During her senior year in college at Rutgers University, Raahi Reddy went to a weekend training hosted by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance to learn about issues facing immigrant workers.
Reddy roomed with a Burmese woman who worked in a garment factory in New York City.
“That factory was not a sweatshop because the workers had a union and a voice on the job,” Reddy said. “And I have to tell you, spending the weekend with her and learning about her life and thinking about… the fine difference for her life was having that organization on the job and having a voice on the job – it just blew my mind.”
Reddy also met Hawaiian rights activists who had been working for multiple generations to fight for indigenous rights in Hawaii, and Japanese and Filipino workers who organized in canneries in Washington and Alaska.
“To be in the space with elders and people who've been in this work for so long was just super powerful,” she said. “To know that I could join into the next generation of folks doing this work, it altered the course of my life.”
Reddy has dedicated more than 20 years of her life as a community leader, policy advocate and educator. She served as chief of staff for an 85,000-member union representing employees in six counties in Southern California, helping transform the union’s mission and priorities.
And most recently, while faculty at the University of Oregon’s Labor and Education and Research Center, Reddy led research that examined the growing prevalence of low wage sector jobs under an initiative called Equity in the Economy.
Under her leadership, the initiative produced three studies on trends in the workforce that create disparities and barriers to economic well-being for Oregon’s most vulnerable families.
The studies prompted three new community and labor collaborations that are directly addressing racial and gender inequities in the service, healthcare and construction sectors. The initiative served as a research hub for workforce issues in the state with a focus on racial and gender justice.
“Raahi’s extensive knowledge, combined with her lived experience and background in organizing and coalition building will accelerate our equity work,” wrote Metro chief operating officer Martha Bennett in an email announcing Reddy’s hire.
“Raahi sees the path for success as strategically investing resources and efforts that lift up communities of color and working families so they can fully participate in building strong and healthy communities,” Bennett said.
Together with Reddy’s leadership, Metro will continue to “invest in communities of color and low-income families in greater Portland who deserve a fair shot at opportunity and the chance to thrive in our region,” Bennett said. “And as a result, we will create neighborhoods and communities that are resilient, healthy and strong.”
Reddy talked about her new role leading Metro’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program. The interview below is edited for length and clarity.
What's your role as Metro’s DEI program director?
The core thrust of the work is really to help Metro, and by extension our jurisdictional partners, to think and act in a deliberate manner to engage communities of color and marginalized communities in all of the work we do to grow this region, to make it a good place for families to thrive.
That can be an array of work from training ourselves as public servants to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we engage in the questions we're trying to ask in the community in order to benefit the community, to the way we apply our resources. We have a critical role to play in the region with our investments, with our infrastructure, and the work that we do every day.
A key part of my role as the DEI director and the role of our team’s equity work in general is to strengthen the civic participation of communities that are often left out of the conversation. This means to strengthen the organizations that are working in those communities, advocating for those communities, organizing those communities. This is really important.
On the internal side, [the work] is guiding Metro to be an inclusive workplace that not only recruits a diverse set of experiences and diverse set of people but actually is the kind of place that those kinds of cultures and communities want to stay and want to work and serve the public.
What are you excited about tackling first?
The work we're doing with our community and labor partners, and our local jurisdictions around construction careers and more equitable practices in contracting in a number of our departments is pretty impactful. We have an incredible opportunity right now with the growth that we're seeing in the Portland metro region and the scale of development and infrastructure spending about how we use those investments wisely to open up doors for communities of color and women to access one of the last set of middle-wage jobs in construction and waste management.
We want to support careers and livelihoods. In my previous work I conducted research on what happens to families when a person in their family gains entry in a career in construction, for example. I saw that having a livelihood, a family-wage job – with health care and pension benefits – adds up. And not only for the individual and their family, but also the local communities in which they live.
I'm super excited about working with the Committee on Racial Equity (CORE). This team of community leaders has offered to help guide us at Metro, to hold us accountable, and enter into a long term ongoing relationship to shape our work in the region. The best thing you can have to advance diversity, equity and inclusion work is long-term, consistent relationships with these leaders.
I’m also excited about the education work we're doing internally at Metro with leaders and staff to help us accelerate our DEI work. We are seeking to deepen our connection to the purpose of our work: Why are we doing equity work? Why do we have this program at Metro? Why do we need to put an equity lens to the work we do? Whether you’re someone who cleans buildings or serves drinks at a Metro venue or who works as a ranger in our parks or as a transportation planner for our region, we want to instill in all of us at Metro that building a more inclusive engagement of communities of color and other marginalized groups is part of our core work.
One of the challenges I’ve heard my colleagues identify is getting people with whom we work and serve to understand why Metro as an agency is leading with racial equity. Many already understand; others don’t. As someone who has extensive experience bringing diverse stakeholders together, what insights do you have about how to create change?
The first thing I've learned is to accept that change is really hard for everyone. If you know this, then you realize that you have to help folks manage the bumps that come along – because that's part of the process. I also think you need to have buy-in for change – at the grassroots level and in leadership. Both have to happen. They don’t always happen at the same time, but they definitely have to converge together.
And I think while we do this work of change making, the last and probably most important piece is to remind people, even in the toughest times, of why we do this work. What are the outcomes and the benefits that really are going to make our world better and help us serve our communities better? It’s really important to keep that vision front and center.
Metro's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program addresses systemic inequities that impact our communities by providing support and tools to Metro staff, Metro Council and community partners to create an equitable region for all.
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