A year after an ambitious collaboration of Black leaders and Black organizations formalized demands for equity, the group reported its successes, but expressed frustration with legislators who had either diluted powerful bills or refused to engage with the group entirely.
When the Reimagine Oregon Project quickly formed a year ago, it was in response to “a racial justice reckoning that burgeoned out of the outrage expressed over the death of George Floyd,” Katrina Holland, executive director of JOIN, said during a press briefing last week.
The group partnered with elected officials at the city, count, and state levels to hold lawmakers accountable to substantive policy change, as outlined on the project’s website, addressing urgent needs in education, police divestments, housing, health and wellbeing, transportation, economic development, legislative process and community safety.
“We felt that this 2021 legislative session was an opportunity for that catalytic and transformational change, particularly in the context that we find ourselves in,” Holland said. “I’m talking about a context where, in the wake of COVID-19 and the economic fallout, we moved millions of dollars in a matter of days. A context where elected leaders showed us and proved to themselves that incremental change does not have to be the norm, that we are capable, culpable, and willing to be able to move mountains in order to make sure that our communities are safe, are warm, are healthy, are doing alright.”
And while the group had praise for many lawmakers, and credited Gov. Kate Brown for attending every Reimagine Oregon meeting, members expressed disappointment with many at the capitol -- specifically, some members of the Senate.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland, called out legislators who, as she said, did not step up.
“We know that many of you are now woke,” she said of state legislators. “But you’re not brave.
"And we ask you to be brave, because that’s what’s necessary.”
The project is a joint effort between Coalition of Communities of Color, the Urban League of Portland, KairosPDX, JOIN, and Stand for Children, and others to dismantle structural racism in Oregon, to advance social justice at the legislative level, and to secure better resources and funding for underserved communities.
Demands were 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 demand.
“As a state, Oregon has not been actively investing in communities of color,”
Elona J. Wilson, advocacy director for Coalition of Communities of Color, said during the briefing. “This is one of the main reasons we are overrepresented in prisons and jails.”
Harmon Johnson thanked the Congressional Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus for its considerable work in helping push equity and racial justice measures.
She praised the caucus members for taking on the additional burden of representing people outside their districts.
“It’s amazing to me, as a Black woman in the state, to be expected to carry all my life load of aspirations and hopes to one member of the legislature,” Harmon Johnson said.
“While we have not arrived, I will say we have made progress in what I would call probably one of our most historic sessions for equity for Black children,” Kali Thorne Ladd, executive director of KairosPDX, said.
She called the passage of both Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 2166 the group’s most pronounced win.
“They collectively ban suspensions and expulsions in our early childhood and preschool settings, and also create funds to invest in early childhood caregivers, so that they can address practices that reflect bias,” Thorne Ladd said.
“Black children are four to six times more likely to be kicked out of preschool.
"We start the criminalization of our Black boys at such a tender age, and so because of the policies that were passed, we have an opportunity to do differently, and I believe that we will.”
The passage of SB 2227 dedicates funding to prepare K-12 educators to teach ethnic studies, and SB 732 will require that all school boards have equity advisory committees.
The group also supported the successful HB 2001, which aims to ensure diversity among teachers, and to further teacher retention.
“A Yale research study showed very clearly that bias is real, and that teachers have more empathy for children of the same race,” Thorne Ladd said. “So when you have a workforce that is over 90% White, and you have children that are nearly 50% Black and brown, you have a problem. And there’s no wonder that we see an exponential impact on push-out and suspensions and expulsions in K-12 for our Black and brown children.”
The group’s push to secure additional education funding with an equity lens was not successful this session, Thorne Ladd said.
An especially lofty goal for the coalition was HB 2002, an omnibus bill that pushed restorative justice measures.
Although pieces of the bill passed, Wilson said, "We lost more than we won on this bill and are deeply disappointed that Senate leadership specifically did not step up.”
Discarded policies included citation instead of arrest for low-level crimes, a requirement that officers must identify themselves as law enforcement, standards limiting jail admission for people who are seriously ill, a requirement that courts must find probation conditions are “necessary and appropriate” before they are imposed, and a limit on parole or probation officers’ supervisory visits to an individual’s workplace. In addition, reforms to the Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines were also scrapped by legislators.
“And those are just some of the losses we have to go back to our communities to explain,” Wilson said.
Still, the group celebrated the abolishment of supervision fees for those on parole and probation, a new policy that allows earned discharge for those who have been convicted for assault in the second degree or robbery in the second degree, as well as funding commitments: $10 million for reserve funds for justice reinvestment, $4 million for restorative justice funds, and $1.5 million for reimagining safety proposals.
Holland listed some of the group’s victories in the area of housing, including SB 291, which limits the type of criminal charges and convictions potential tenants must disclose during the rental application screening process, decreasing some barriers to renting for those with a criminal background.
She explained the policy was about “the over-policing and over-incarceration of Black and brown bodies.”
“In housing, once folks have exited the system, it is not uncommon for people to face homelessness and long-term housing instability as a result of their incarceration history,” Holland said.
She explained that while SB 282 was successful, giving tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic an additional grace period to repay, the version that passed was a fragment of what had been proposed.
“We asked for a moratorium (on evictions) so that we could get some of those ducks in order and try to change that,” Holland said.
“Unfortunately legislators did not hear us, and that was not put in the bill as requested.
“Additionally, we had asked for cancellation of rent. Not in the sense that the money would not be paid back, but in the sense that we would take the burden off of tenants for applying for rent assistance, forgive their rent, and have a smaller group of people -- landlords -- apply for the arrearages that was due them so that folks would still get their money and we wouldn’t run into a constitutional flub. Unfortunately -- some folks said it was because of the rhetoric, some folks said it was because of misunderstanding, some folks said it was because it’s not possible -- that was not considered. That was taken off the table.”
Losses included HB 2367, which would have established Oregon’s Right to Rest Act.
“If we don’t have a right to rest, we often get over-criminalized, over-policed, over-incarcerated, simply for being homeless,” Holland said.
SB 852, meanwhile, would have ended mortgage deductions on houses other than the taxpayer's primary residence. It is the state's largest housing subsidy, and critics argue it benefits only the wealthy.
“It is one of the most systematic racist systems that we have in place right now, as it benefits a very select few who make a lot of money, which typically is not Black folks,” Holland said. “And it takes a lot of resources out of the housing system to be able to support people.”
She added, “That would have been some catalytic, transformational change that would have infused millions of dollars into the housing system and opened up and created opportunity for home ownership for Black and brown communities.”
As the briefing wrapped, Reimagine Oregon members vowed to continue pushing for more just policy in the next legislative session.
“We would like to thank the lawmakers that have been brave enough to believe community,” Wilson said. “And we would like to encourage other lawmakers to learn to be okay with not being centered in matters concerning these communities.”