In an era of political distrust, community leaders and activists around the country are searching for ways to make their voices, along with those they represent, effectively heard and felt.
With that nationwide civic angst in mind, Metro is working on a small but critical step toward advancing racial equity within the greater Portland region.
With the establishment of the Committee on Racial Equity, the Metro is working toward creating and sustaining meaningful dialogue between community leaders and regional leaders.
On March 16, the Metro Council voted unanimously to create the committee, and designate its two co-chairs: Sharon Gary-Smith, a creative philanthropy strategist who served as executive director of McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, and María Caballero-Rubio, executive director of Centro Cultural de Washington County.
As part of its duties, the advisory committee is expected to assist the Metro Council and staff on carrying out Metro’s strategic plan to advance racial equity. The committee will have 15 members as well as two council liaisons, Metro Councilors Shirley Craddick and Sam Chase.
Established community leaders pushing the conversation forward
The committee is a successor in many ways to the Equity Strategy Advisory Committee, created by Chief Operating Officer Martha Bennett as a way for the community to weigh in on the creation of Metro’s strategic plan to advance racial equity. As that committee finished its work when the strategic plan was finalized, community members suggested establishing a similar committee to advise the Metro Council long-term.
The co-chair model for the new committee was suggested to, and later approved by Metro Council President Tom Hughes.
As part of the recommendation, Metro’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program was responsible for finding possible community leaders to co-chair the committee. With input from the community, they identified Gary-Smith and Caballero-Rubio.
Both have been working toward racial equity for years.
“For me, it’s the intention, the honesty, with which we embrace difficult, hard, seemingly intractable issues,” said Gary-Smith. “How do we move equity and inclusion forward, in an appropriate, practical, strategic way?”
Gary-Smith has been a prominent voice for social justice in cities across the country. Gary-Smith previously worked on a national black women’s health project in Atlanta and later served as president of the Urban League in Austin.
Gary-Smith says that much of her passion for equity was instilled early on by her parents.
Most recently, Gary-Smith was executive director of the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, a community foundation dedicated to racial and social justice throughout Oregon. In late 2016, Gary-Smith retired from her position, but has remained busy since, with the Committee on Racial Equity being one of her many projects.
“My work has always been about representing, working with people, helping figure out: how do we – together – create something that’s more inclusive, that reflects more of our presence, our thinking, our hopes, our needs, and our ambitions – how do we all thrive?” she said.
Gary-Smith says she was excited to learn that she’d be working alongside Caballero-Rubio, who’s been a colleague of hers for a long time.
Caballero-Rubio hesitated when she was first approached about the committee, but said the influence the work could have on other agencies was too important to ignore.
“I think this is going to be a first. We’re going to make mistakes. I think they have made mistakes, but that’s part of growth and that’s part of learning,” Caballero-Rubio said. “I’m really looking forward to working with the community and bringing that voice to Metro.”
Caballero-Rubio has a background in a variety of equity issues, including criminal justice and organizational development, where she says she’s learned immensely about issues affecting communities of color. Before Centro Cultural, Caballero-Rubio worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, where she worked toward changing police culture under President Clinton. Caballero-Rubio also served as policy advisor for former Portland Mayor Tom Potter.
Currently, her work at Centro Cultural focuses on the empowerment of the Latino community in Washington County, with her experience helping inform her thinking and attitude toward equity.
“I think a lot of government agencies and nonprofits and businesses use the ‘we treat everybody the same, don’t tell me I’m racist,’” Caballero-Rubio said. “It’s about time that organizations started looking through an equity lens to see how they are providing services to people. Just because you’re doing things the way it’s been done the past 50 years, doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to keep doing it.”
Caballero-Rubio said as nonprofits and government agencies focus on racial equity more than ever, distinguishing between equity and equality is crucial if organizations want to keep moving forward.
“Some people have more access. Some people speak English and others don’t. Some people have transportation and others don’t. Some people were brought up knowing and understanding how the systems work and some haven’t,” Caballero-Rubio said. “So you can’t have two people in front of you and treat them exactly the same.”
A committee years in the making
The previous committee helped shape the role, responsibilities and expectations for the newly established racial equity committee.
“I really think this committee is going to be a huge resource, not only for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program, but for the whole agency because we’re going to have this amazing level of expertise in all of these areas where we’re trying to implement equity,” said Patty Unfred, director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program at Metro.
As part of its duties, the committee will report its activities directly to the Metro Council in an annual work session.
Committee members need to meet certain requirements to be part of the committee, including experience and work in the racial equity field and a connection to local historically marginalized communities.
“I’m just excited about creating the dialogue between ourselves and the various leaders in communities around the region,” said Metro Council President Tom Hughes. “We do land use planning, transportation planning and pick up the garbage – all of those are things that you don’t automatically think of as having an equity component to them, but they all do.”
Apply to serve
People interested in being part of the committee are encouraged to apply. The volunteer positions are appointed to two-year terms and are eligible to be reappointed a second term. The deadline for applications is April 14.
“It’s going to be hard work. You need to know yourself and you need to understand why this is important, but it’s going to be very rewarding. Imagine creating change in systems and in our society,” Caballero-Rubio said. “Let’s work together to create change. Let’s give them a perspective that hasn’t been there before.”
Learn more about requirements and apply