“We are all Ethnocentric, narrow minded, with limited vision.”- Richard Twiss, Lakota Sioux –Native Spiritual leader.
These words ring in my head as I drive to my next appointment, a meeting with a Somali spiritual leader who like me has an organizers heart.
I’m angry, angry after listening to people from dominant culture bombard a new equity program with their ethnocentric, narrow minded, with limited vision ways.
I’m also increasing proud of another advocate who stepped up and tried his best to advocate for the program and explain to someone from his own race historical discrimination that has created the problem in the first place. I’ve known this advocate for years and had no idea he has it in him. I run upstairs on my way to the meeting and thank him and ask him “Can I give you a hug?” He says yes. Momentarily I feel joy- somewhere along the line this man had a significant mind shift. He was always a good man but he allowed himself to learn about the struggle of others unlike himself and it made him a better person.
I hug my friends who work for the staff under fire and we hug – I tell the new Director “Welcome to Portland!” He made it through his first big initiation moment in Portland and survived. He indicates he too now wants a hug. He is now family.
Today was a day we sat down together and committed to writing the story of the DCL program. The story is so much longer than five years and yet we need to turn this history of efforts to create a program that would find a way to get more people of color and immigrant and refugee communities to have a voice in the civic engagement processes in our city.
My first involvement was around 1997 when I was an organizer for the Workers’ Organizing Committee. At that time I went wherever my boss told me to go so when he said I was going to go talk to white folks in the neighborhood system about how to get people of color to their meetings I went. I was a radicalized believer that organizing changed lives (still am). I remember talking to a group of people basically about door knocking 101. About the only other thing I remember was someone in this group said “We’re volunteers, we don’t have time to do that!”
I remember thinking, “then it’s not gonna get done.”
Also in 1997, WOC marched to the MHRC to pass the Workers’ Bill of Rights.
I remember Lowen Berman and others supporting us and yet wondering if the passing of this bill would have any teeth. But it was clear – we had someone supporting us in what seemed to us at the time quasi-government. Not too long after that the MHRC was abolished. . “We are all ethnocentric, narrow minded with limited vision.”
In a few year while organizing parking lot attendants to gather data on the City’s living wage ordinance I would be sitting in a City Council meeting reporting on the data we had collected, no the workers in the Smartpark lots were not being paid what they were supposed. I remember Jim Francesconi declaring from then on everything that went out from the City of Portland would be translated into at least five languages. I remember how Bob Kieta and Kevin Jeans-Gail managed our little grant and fought for us to get the money so we could get the money to do the translation. I think we paid IRCO for the translation.
It was at that time that I first heard Francesconi admonish the Neighborhood system for “NOT representing everyone, and they needed to do a better job.” At this time, you understand I was operating off of what I was told; these folks were all volunteers and couldn’t do it. With the exception of the WOC staff everyone we organized were volunteers- hard working people many with kids and more than one job but they organized. We did it because our life depended on it because it did.
In 2000, I was working two jobs. I had left WOC to run EJAG and then got pulled back to organize non-city lots, Diamond parking lot attendants. This group was 98% men from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Tigria . They had to teach me their history of the wars and why I would have to accommodate their ways in order to organize them. Honestly, I fell in love with these men and the women they eventually brought in as well. We won an election and a contract all within a year. They affiliated with the Teamsters. After the hard win and the promises this good old boys team the Urban Worker’s Union was disbanded when Diamond sold out to someone else. “We are all ethnocentric, narrow minded with limited vision.”
In the same year WOC won the union, EJAG defeated the expansion of the freeway and Environmental Justice principles were now a hard won part of process for Portlanders. After doing an EJ training for the I-5 Task Force , I took my seat next to Mayor Vera Katz and she whispered “After an argument like that , you could prevent anything from ever being built in Portland.” I don’t know if she meant it as a compliment but I totally received it as one.
EJAG, with a few good wins in brownfields and transportation was at the top of its game. I was being flown all over the United States, getting fed well and sleeping in expensive hotels praising the Gospel of incorporating EJ principles into everyday Government institutions. Directors of State Health Organizations were carefully listening and taking advice on how to implement these ideas on working with people of color to deal with the rising evidence that their practices may in some way have created the alarming disparity reports coming out about communities of color and low income communities. We are working with the Federal agencies most.
We had also organized the I-5 project so well that we’ve won a million dollar Community Enhancement Fund for our community. The problem was that ODOT brought the neighborhoods to the table to decide how to spend the money. They explain how “Nothing could be done without the neighborhoods.” Here we are radicalized EJ activists mostly African American fought for this and now the neighborhoods get to sit at the table (with me) to decide how the money will be spent. . “We are all ethnocentric, narrow minded with limited vision.”
This was my path to finding a voice for people of color in Portland. We then worked hard with the community to build the Diversity and Civic Leadership program. By the time we coined “DCL” it was already outdated. The voice of the Diversity was crying out for repair from years of historical racist policies and practices experiences by these groups. We moved beyond diversity which many times felt like some backward affirmative action throwback to crying out for “EQUITY”. Equity embraces a deeper commitment to everyone and from everyone that we are going farther in our understanding AND actions to ensure the City of Portland is giving ALL Portlanders the opportunity for a safe healthy and prosperous life, even if . “We are all ethnocentric, narrow minded with limited vision.” JS Williams – Program coordinator – DCL