As I look back at West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District’s recent efforts to connect with more diverse and historically underserved residents, I’m warmed by the relationships and partnerships formed, as well as the on-the-ground impacts we’ve had with residents in one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in our service area. In the past few years we learned that the neighborhood of West Portland Park encompasses an important headwater of the Tryon Creek watershed, yet it had not previously received any direct assistance from the District. We saw an opportunity to meet our dual goals of equitably and inclusively serving residents while gaining environmental insights and results.
The District has a long road ahead of us in becoming an organization that reaches its diversity, equity and inclusion goals. It’s hard not to look back with regret about how we could have done better in West Portland Park using the equity lens we have since developed, and how it might have improved community outcomes for the conservation work done there. However, I’m grateful that we now have concrete ways to improve our services, including examination of assumptions, engaging multiple perspectives throughout the process, and slowing down to achieve better outcomes.
The District embarked on its journey of improving equity outcomes, leading with racial equity, back in 2015 after its staff and board completed a biases training from the Center for Diversity and the Environment, quickly followed by an Intertwine Alliance cohort training. This second training, delivered by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University, led us through an organizational assessment. The assessment showcased where we can focus to better achieve our equity goals, and produced a rough draft of an action plan.
In 2016, we hired an outstanding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) intern, Danielle Jones, and formed a DEI committee to lay the solid foundation needed for this work. Instrumental to the process was an extremely impactful City of Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights Equity 101 training delivered to our entire staff and board. Following this training, our board and staff affirmed our commitment through an adopted racial equity statement. In it we formally recognized that “gaining the perspectives of, and working with, communities of color will increase our organization’s overall strength. By working proactively and deliberately to be equitable and inclusive, we will be more successful in our work.”
With critical partnerships and a foundation of commitment to racial equity in place, in 2016 we gathered with a host of partners on a collaborative effort for community-tailored outreach, listening sessions and engagement in West Portland Park that resulted in enhanced stewardship of natural resources. This multi-tiered program, called Connect SW PDX, was partially funded through a Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grant and at its heart had a “listening project and action pledge."
The team initially planned to implement the project through a volunteer door-to-door effort. We soon realized that the short time frame we had to deliver the project and the lack of presence we’ve had in this neighborhood were a barrier to fully engaging residents. In addition, we had not addressed how to manage expected language barriers. We realized we needed help, and put out a call to our partners for resources and ideas.
Thankfully, we found Ping Khaw of Community Engagement Liaison Services (CELs). In the organization's words, “CELs is a language interpretation and community engagement program with experienced and trained civic activists who are fluent in their native language(s) and in English who assist government, private entities, and corporations to better achieve communication, public engagement, and help integrate immigrants and refugees into the life of our communities. Many CELs are respected elders or advocates in their communities who understand the needs and issues of both the city and the community..."
CELs not only connected us with translators from the community, they also helped us redesign our outreach plan and provided critical insight. Ping brought to light for us how current trust and legitimacy issues of the government could sink the project. She confirmed that it was unwise to try door-to-door canvasing given the racially charged political environment that could make individuals reluctant to participate, and because of the added potential challenge of language barriers. Instead of a knock on the door from a stranger who was “from the government and here to help," trusted community leaders attending community events in and around their neighborhoods were able to deliver the project and provide translation services -- undoubtedly getting more robust and authentic information from those we most hoped to hear from. The CELs program even provided the District and its partners with a missing financial mechanism for reimbursing community leaders. Ping and the CELs involvement was pivotal.
After redesigning our program and engaging with CEL liaisons, Connect SW PDX’s listening project and action pledge far exceeded all of the Metro grant goals. More than 100 people participated in the listening project, providing key information on how to better serve their communities, and 49 participants pledged on-the-ground steps to preserve and restore ecological habitat. The demographic data collected showed we reached 26 residents that speak a language other than English at home and that 28 percent reported a racial or ethnic identity other than white. Many partners used translation services, some for the first time ever, to respond to community members that pledged action.
A neighborhood that was once without any District conservation projects now has a storm water project and a habitat restoration project, both financially and technically supported by the District.
To wrap up this project, celebrate its successes, and continue conversations with community members, the project partners and I planned a community celebration at a neighborhood middle school. Yet just a week before the event, I realized that the work of inclusivity would have an ongoing learning curve with stumbles along the way. After all the community fliers and social media outreach had gone out, I got a message from an extremely valued CELs leader who was our liaison to the Somali community. He explained that while he would be happy to attend the event, he wouldn’t be able to join us for dinner because it was to be held during Ramadan.
I sank to the floor when I heard those words. We had discussed being sure to avoid Ramadan at our initial planning meeting. How did I miss this?! We had CELs representatives at the planning meetings, but I clearly hadn’t yet made the space, built the trust, or made the ask to the CEL liaisons to help us avoid this time frame in our planning. We moved so quickly through our tasks to meet the grant deadlines and to wrap up the project that I had lost sight of this important detail.
I contemplated cancelling the event, and called Ping and other partners in a panic. In the end, we decided to proceed, since there was a good chance that community members would arrive regardless, and we didn’t have a good way to send them a cancellation.
Project partners set up tables with information and sat alongside community members for dinner. One participant said, “I know it’s only a pilot project, but you’re off to a great start,” and partners recognized the event as a way to build meaningful engagement.
Since our initial experience with Connect SW PDX, the District has made strides in strengthening partnerships and developing ways to hopefully avoid further oversight or misguided decisions. In 2017, we were able to participate in another Intertwine Alliance equity cohort, this time focused on "implementation" and delivered by the Nonprofit Association of Oregon (NAO).
Our trainer helped us develop and apply an equity lens that 'centers on whiteness to undo whiteness.'
Our trainer, Alexis Millett, then of NAO and now of her own start-up business, APM Consulting, helped us develop and apply an equity lens that “centers on whiteness to undo whiteness." The concept of “centering whiteness to dismantle it” is a concept originally shared with Alexis by Hanif Fazal of the Center for Equity and Inclusion. An equity lens prompts users through a series of questions to surface assumptions, set outcomes, engage multiple perspectives, consider barriers, and build awareness over time. The long-range goal in applying this method is that the steps become ingrained and start to come automatically when making decisions, and that multiple perspectives are invited into the decision-making process.
We recently reflected on the Connect SW PDX project with our newly developed equity lens in mind and found that it could indeed lead us to more insights about how to best reach equity goals. Upon reflection, we were reminded to slow down and ensure that diverse perspectives are heard and represented at the leadership level from the onset. On both a personal and organizational level we were reminded that this work is never done, always evolving, and takes deliberate thought and constant evaluation. We look forward to a meeting this December with the CELs and other partners to decide, together, what to do next.
As we continue to refine our equity lens, grow our organization and develop partnerships, we set our sights on a District that is better and stronger through its intentional diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and outcomes.