For Metro, achieving racial equity in greater Portland means that race would no longer be a reliable way to predict a person’s life outcomes on measurements like education level, health or wealth. Today, they track very closely to race. In the process of creating racial equity, every group and community in greater Portland would see its well-being improve.
This means making sure people of color feel welcome and safe when they visit Metro destinations. It means creating job training and mentoring for people of color so the department’s workforce looks like the people it serves, which isn’t true now. It means Indigenous people, both those with close historical and cultural ties to the region and those with tribal roots in other parts of the country, will have more meaningful and easier access to cultural resources on properties that Metro protects and manages, all of which are on land ceded by regional tribes in the early years of colonization. It means contracting with more certified minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses.
It also means involving community members of color in decision-making processes. Voters supported this when they passed the 2019 parks and nature bond measure which makes racial equity and meaningful community engagement requirements for each of the bond’s programs.
That mandate has been followed as Metro staff launch the bond measure. In 2020 and throughout 2021, Metro worked closely with members of the region’s Indigenous community to change how it assesses and prioritizes land acquisitions. The trails program, which guides the distribution of $40 million toward land purchases to close gaps in the regional trail system, hosted more than 100 people of color to hear what they value in the trail system and how they want projects prioritized.
Metro also provided small grants to community organizations run by and serving people of color so the organizations could expand their capacity in the face of the COVID pandemic. That project, which was at first temporary and created and executed quickly, is now a regular part of the grants program.
Through these and other efforts, Metro hopes that more people of color will enjoy the benefits of parks and natural areas.
Equity at the river starts with a life jacket
Nearly every summer, tragically, people drown during trips out to nature in greater Portland. This often happens at riverside parks where folks go to have fun and cool off in the summer heat. These drownings, as is the case across the country, disproportionately take the lives of young people of color. A few of those drownings have happened at Metro parks.
Over the past two years, Metro staff members, led by the efforts of staff of color, have worked to inform park visitors of the need to swim with a life jackets, providing easy access to life jackets at popular swimming spots and even giving away life jackets. Metro has worked with community organizations run by and for people of color to get these jackets to the kids and adults most affected by drownings. This work has increased safety for every visitor to Metro’s parks.
One of the Metro staff members leading the work is Jason Ligons. Jason is a nature educator on the community education and stewardship team. Before that, he was a rescue diver in the Coast Guard and a ranger at Oxbow Regional Park. Both of those experiences set him on a mission to help children of color to share his experience of joy and fun in water, safely.
After Jason Ligons was discharged from the Coast Guard, he returned to the Pacific Northwest, set about getting a degree and supporting his family. Ligons decide to attend a veteran’s career fair at which he was approached by a rep for the Forest Service. In high school, Ligons had participated in an urban youth program with the Forest Service; he left the program with the impression the outdoors weren’t for people who looked like him.
However, the recruiter was persistent, and Ligons needed out from his sales job. He was soon hired as a ranger for Multnomah Falls. To his surprise, he enjoyed the job, fell in love with working outdoors. But the best part was, “talking to the kids and educating people who looked like me,” on conservation and how to protect natural resources – resources that Ligons wants to make sure everyone has equitable access to.
A few years later, Ligons brought this passion and care to Metro’s Oxbow Regional Park. As the sole Black ranger at Oxbow, he was intentional about providing youth of color a positive interaction with a badge. It is difficult work to be placed in a position of representing an entire community, but worth it when he would hear, “Hey, it means a lot to have someone who looks like me in uniform.”
In his new role as a Metro nature educator, Ligons combines his expertise with water and love to teaching, by connecting youth of color to the natural resources they have systematically been denied. He strives to promote equitable access to water, show these youth that swimming is indeed their heritage, educate youth on how water has been weaponized against communities of color, and provide the tools for how best to be safe and have fun around open water.
He says, “I’ve gone my whole life hearing Black people can’t swim. I want to shut that up. I want kids of color to know swimming and water safety are for them.”
From “Black waters: reconnecting Black and Brown children to water and swimming”