What We Need from Our Next Mayor: More than Just Lip Service to Equity

Dan Petegorsky

God help us if we’re hearing the same vague promises four years from now.

When Portland Mayor Sam Adams delivered his first State of the City address in 2009 the first question from the audience was a challenge from Dean of PSU's College of Urban and Public Affairs Larry Wallack. Wallack wanted to know how, in the context of a promised “triple bottom line” approach, the mayor would ensure serious attention to the frequently ignored equity part of that triad: “What kinds of policies, with teeth, will you put in place to ensure that the equity bottom line is adequately addressed and not sacrificed in the process?”

Adams’ response at the time was feeble – and reading through the text of the fourth and final State of the City address he delivered yesterday I’m afraid we’re not really any farther along now than then.

The Equity section of the speech was by far the shortest and least substantive. Tellingly, Adams began by thanking the Coalition of Communities of Color, NAYA, IRCO, Urban League, and the Latino Network for letting us know “how poorly Portland is doing in living up to its equity values.”

Indeed, that seems to be the major accomplishment of the city (and the state, for that matter) over the last years: to have witnessed report after report documenting our lack of progress – or, worse, the decline – in key indicators of well-being for communities of color. That may even overstate things: just this week we read that the city is now going back to the drawing board to re-study discrimination in rental housing, as one account put it, “after tossing out the results of last year’s much-maligned test.”

I’ve heard nothing but glowing reports from friends and colleagues in Colorado about Dante James, who will now lead the city’s Office of Equity. And I sincerely hope that his leadership and a new administration will take us well beyond the lip service that’s far too often characterized the city’s approach. God help us if we’re hearing the same vague promises four years from now.

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    We should focus on the fact that Mayor Sam Adams and the city council created an Office of Equity. Remember, he does NOT have to impress anyone or do things that helps the city, but he does. Not for re-election, but to help the city of Portland become the best it can be. No longer can Portland rely on its shipping terminals to create job and income for the residents. Mayor Adams obviously saw this and took action to make Portland the hub of green energy. We would be the worlds number one supply of solar panels if it wasn't for China's government subsidizing solar their nations companies which leaves the Chinese companies to lower the cost of their solar panels, so they can run USA out of business, and of course they will then raise their prices after they have destroyed our green energy sector. Ahead of every other state in our great nation, Mayor Adams took the initiative to bring a new way of income and life to Portland.

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      I don't understand your comment, Ryan. Patting ourselves on the back for being green while glaring inequities persist unaddressed is hardly the path to making Portland a model city for the 21st century; IMHO it relegates us to backwater status. Good intentions don't count for much if they remain perpetual intentions.

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    If we really want to make the City of Portland more equitable, we'll ditch our antiquated method of electing commissioners and create geographically based districts.

    Until then, power and influence will remain lodged in the same place as they have historically been in Portland, in wealthy inner SE/SW/NW neighborhoods.

    I don't see much difference between three three candidates; they'll all be fine on equity and the equity office.

    I want to know which candidate is going to make our economy hum again. That's what will help lower income citizens, not your zip code.

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      I'm confused, Paul. You start by saying that we won't really see progress on equity without moving to district-based election of commissioners, because power will still be vested in the powers that be. But then you say blithely that the mayoral candidates will all be fine on equity, before switching topics to the economy - where you then make what comes off as something like a "rising tide lifts all boats" statement. I don't get it.

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    What do you define equity as? It seems like you are equating it with some sort of equality but fail to define what that is. Please elaborate when you have a moment.

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    Also, Geoff - here's the famous LBJ quotation referenced in the article above:

    "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates."

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    Dan, I don't particularly like that Johnson quote, because it reduces the question of equity to something like "what is the reality of equality of opportunity?" That's a fine question, but not nearly broad enough, as I know you know.

    To me, equity tends to be most applicable in areas where you really want equality of results. Not absolute equality at the individual level, but to put it in public health terms, to remove distinctions in the distributions of outcomes between or among populations.

    In other words, when I say I want health equity, I mean I want to end health disparities and improve actual health. I want to recognize that differences of social process are producing the inequitable health outcomes, and pursue policies based on addressing the differences. And I don't want just to improve health "on average" while maintaining inequality on a slightly rising scale -- I want to address the problems of populations and communities who suffer most and improve the overall "average" population health from the bottom up, which is where the biggest gains are to be made, both in health and basic decent social ethics, and morality, frankly.

    Relatedly, I want equality of outcome, at least partially, at the bottom end, to get beyond "safety nets" -- nets tangle people up and trap them -- to providing solid floors that hold people and give them a place to stand and traction to move. Don't remove upside opportunity and incentive and reward, but give everyone a place to stand and move.

    The principles apply in other realms than health, of course.

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    [Can I add a parenthetical note here? I get that Jefferson has many enthusiastic supporters on BlueOregon. That said, at this point the tactic of piling on "Like" hits to any comments referring to Jefferson to propel the mentions to the top of the board has jumped the proverbial shark.]

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    Interesting conversation. I may lend a new light on this: I look at myself and wonder why I only make 10 dollars an hour. I was laid off from the city as a Planner with 15 years experience, and I can't get the City to respond to my inquiries about lack of people of color working for the city. I've had conversations with Fritz, Adams, and tried to talk to Kathleen Saadat (Inclusion/diversity manager w/city). All it would take would be an audit to see the disparities within our own city government (w/in my BDS Section, there were a handful out of hundreds). Multnomah County does a better job at hiring diversity. I read all of the reports of income disparity, lack of prospects for Latinos here, and I really need to leave, its been 2 years w/no interviews with jobs I'm highly qualified for. I volunteer, network, am on 2 transpo committees, and yet, all of this work does me no good. Lip service is not enough, our politically correct climate of words and no actions does us no good.

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