, and we will definitely need to have an honest conversation with the chair and all commissioners about choices that need to be made and having the public be aware of that. I think there are probably some internal services that the county does that could be warehoused – the sheriff's office and the county run on different IT departments. Maybe there could be some consolidation there – with administrative costs. I know that the chair (Jeff Cogen) is looking at that right now, as he's been having to cut continuously since he's been seated.

I think administration costs are one of those things where you have to ask OK, where can we start to consolidate? And is there anything we are duplicating across departments or across services?

The other question would be what are we duplicating across counties and across city and county? You know the city deals with homeless singles and the county deals with homeless families, so we're fighting for the same pots of money from the feds or from the state. We need to say: let the city have this, or let the county have that, so we can be more effective in how we're battling certain issues. Or even in the tri-county area maybe there is something we can be doing better and more cost-effectively. Where can we start to consolidate our services? I think in the times of our precarious economy that's just what we are going to have to do. We will have to be more innovative in how we work together: it cannot be this county versus county, county versus city way of doing business any more. Once we learn how to do that we will continue doing I think, because it's just a better, more efficient way to work.

The Skanner: What changes would you seek to make to the way the commission runs now?

Karol Collymore: I think it's important to keep the precedents chairs Wheeler and Cogen set when they came in new. And with the addition of Kafoury and Shiprack and McKeel the commission has created the spirit of congeniality. I think that each in their own way has figured out ways to work with other jurisdictions, and I think we need to continue on  that model. As I mentioned before, none of us have enough money, but if we start to think in different ways about how we do the work, the work finds a way to get done.

The best example that I was involved with at the county has been The Gateway Center for Domestic Violence. The way we achieved the creation of a one-stop center for victims was that we said, OK, at the county we have an empty building; the city has $1.2 million to dedicate to domestic violence funding; the feds are going to give us $30,000 for remote restraining orders. And we have a whole group of issue expert nonprofits who are interested in participating. Let's figure out how this works. It took almost two years to get it all together, and to get the right nonprofit pieces, and the right culturally specific services, and the right gender specific services. We had to figure out if we could really do the remote restraining orders and how to get childcare on campus for people coming in through the Volunteers of America. Those are all the kinds of things we need to start doing – innovative partnerships. That's the road we're all going to go down and I'm certain that even after the economy gets better, we'll realize how much better that is and keep doing it.

The Skanner: What can the county do better to support communities of color that are suffering disproportionately from unemployment and poverty?

Karol Collymore: You know I think the number one thing the county can do -- and we're starting to do this and it needs to be pushed out further -- is addressing the institutional racism. You know it is 2010 and we are still talking about black and brown people way behind the curve – and in Portland it happens to be black people, Latino people, Asian people and Native American people. In other places Asians don't usually fall into that mold they usually lean toward the Caucasian statistics but here they don't. So we really need to look at how we treat people institutionally and what are the barriers for folk to get work, to get health care, to get all of those things. I think with the hiring of a chief diversity officer that's going to start doing that at the county—that's Daryl Dixon. And then there is the health piece and the education piece – there are so many pieces – how do we get schools to stop expelling young boys of color- specifically young black boys? How do we get them to stop doing that? How do we get over the idea that this is not behavior they came up with themselves they are simply reflecting what they see around them. They are watching something that is making them be that way.

So how do we switch to a model that's: Let's bring in the family; let's bring in the parent, and let's address what's going on with this kid. Let's not kick him out so that in 10 years time he is not in trouble somewhere. It's those investments in Head Start and not being afraid of saying we need culturally specific programs. Lifeworks NW, for example, offers a culturally specific program toward women and drug addiction. And in health care situations there are useful culturally specific programs – say for black women doulas. So let's not be afraid to say some things are just different, and some things we need to do differently. That's true in the work force as well, but the biggest thing is investment in children—specifically children of color. If we don't invest in children, then what do we think is going to happen down the road?

So it's upfront changes; it's systematic changes in carrying on those conversations. And then it is bringing jobs to town and creating jobs, and saying we are going to keep our eye on diversity. PSU president Wim Wievel  has said, when he moved here he wondered why aren't there more Latinos in the workforce? And he has made this plan, saying we are specifically recruiting Latinos to come to Portland State University – professional Latinos. And these are the kinds of things we need to do, and we need to do this for all  cultural groups so we really live up to this idea that Portland is a very diverse place to live.

The Skanner: Here at The Skanner we see two strong, well-qualified African American women running for the same seat. At the same time there is a severe shortage of African Americans and other people of color at every level of state government: What can communities of color do to get fair representation in government? And what are your own political aspirations? Whether you are elected or not in November, can you forsee yourself moving into other roles?

Karol Collymore: I think first that it is important to have elected leaders of color to reflect this population, and to say to other people, 'Look, Here we are, we're here.' I googled Portland when I was coming here, but I didn't find many leaders of color. I think that when you are in that position of power, whether it's elected or otherwise, it becomes your job and it becomes your responsibility to mentor other people as if they were going to take your job- much in the way I feel chair Cogen did for me. Then it becomes my responsibility to do that for other people. Some of the recruitment things that we do are important. When we are bringing people in, then we are giving them safe harbor and we are saying to them this is a safe place to stay. We also need to be offering various mentoring channels. Organizations like the Bus Project do a really good job in mentoring young politicos, and I think we could replicate that for communities of color. There are groups trying to do that right now, but the key to that is community and collaboration and working together -- so that if somebody offers themselves up and they are on a different team, we support and encourage people to move over.

As to my own role, I will marinate on that depending on what happens in November. But I think public service?  Yes –always. Even in my personal life it's volunteering at hands on Portland or volunteering at Planned Parenthood or volunteering at Basic Rights Oregon. Those are all things I care about and things I want to put my energy to –I will always be in some way involved in public service.

I was still in college when I went to work on the Al Gore campaign in New Mexico, That's when my lights turned on, and I've never done anything that far outside of politics since. I stayed working for the party, I worked for another candidate and then I moved here to work for the American Heart Association, which is where I got my passion for healthcare. I worked for choice, I worked for LGBTQ ( Lesbian, Gay Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Queer) communities, and now I'm at the county.  I like that feeling of seeing your work being able to transform things. I love that. So the chances of me getting out of that are slim to none.

Whether it ends up paying me – career wise – that's another question.

The Skanner: Is there anything else you want people to know about you?

Karol Collymore: I think it's really important to say that while we have two bright African American women running for county commissioner, we're also just bright wonderful women; were also just bright wonderful people, and I think that's important to say. It's easy to look at this without regard for the other qualities and skills that people bring to the table  -- so for me it's also about saying we are both wonderful bright people but we are not transferrable we would have two different kinds of plans and policies and the way we would treat things.

I think that for me working at the county and seeing projects through A to Z is a plus. I think me already working with the current commissioners is a plus; I also think my relative newcomer status to the city is a plus although I feel like I've been here for ever – almost 8 years. I think it's a benefit because I've had to earn every step here – to be able to be here at this point in my career. And I've worked really hard to do that and I would transfer all of that into the work that I would continue to do at the county. And I think my county experience is valuable. I also think I reach a lot of communities because of my previous work. I know a lot of people and have been able to do a lot of work personally and professionally so I think that makes me very well qualified for this position.

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