Portland Works for Social Equity

Program Redefines 'Community' as More Than a Shared Geography

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Jeri Jimenez is program coordinator for the City of Portland, Ore., Diversity and Civic Leadership program.

Paul Leistner, Ph.D., is neighborhood program coordinator for the City of Portland, Ore., Office of Neighborhood Involvement.

Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2016 3:08 pm

Portland, Ore., bills itself as “The city that works,” and, in the early 21st Century, is a city that is working in spite of some tough challenges.

A good example is the cutting-edge Diversity and Civic Leadership (DCL) program introduced in 2006 and operated by the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI). DCL’s goal is to support efforts to build the organizational and communication capacity of community organizations of color, immigrant/refugee organizations and other agencies underrepresented in government.

The revolutionary DCL program is a marked departure from how Portland and other American cities have traditionally organized and served neighborhoods.

Following a major 2005 policy review, known as Community Connect, city officials and key leaders “determined that not everyone defines their community by their physical surroundings," according to an article written by Portland officials and published in the National Civic Review.

"Many people find their primary community by joining with people with a common identity (cultural or ethnic-based groups) or common interest (churches, PTAs, social justice groups, etc.) An engagement system that relies solely on geographic neighborhood associations likely will miss engaging many people in the community. Viewing the neighborhood association system as an important foundation, but not the full structure needed has been a major shift for many neighborhood leaders in Portland,” the authors concluded.

Today, Portland's elected officials and staff are advised by 95 neighborhood associations, more than 40 business district associations, the five DCL program organizations, the Youth Commission, Elders in Action, the Disability Commission, and many other groups.

DCL Program Coordinator Jeri Jimenez said her program is unique to Portland and two other Oregon communities. “DCL is one of the ways in which we are developing culturally appropriate models for how underrepresented community-based organizations can safely and successfully interact in city processes in meaningful ways that adds value to both their communities and Portland,” Jimenez said.

She added that for Portland to work effectively with communities of color, immigrants, refugees and others, “we must create new pathways for participation, new efforts to strengthen people’s ability to participate and new levels of cultural awareness and responsiveness by city staff and elected officials."

Equally important, said Jimenez, is that social equity is often ignored as one of the three tenets of sustainability, along with environmental and economic viability.

“There is a lot of hope that we can come together and create change through the relationships we develop. To keep building on relationships for their livability. I believe if it’s not equitable, it’s not sustainable,” Jimenez said.

According to its first report issued early last year, DCL has helped equip people with leadership and organizational skills through a specially created Leadership Academy and has provided highly effective mini-grants to groups that include people of color, immigrants, refugees, senior citizens, the disabled, youth and LGBTQ groups.

The mission of DCL is to:

1) Increase the number and diversity of people involved in their communities through:

  • Increasing the power and voice of the under-engaged;
  • Overcoming common barriers to participation; and
  • Providing effective communications to keep the community informed about issues and opportunities for involvement.

2) Strengthen community capacity through:

  • Fostering social ties and sense of community identity;
  • Supporting the community’s capacity to take action to move forward its priorities; and
  • Fostering networking and collaboration between DCL organizing project groups, neighborhood and other community-based organizations.

3) Increasing community public decision impact through making public decision-making more responsive and accountable to community input.

Engaging for Equity: A Report on Portland’s Diversity and Civic Leadership Program 2007-2013” published in 2015, celebrates “the amazing community engagement successes that have been accomplished,” and invites readers to provide their thoughts on “the successes, challenges and future of the program,” said Jimenez.

DCL has received more than $3 million from Portland for its various programs since 2006. Funding has increased to about $890,000 a year. Some 700 people have graduated from the DCL Academy. Today, DCL includes the Latino Network, Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), the Urban League and the Native American Youth Association (NAYA).

“With the report, we too are looking for answers to some key questions for the future,” continued Jimenez. “Are the goals and objectives of the DCL program meeting the needs of the intended communities? What structural changes could take place to support expansion of he program? What range of non-geographic communities should we consider serving beyond those funded currently (renters, the houseless, LGBTQ community, etc.)? and What ONI support services are most important for the program?”

While Portland’s neighborhood system has been celebrated nationwide for its progressive approach to public involvement since the 1970s, it has faced some considerable obstacles.

First, Oregon has experienced its share of racial discrimination since it was granted statehood in 1859 with a constitution that forbade blacks from moving to, living in or working in the state.

In the 1920s, the state had an estimated 14,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, including 9,000 in Portland. During the 1950s, some Portland restaurants displayed “White Only” signs. Over the years, gentrification has displaced many African-Americans from the neighborhoods where they lived for generations, particularly in Northeast Portland.

According to the 2015 report, “The broader context for the DCL program is a history of racism and exclusion in Portland and throughout Oregon. The legacy of discrimination has left its imprint on Portland’s modern era of land use planning, urban development, infrastructure investment and public policymaking. While it is uncomfortable for many of today’s Portlanders to see their city in this light, the enduring impact of our shared past is still felt by many in the community and is well documented.”

The report continued, “From the standpoint of public involvement in policymaking, city staff and elected officials have had limited experience and mixed success engaging diverse communities. There are understandable reasons why communities of color, immigrants and refugees might mistrust government and question the value of engaging with city officials.”

Adding to this mistrust of government and further short-circuiting civic participation for not only Portland, but also other American communities is the increasing dissatisfaction with democracy. According to a Pew Research study, in 1958, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the government all or most of the time. Today, that figure is 19 percent.

But, things are changing in Portland, said Jimenez, who noted that the city’s population today is about 75 percent white.

"Portland actually began changing in the 1970s, when more minorities started coming to the city. That exploded in the early 21st Century. Immigrants from Latin America became the city’s fastest growing group," and the number of African-Americans and Asians also increased," she said.

“Today, roughly a quarter of Portland’s residents are Latino; about nine percent are African-Americans. While Native Americans are less than two percent of city residents, they number about 40,000 and represent 400 different tribes,” Jimenez said.

ONI Neighborhood Program Coordinator Paul Leistner, Ph.D., confirmed that social equity is increasing significantly in Portland. “Twenty years ago no one really acknowledged these problems. Many people thought Portland was a very progressive city. We didn’t understand that while things were getting better for white people, they were getting worse for people of color in Portland. Some people were shocked to find that out. But this realization has led to a big cultural shift in the city. Many more people now understand what needs to be done and are trying to do something about it,” Leistner said.

Leistner stressed that Portland’s shift from thinking that people primarily identify their sense of community through a shared geography (their “neighborhood”) to understanding that many people identify their community through a sense of shared identity has dramatically shifted how the City of Portland reaches out to, supports, and engages the community.

“Numerous studies on disparities in Portland have been conducted by organizations like the Urban League of Portland and institutions like Portland State University. The city has implemented numerous initiatives including Community Connect, the Portland Plan and others that have produced recommendations approved and funded by City Council. Jeri’s program is extremely effective and making good progress; it has brought much more awareness and visibility to the value of participatory government,” said Leistner.

Portland and Multnomah County began funding civic engagement programming beyond neighborhood-based efforts in the 1970s and 1980s with Elders in Action and the Disability Program. The city also created an immigrant and refugee coordinator position. By the 1990s, Portland commissioners were urging neighborhood associations to become more diverse in their representation.

A major force for increasing city participation is ONI, which was actually founded as the Office of Neighborhood Associations (ONA) in 1974. Portland currently has 95 neighborhoods organized into seven districts.

“One of the problems with this structure,” said Leistner, “was that the association leaders were only volunteers and didn’t have the resources and skills — and sometimes interest — in engaging the full diversity of their community. At the same time that city government officials were criticizing neighborhoods for not being diverse, city government itself — with all its staff and resources — wasn’t doing a good job of engaging the full diversity of the community either. One of the early efforts to broaden the city’s focus was the 1995 renaming of the Office of Neighborhood Associations to be the Office of Neighborhood Involvement.”

Leistner explained that ONI serves as a vital communication link between community members, neighborhoods, and city of Portland bureaus. It works in partnership with many organizations including neighborhood associations, district coalitions, business district associations, city agencies, and a wide range of community organizations to involve community members in the civic life of the city and to give them a voice in decisions that affect their communities.

In addition, he said, ONI manages a number of programs that affect neighborhood livability, including the city/county information and referral service, noise control, liquor licensing, and Portland’s new Marijuana Program. ONI's programs are funded through a combination of city general funds and inter-governmental agreements with other city, county, state and federal agencies.

According to Leistner, the paradigm shift in growing community engagement resulted from the election of former Mayor Tom Potter in 2005. Potter, a former police chief and the father of community policing in Portland, had a deep commitment to social justice and ran on a platform of created a “shared governance” culture in Portland in which government and the community worked as partners. Potter initiated the major review of Portland’s neighborhood and community engagement system, Community Connect, which led to major reforms of the system. Community Connect involved a diverse, 18-member volunteer group that worked for more than two years identifying and recommending ways to engage “under represented” groups.

In January 2008, Community Connect gave the Portland City Council the “Five-Year Plan to Increase Community Involvement” with 30 different strategies in under three goals:

  • Increase the number and diversity of people involved in their communities;
  • Strengthen community capacity; and
  • Increase community impact on public decisions.

In April 2012, under Mayor Sam Adams, City Council adopted the long-range Portland Plan, the first in 30 years and one that imagines a “prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable” Portland in 2035 and the roadmap to get there.

“Attitudes are changing. You have to own your past. We now recognized that past urban renewal projects destroyed Portland’s thriving African-American business district in Portland, and also significantly accelerated gentrification. Recently the Portland City Council declared an 'affordable housing emergency.' Today, people are talking about a wide range of strategies and tools, including a right-of-return strategy to help people move back to the neighborhoods they were forced out of," noted Leistner.

He added that Portlanders are more aware and accepting of what happened. “That’s why the city is putting money into building leaders and strong community organizations. People from historically underrepresented and underserved communities are getting a place at the table and the skill they need to have an impact.

“We’re working to create a true participatory democracy, in which we no longer have an adult-child relationship where government is the decider. We’re working toward a culture in which government acts more as a convener. Rather than the traditional public administration model of “design, declare, defend and deploy,” Leistner said city leaders and staff slowly are learning to work with the community as a partner. “Really, nobody knows the needs of the community better than the community itself,” he said.

For Jimenez, who like Leistner has an accomplished background as a social activist and organizer, it’s obvious what programs like DCL have to accomplish in Portland.

“For example, gentrification has created many pockets of poverty in Portland. DCL has empowered people to fight against the developers and others who are trying to create wealthy areas by displacing the residents who have lived here for generations. We want to give everyone a place where his or her voice can be heard.

“We are the voice of the people of Portland. I am a member of the Klamath Tribe so I understand what the people we help are going through. When it comes to Native Americans, there is a lot of historical trauma. We have a wonderful place here because we have elders who were connected and will share," Jimenez said. “When scientists speak and you don’t understand, you have to ask them what it means. You have to understand it in your realm. We encourage people to push back with government. When you don’t understand or know the risk, you can’t live as you should.”

Jimenez is pleased with the response to the 2015 DCL report, but the bottom line for her is, “Does government know how to put its trust and invest funds in these communities historically under-heard, under-represented and under-engaged? Some people think it’s a really big risk, but the rewards are immeasurable. We’re proving that in Portland.”

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