This letter is in response to your editorial in The Skanner, entitled, "Advocate for Communities of Color? Not My Job, Equity Director Dante James Says."
The Skanner voiced concerns and asked questions regarding my role as Director of the City's Office of Equity and Human Rights—concerns I am eager to address. I know some folks in the community have similar questions.
The Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR) was established to promote equity and reduce disparities within City government, as its first task. My job is not to advocate for community members with each of the City's 30+ bureaus and 6 elected officials. My job is to change the way City staff and decision-makers in each of those bureaus and offices think and act, by training and ensuring enhanced accountability with the expectation that City services will be provided in a more equitable and just manner. OEHR's internal focus will lead to better outcomes for all communities, and communities of color specifically. More importantly, what needs to change is City government's response to community advocates. When the City as a whole better recognizes and addresses how institutional racism can detrimentally affect service delivery, the community will be better served.
Communities of color have historically and systematically been left out of decision-making in Oregon. While I have built some bridges and opened some doors in my first year in Portland, clearly there is much more to do. Relationships between the City government and underrepresented communities have been broken for decades, even centuries. It may take five years to repair the most egregious damage – and it will take longer unless we in the communities of color stay focused on the vision for OEHR that many community leaders helped craft. The creating ordinance directed the office to begin its work with an internal focus on City bureaus. The City must put its own house in order, before telling others how to run theirs.
My bureau has advocated for underrepresented communities to have their concerns addressed by appropriate agencies and, in specific instances, to improve the interaction between those agencies and communities of color. To name three in the past six months:
• We provided advice on improving Minority Contracting opportunities in the pilot Community Benefits Agreement for construction of the Water Bureau's new maintenance building on Interstate.
• I consulted with the Revenue Bureau and testified at Council on formation of a new taxi company owned by union refugee and immigrant drivers; the first new taxi company in Portland in 15 years.
• We pushed behind the scenes to fix Arts Tax inequities, and OEHR is identified in the direction from Council to guide a permanent restructuring of that fee.
OEHR was never intended to function as a civil rights office. State and City agencies already exist that handle discrimination complaints, including a Civil Rights Compliance Officer within the City of Portland's Office of Management and Finance. OEHR refers complaints to those agencies, and will increase publicity to facilitate direct access to them.
Every year in June, OEHR presents a Report to Council on achievements, progress made, lessons learned, and the work plan for the next year. This year, our Report will be informed by assessments from the Bureau Advisory Committee and by the New Portlanders Advisory Council, both established since our last Report. Together these groups bring in 50 community leaders of color and ethnic minorities, to provide oversight and accountability for my performance and that of OEHR. I am glad to meet with The Skanner's editorial board to brief the Publisher and staff prior to our annual Report, and any time I am invited to do so.
In closing, I must say that as a former community organizer and activist, my life's work has been dedicated to increasing community access to government and ensuring government responsibility. It was hard for me to shift my focus to addressing barriers within City bureaus. One year later, I realize why the Creation Committee demanded that the Council start the Office of Equity's work by changing the way City jobs, contracts, and services are awarded by City staff. Institutional racism demands work within the institution to eliminate racism. That is my job.
Dante J. James, Esq.