Last year at his welcoming reception Dante James was approached by students at the Harriet Tubman Young Women's Academy to help them keep their school open; he turned them away. The school was closed weeks later.
In 2011 we watched as Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz put her reputation on the line to create a real tool to address the inequities that have made Portland such a white, privileged city.
Many Portlanders of color lined up to support the proposed Equity Bureau, offering examples of discrimination, school failure, police violence, and a general lack of options in this historically racist town.
It was a tough fight, but Fritz – along with her allies across many communities, including the disabled – won a unanimous vote to create the bureau. "It will work within City government and in the community, and include a strong Civil Rights component," former Mayor Sam Adams wrote in 2011. 'It will work with community partners in a way that supplements, complements, and supports the good work already under way."
We have some bad news about that: If you are being discriminated against in Portland, don't expect anything from the Equity Bureau.
Last Friday morning, an entire year after Dante James got his first paycheck as director of the Office of Equity and Human Rights, he sat down for the first time with the minority media to talk about his job. We had heard from many quarters that James has not reached out to ethnic communities – but now we saw it first-hand.
Where have you been, James? What have you been doing exactly?
He was hired, James says, not to address the inequities that stretch across our city, but to address inequities only within the walls of City Hall. He wasn't hired to serve the communities, he says; he was hired to change the operations of City government.
Advocate for communities of color? Not in my lane, James says.
Could that be the reason why it looks like nothing is happening there?
One thing is for sure: James has certainly not made a significant move to ask the help – or input – of communities of color in carrying out his agenda. We can only speculate that we are not part of it.
Then who is James talking to? Equity issues play out all over the city. How can you begin to address racism in East Portland if you only talk to policymakers downtown?
We appreciate being invited to meet with the Equity director, but we are not impressed by his work so far -- which appears to involve filling shelves full of policy binders and talking with bureaucrats.
To his credit, James says he'll know when he's successful when there are more people of color in the top ranks of city leadership.
But how many individuals – and institutions – in crisis have already appealed to James and his staff for support, only to be turned away with his comment of, "that's not my job?"
Since James wasn't here for the fight, he didn't have to make any sacrifices to create his bureau. We can only imagine that he never took the time to go over what was debated – and what is in fact actually needed. Again, who is James talking to if not the people most affected by the lack of equity and human rights?
Amanda, is this what you almost sacrificed your political career for?
We don't think so. As a scrappy, grassroots change agent yourself, we think you're waiting for some kind of results from James' efforts.
We are too.