While Portland marked its second week of protests, a group of Black-led organizations formed as an ambitious collaborative to dismantle systemic racism. They quickly gained traction with local and state legislators.
Katrina Holland, executive director of homeless services nonprofit JOIN, spearheaded the effort.
“We were just sort of watching the way elected officials were debriefing the evenings and the protests, and sort of get stuck in this rut we kept seeing, which is acknowledging and apologizing for Black people’s pain,” Holland told The Skanner. “And we just got sick of it. It had been probably two weeks at that point since the protests had started, and it was like, why in the world are we not hearing about debriefing with community members and Black activists?”
After checking in with other local activists, Holland felt that although officials had expressed increased interest in equity issues, there had been no real progress in policy.
“We’ve been making recommendations for years, for decades, and people have just not responded the way they need to,” Holland said.
“I said, ‘I think this is a moment of political will that we haven’t seen, and we should run with it and really get some stuff done.
“I called those folks back and said hey, what if we bring together multiple jurisdictions, and compiled all the asks that we’ve made before in the state of Black Oregon, the (Portland African American Leadership Forum) People’s Plan, and Unite Oregon and PAAF has released a policy platform now -- what do you think of the idea of bringing folks together to talk about those?”
“There was an intentionality around bringing protest folks into the equation, and the voices of people who had been involved on the ground in the protest movement,” Kali Ladd, executive director of education nonprofit KairosPDX, told The Skanner.
The result, Reimagine Oregon, is a joint effort between Coalition of Communities of Color, the Urban League of Portland, KairosPDX, JOIN, and Stand for Children, and others.
Holland said the name reflects the state’s history.
“Oregon was founded as a White utopia, so there is very deep-seated, systemic racism,” she said.
“That legacy lives with us and perpetuates itself in a lot of ways. And the only real way to deconstruct that is to think differently.”
Harmon Johnson expressed similar sentiment during the press conference.
“While we talk about the need to defund the police and build a real community public safety system in our communities, all of us have lived and grown up in this system,” Harmon Johnson said. “It’s hard to imagine what our lives could be like under true public safety.”
“It’s pretty exciting because it’s multi-jurisdictional, multi-sector, multi-age, multi-gender collaborative that I think represents a lot of strength in our community,” Ladd said. “I think we’ve not seen anything like it, and I think there is a huge opportunity here.”
After six weeks of planning, Reimagine Oregon held a virtual press conference last week to highlight its policy demands, which address urgent needs in education, police divestments, housing, health and wellbeing, transportation, economic development, legislative process and community safety.
“When we talk about Black lives matter, we mean complete and whole persons,” Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland, said during the press conference. “Not merely to do with the police, not only to do with education, not only to do with jobs — the whole beings.”
Demands are categorized as state-wide, Metro, or by county, with legislative leads designed to each. Reimagine Oregon asked the relevant legislators to give a prognosis -- or progress report -- on each.
“We say it’s really the protesters that brought these legislators to the table,” Holland said. “Public safety is the focus because of what’s happening with the protests, but it’s also where we see a lot of systemic racism in some of its ugliest forms. One of the biggest asks we kept coming back to every single week was a space to sort of think and re-imagine what public safety meant, and to think about community alternatives to policing.”
Some of the education demands similarly focus on the more punitive structures woven into school programs, as Ladd explained.
“I focused on the levers that decriminalize children and youth,” Ladd said. “Because there’s a lot of policies that impact young people, but I kept the bend towards that criminal justice/stopping the pipeline to prison framework.”
“The Reimagine Oregon project acknowledges specifically the needs of Black children,” Elona Wilson, a community organizer with Stand for Children, told The Skanner. “One way we do this is by calling out changes needed within different policy spaces, including education. One of our policy demands within education is that we develop accountability frameworks for the state school fund to ensure equitable outcomes for students.”
Demands also address enforcement practices that disproportionately impact low-income populations and people of color, like fare evasion, which Reimage Oregon wants to be removed as a misdemeanor. Trimet reported issuing 39,464 fare evasion citations between 2016 and 2018. The fine is $175.
The group also seeks to ban fare evasion as a trigger for warrant searches.
“You’ll find that law enforcement encounters Black and brown people very often through the pretext of investigation fare evasions, and then uses it to continue the engagement,” Harmon Johnson said.
Reimagine Oregon is also seeking to insure accountability at all levels of the legislative process by instituting racial impact statements for bills.
“This is important, because when you sponsor a bill, you always have a financial impact statement, you frequently have environmental impact statements,” Marcus Mundy, Coalition of Communities of Color president, said during the press conference. “But it is critical that you start including racial impact statements so you can know who you are effective with your proposed legislation. And they have some good processes at Metro meant to suss that out, define it, send it back if it doesn’t meet the racial equity thresholds that it set, and move on.”
During the press conference, Brown said she was excited to partner with the collaborative and “cultivate a new narrative for Oregon.”
“For me, it means centering racial equity as I build a state budget, centering racial equity as we develop our 2021 legislative agenda, as we recruit and promote people in state agencies and our boards and commissions,” Brown said.
Three days later, Brown announced the formation of the Racial Justice Council, tasked with data collection, making racial justice-centered recommendations regarding budget decisions, and creating a Racial Justice Action Plan around criminal justice reform and police accountability, housing and homelessness, economic opportunity, health equity, and environmental justice. Portland leaders on the council include Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon; Michelle DePass, Meyer Memorial Trust president; Nkenge Harmon-Johnson, president of the Urban League of Portland; Lamar Wise; and Marcus Mundy, Coalition of Communities of Color president.
For more information, visit reimagineoregon.org/policydemands.
MULTNOMAH COUNTY AND CITY OF PORTLAND