Leading with Race in the Pacific Northwest

By Nereida Heller

Last summer, I interned with Home Forward, the Portland area housing authority. The project I was hired on to help with was ambitious: I was tasked with creating an “Equity Platform” that defined equity for the agency and included suggestions for how to make equity more central to the agency’s work. Home Forward aspired to be more than a housing authority; in their words, they wanted to provide their residents with not just a home, but also “a path to success.” Home Forward already had a range of institutional practices in place aimed at equity: a committee for inclusive hiring practices and a fifteen-dollar starting wage, among others. But the agency wanted to expand these efforts and formalize them based on a specific platform.

In order to make recommendations to Home Forward, I interviewed employees of several other public agencies in the region. I found that over the last ten years, many had launched their own platforms that focus on equity through a specifically racial lens. Some of the activities that these agencies pursued include racial bias trainings for new hires, analyses of the ways in which agency policies affect  people of color, and the inclusion of minority communities in decision-making processes. To these agencies, focusing their approach to equity on race was justifiable simply by reviewing the numbers.  People of color are disproportionately represented in statistics on child poverty rates, income insecurity, low educational achievement, and unemployment rates, among many others.

A distinction soon became apparent between this race-focused approach and the approach that Home Forward appeared to be pursuing. My host agency envisioned a plan that ensured they could provide “paths to success” without leaving anybody behind. The issue of race was important to them, but rather than declare racial equity as an explicit goal, or use it as a framework for their practices, they appeared to see it as a byproduct.

Much of the inspiration and guidance for the focus on race in developing equity policies and platforms comes from the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a project run out of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julie Nelson, GARE’s Director, has been the point-person for many of the projects in the Pacific Northwest, including the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). Started in 2004, RSJI has ensured that city employees receive training on racism and bias and has begun a “Community Roundtable” that convenes grass-roots organizations for input on city policies. RSJI’s work has led to several citywide changes, including increases in contracts with women and minority-owned businesses, and civic engagement in under-served minority neighborhoods.

Nelson describes GARE’s approach as “leading with race.” The motivation for this emphasis is GARE’s view that “colorblind” social policies put in place decades ago have not succeeded in eliminating institutional racism. On the contrary, people of color have historically been marginalized by these policies. Examples include race-neutral mortgage-lending practices, which have resulted in anti-Black discrimination, and race-neutral rules for patients with Medicare and Medicaid, which place disproportionate burden on people of color.[1]

GARE operates on the assumption that leading with race is the best way to achieve better results for society as a whole.

“When institutions are broken, they are broken for everyone,” Nelson said. “Institutional problems hurt everyone, but people of color are hurt first and hardest.” Issues faced by these communities of color, therefore, function as a sort of early warning that institutions are failing.

john a. powell, the Haas Institute’s Director, uses the term “targeted universalism” to describe this framework. The term refers to policies that are ultimately intended to improve broad outcomes for society as a whole, but which are designed with more immediate focus on obstacles preventing minority populations from realizing their goals. As powell says in his 2009 piece The Importance of Targeted Universalism:

Targeting within universalism means identifying a problem, particularly one suffered by marginalized people, proposing a solution, and then broadening its scope to cover as many people as possible. It sees marginalized populations in American society as the canary in the coal mine…It recognizes that problems faced by particular segments of American society are problems that could spill over into the lives of everyone, just as the Lower Ninth Ward was not the only part of New Orleans to suffer in the wake of Katrina. Likewise, the subprime credit crisis did not end in poor, urban communities, but has spread far beyond and has been felt throughout the global economy.

The “Ban the Box” initiative is a good example of how a campaign that began with a focus on racial justice can lead to positive outcomes for a broader population. The initiative calls for employers to eliminate questions about a candidate’s criminal history from initial job applications; defenders of racial justice and formerly incarcerated individuals started the movement in 2003, and it spread widely in West Coast governments and around the country. Critically, despite its focus on communities of color, the ban the box movement benefits all formerly incarcerated individuals, whether they are white or of color.

As the summer progressed, I began to understand GARE’s implementation processes and how Home Forward might apply them in crafting their own platform. GARE provides trainings on individual, institutional and structural racism, as well as concepts of implicit and explicit bias. While working with GARE, many agencies create racial equity tools that obligate policy makers to not only examine a policy in terms of the costs and benefits to people of color, but also to be aware of who is involved in the decision-making process.

For instance, in 2012, Multnomah County produced a toolkit for implementing racial equity practice called the “Equity and Empowerment Lens.” The document is meant to guide an agency through the process of assessing, analyzing, and ultimately improving equity practices. Examples of specific activities include questions prompting policy makers to consider the impact their policies have on communities of color; planning guides on how best to include community partners in their work; and suggestions for defining, measuring and reporting equity goals and their results.

When asked how their Equity and Empowerment Lens is put to use, Multnomah County employees point to the Cully Weatherization 2.0 project as an example. For this project, the County, the City of Portland, and several environmental organizations partnered with NGOs representing communities of color in the low- and moderate-income neighborhoods of northeast Portland. The project provided job training and employment to local residents, while “weatherizing” one hundred local homes. Weatherization means preserving affordable housing, while making homes more resilient to climate change, and healthier places to live. The project was designed within a conscious equity frame, in which project decisions were made with community input, and the power structure of the project’s implementation were discussed throughout.

GARE’s involvement in the region has also led to new departments, offices, and bureaus being created: the Office of Equity and Human Rights at the City of Portland; the Multnomah County Office of Diversity and Equity; the Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative; Metro’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion wing. To different degrees, these offices hold their host institution accountable for equity practices in human resources, procurement, policy design, and policy implementation.

As I learned more about these kinds of ways in which other agencies implemented equity practices with a focus on race, it was clear that my supervisors remained noncommittal. At meetings and in emails, they were careful to stress the “social” part of our equity planning while shying away from emphasis on race. The majority of Home Forward residents and voucher holders are white, so Home Forward did not want to be seen as abandoning them.

Home Forward employees were quick to recognize GARE’s success, and completely comfortable acknowledging both the region’s gaping racial disparities and the historical roots of racism in Oregon. Nonetheless, the idea of emphasizing race in the development of equity practices was met with discomfort; it appeared that, rather than seeing the ways in which a focus on race can generate policy solutions for a broader population, Home Forward saw instead the risk that they might simply alienate white residents and constituents.

Throughout the Portland area, GARE continues to seek out new institutions for partnerships. There is a sense of momentum and excitement around the new initiatives in the city’s agencies – even those whose initiatives have stalled or fallen behind. The bureaucratic process can be slow to create large-scale changes in communities and most of the visible successes so far have been small. It is true that small-scale change in the way a region is governed can add up over time, but it remains to be seen whether these agencies can approach the problem with the urgency it demands, and whether Home Forward will choose to lead with race.

Nereida Heller is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This is her first article for Policy Matters Journal. 

[1] See, for example, Steven P. Wallace, Vilma Enriquez-Haas and Kyriakos Markides, “The Consequences of Color-Blind Health Policy for Older Racial and Ethnic Minorities,” Stanford Law and Policy Review 329 (1998). See also Thandeka K. Chapman, “You can’t erase race! Using CRT to explain the presence of race and racism in majority white suburban schools,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 34 (2013): 611-627. See also Luis Urrieta Jr., “Community identity discourse and the heritage academy: colorblind educational policy and white supremacy,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 19 (2006): 455-476.