The Portland metro area is growing quickly and becoming increasingly diverse, but it faces challenges in the years ahead as income, housing and other inequities persist for communities of color.
Metro has committed to creating a more equitable and inclusive region where everyone has the opportunity to share in and contribute to a thriving, livable and prosperous region. The agency took a major step forward last June when the council adopted its strategic plan to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion. The strategic plan had been in the making for years and incorporated significant input from culturally specific community organizations.
“It’s sitting down with the communities that we’re trying to serve and saying, ‘Let’s talk about what your needs are, let’s talk about how you think we should approach it, let’s work together and collaborate,’” Chief Operating Officer Martha Bennett said. “That is just profound in terms of building relationships, but also designing programs and services that better meet their needs.”
Bennett says research shows that when communities make diversity and equity a priority, it doesn’t just benefit the most vulnerable groups; it benefits everyone as the region becomes stronger and more prosperous.
Part of Metro’s efforts is making sure that diversity, equity and inclusion are at the core of how the organization operates at every level. The 106-page strategic plan lays out five broad goals:
- convene and support regional partners to advance racial equity;
- meaningfully engage communities of color;
- hire, train and promote a racially diverse workforce;
- create safe and welcoming services, programs and destinations;
- allocate resources in a way that advances racial equity.
Each department and venue is also tasked with developing its own five-year action plan.
“The proof is going to be in whether we see different outcomes for communities of color,” Bennett said. “Do we actually see that some of the disparities that exist between groups shrink and/or disappear?”
The Committee on Racial Equity, a 15-member group formed in spring 2017, will play a key role in holding Metro accountable and transparent. The committee will help the agency measure its progress and provide honest feedback about what’s working, what’s not and which issues to prioritize.
Duncan Hwang, a committee member and associate director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, says that Metro’s influence is wide-reaching, and it needs to fully embrace all aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“There’s a housing emergency going on, super dangerous streets, people without access to parks and greenspaces,” he said. “It needs to permeate through the entire organization so we can begin to address these big problems facing folks in the region.”
It requires new ways of engaging with historically underserved communities, he said.
“The more traditional ways like public forums or online surveys are really accessible for a mainstream audience,” he said. “But if you want those underrepresented voices, it takes different strategies and hard work, especially if you haven’t been there before and just show up wanting something – that doesn’t work very well.”
Metro’s push for greater diversity, equity and inclusion began to take shape in 2010. Around the same time, the council adopted equity as one of its six desired outcomes for the region, leading to the creation of an equity strategy program.
Metro’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, which serves as a resource for staff, will be instrumental in helping the organization carry out the strategic plan, both by helping to improve the internal culture and by building trust and stronger relationships with community partners.
“We want to integrate and help people really live this work,” said Raahi Reddy, the DEI program director. “But I think the challenge is people saying, ‘How does that apply to me in the work I do when I’m modeling for growth numbers in the region or when I’m out restoring habitat?’ We’re really trying to think about how we apply that racial equity lens to all the kinds of work even in places where it may not seem so obvious.”
There have been successes so far, like the Connect with Nature initiative that’s working with community-based organization Verde to bring more diverse voices into the parks planning process. But a lot more work remains to be done, especially as Metro makes decisions about programs, policies and budgets that could impact communities of color.
“We have to internalize and externalize the racial equity lens at the same time because we can’t afford to wait,” Reddy said. “Communities have been calling for this for a long time. It’s not a new demand, and we’re just trying to ramp up and catch up so we can actually work with our partners to get the work done.”
Learn more about Metro's diversity, equity and inclusion efforts