With an eye toward the changing demographics of the Portland region, Metro launched one of its more ambitious looks at regional policy this week: An advisory committee to define and address equity.
The Equity Strategy Advisory Committee, a group of 14 representatives with backgrounds ranging from the director of the Westside Economic Alliance to the head of Coalition of Communities of Color, kicked off its long-term work Wednesday with an introductory meeting at the University of Oregon's Portland campus.
It's part of an effort from Metro staff to prepare for a changing constituency, one that is less familiar with Metro's programs and efforts.
"We haven't, over time, been deliberate in engaging … the non-usual suspects on our issues," said Martha Bennett, Metro's chief operating officer. She points to Metro's Sustainability Center as an example, saying they're experienced in engaging natural resource advocates, but they've only recently had to work with community groups advocating on behalf of a racial or ethnic group, or a low-income neighborhood.
"It's not that they're not doing it, it's that they're relatively new," Bennett said. "It's not the same level of relationship that we have with the folks who are working on issues squarely within our wheelhouse."
The ship is not going to turn quickly. Nuin-Tara Key, Metro's equity program manager, said the first order of business is to identify what equity means.
It's not an easy prospect. Here's one of Metro's "six desired outcomes," its main policy guidelines: "The benefits and burdens of growth and change are distributed equitably."
Key points out that Metro's definition of equity references the word equity.
"It's not actionable. It's not measurable. It doesn't provide any guidance or frame for the work that we do as an agency," Key said. "So we're going to be asking the advisory committee to weigh in on that."
Carl Talton, chair of the Equity Strategic Advisory Committee and the executive chair of the Portland Family of Funds, said the committee's conversation should start with a more detailed look at what Metro is and what it's doing.
The early look, both Key and Talton said, should look at how to quantify equity. With the work of efforts like the Greater Portland Pulse and the Coalition for a Livable Future's Equity Atlas, it's easy to track down all sorts of data about demographics, services and well-being around the region.
"We're going to be asking the advisory committee to help us prioritize and select the indicators we should be looking at," Key said. "We have more than enough work to start."
Even with the indicators decided, the work won't be as simple as putting on some equity-tinted glasses and looking at the region through a new lens. Metro planners, for example, used to looking at raw data and commute times, will have to think harder and engage more communities before making planning decisions.
Bennett said that government agencies are constantly faced with competing goals, but Metro has, in the past, avoided consciously facing those trade-offs.
"The goal of the (equity) project is to be more explicit in identifying and resolving those trade-offs," she said. That doesn't necessarily mean that different planning decisions will be made.
She said, though, that the equity work should guide a conversation beyond merely providing safe and reliable transportation to the region's residents, but who has access to safe and reliable transportation, and who is harmed by various decisions about that transportation.
"It's not that we're going to stop caring about safe and reliable transportation," she said. "Quite the contrary – it's that there's going to be a more explicit analysis of whether or not it's having a disproportionate impact on a particular group."
Regional and racial politics
Still, working on equity in the Portland region can be tricky business. Regional politics tend to lead to an assumption of a zero-sum game on just about any policy decision that Metro makes.
But part of the equity conversation is acknowledging that there are probably communities that have gotten the short end of the zero-sum game up to now. That's particularly important as Metro moves its efforts away from designing plans and studying transit lines and more towards bolstering the economy in the region's centers and corridors as its leaders push to minimize urban growth boundary expansion and preserve farmland beyond the suburbs.
Equity is a regional issue, Bennett said, pointing to Washington County, which saw its Latino population share increase from 11 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2010, and to low-income areas of East Portland and western Gresham.
"Every community in the region is dealing with this," Bennett said. "Of course, it's not the same in every single part of the region. But everybody's dealing with these issues to a greater or lesser degree."
Talton has been a part of the team addressing equity for the Community Investment Initiative, an economic development group that is led independently from Metro but receives staff support from the regional government.
"The only way an economic development plan can be successful is if people can have confidence that this entire effort is an equitable one," Talton said.
That doesn't mean that everyone will be treated equally, he said.
"They may not be first up. The check they get might not be as big as someone else's," he said. "As we think about what makes the region go, they are right there and we consider them as much as everyone else."
In the end, Bennett said, equitable growth is good for the entire region.
"Regions that successfully deal with these issues – the disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic groups, poverty-related issues – are healthier economically than the regions that don't confront this issue," she said. "This is an issue that's about everyone's prosperity. It's not about one person or sub-group. It's about everybody."
Molly Simas contributed to this story.