Last month the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries’ new civil rights division administrator stepped into her new role.
Carol Johnson comes to Oregon by way of Arkansas, where in 2005, she was appointed the founding executive director of the Arkansas Fair Housing Commission, a quasi-judicial, regulatory, enforcement agency that investigates and resolves fair housing/fair lending complaints – and the only civil rights agency in Arkansas. Johnson has also served on the U.S. Commission on Human Rights since 2014.
Johnson holds a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and has worked as a public defender, prosecutor and as counsel for Arkansas’ Labor Commissioner with the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission.
The Bureau’s Civil Rights Division enforces Oregon’s civil rights protections for individuals in employment, housing, career schools and public accommodations. It also protects individuals against retaliation for accessing their rights as injured workers or whistleblowers.
The Skanner News spoke with Johnson about her expectations for her new role. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: How have you found the position so far? What are your first impressions?
Carol Johnson: I’m actually really excited to be here. I think that I am coming into a really great team. They have done a lot of great work in civil rights enforcement so far. I’m just hoping to get in here and roll up my sleeves and get to working to make sure we are protecting all folks. I think Oregon has a great shop here already. I like that they are protecting so many different classes of people.
For me right now, it’s just a matter of getting in here and looking at the applicable laws and statutes and figuring out where we are. I know there were some new laws that were passed, so we’re looking at doing some rulemaking on some of those laws that were passed. But right now it’s just about going in, getting in and making sure that I’m able to support the team and making sure we can start working on doing the things that we love to do -- which is protecting civil rights.
TSN: What drew you to Oregon?
CJ: I think one of the things that I really liked about Oregon was the opportunity to expand the work in civil and human rights. In Arkansas, we were very limited in the enforcement there. What really drew me here was the opportunity to kind of work in all these areas of civil rights. I like how the state has been very progressive in trying to reach all the people: housing, employment, public accommodations, vo-tech schools – all those things that help people live the best quality of life possible. I was just very attracted to the progressive nature of the state and particularly Portland.
TSN: What are some of the challenges that you anticipate in this position?
CJ: Portland, just like every place else, has its challenges in terms of affordable housing issues. Where you live really determines all the things that you’re able to get out of life: whether you have access to great health care or schools, whether you live in a food desert, those types of things.
Now of course, if you don’t have the opportunity to have good employment because of that arbitrary thing, your race or your color, your national origin, your disability status or any of those things, then you don’t have the opportunity to have access to a better quality of life and so again, you know the same with vo-tech schools or the programs that we have jurisdiction over. Public accommodations is the same thing.
I think for a lot of different reasons Oregon is a great place in that they have a lot of forward thinking. This is evident, I think, in the laws that have been passed in the past few years. But some really forward-thinking folks who have really put, you know, the protections of the people before everything else. I am actually very grateful to work with a commissioner like Val Hoyle who understands these types of things and who is very very passionate, as I am, about the protection of civil rights.
TSN: What are some things that Oregonians or other people might be surprised to know about BOLI, in terms of its jurisdiction or the types of complaints that BOLI can respond to that might not be intuitive?
CJ: That might be a little bit difficult for me to answer just because I’m new to this state. One of the things that BOLI has jurisdiction over is criminal conviction, ban the box -- that’s probably one area.
Any time you have a criminal history you have difficulties doing a lot of things. You have difficulties obtaining housing, you have difficulties obtaining employment, you have difficulties you know, just really acclimating yourself back into life in general. That’s why we see that recidivism rates are so high.
BOLI’s done a really good job in their technical assistance and providing education and outreach but as that goes, I would like to see us providing outreach and education on some of these new laws – like pay equity -- that are being passed and making sure that people do understand what BOLI’s jurisdiction is and that they can come here if we have this issue and we can provide some enforcement in all of these other areas.
TSN: And last question: what do you do when you’re not at work?
CJ: I plan to do a lot more. I haven’t had the opportunity to do much of that right now. Right now I’ve just been catching up on sleep and you know, the time difference is a little bit of a change.
I plan to be very active in the community. I’m really looking forward to finding some ways to incorporate myself into community involvement. It’s something that I’m very passionate about. I went to law school with a desire to work in civil rights and to work in public interest law. It’s something that’s very near and dear to me and I’ve, I just want to make sure that I’m giving back to all of the communities, that I’m giving back to every community in every way that I can.
I plan to find some fun things to do too and just to make friends. I’m excited to make Portland my home now.