Coerced, duped, paid, or bribed? An outrageous accusation.

By Matt Morton of Portland, Oregon. Matt (Squaxin Island Tribe) is the executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center and is an elected member of the Portland Public Schools Board.

For those of us who are civically engaged, it might be a surprise that public water fluoridation isn’t the biggest controversy to hit Portland this Spring.

As culturally-specific organizations have increased their involvement in issues of health equity and actively pursued opportunities to support solutions that minimize the disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable and underserved communities, they’ve found themselves the focus of an all-too-familiar scrutiny.

One local news publication has gone so far as to suggest that culturally specific, community-based organizations have been duped by pro-fluoride organizations, pointing to capacity-building grants as apparent proof of a pay-off.

Nevermind the fact that for over a year each of these organizations have played a role in designing a strategy to support this issue, including testifying in favor of the city ordinance; nevermind that as social justice advocates, each of these organizations has a track record of addressing socioeconomic disparities, institutional racism, and inequity of services experienced by families, children, and communities; and nevermind the fact that these organizations have worked for years to unify their communities for collective action towards social change by seeking self-determination, wellness, justice, and prosperity.

The assertion that culturally-specific, community-based organizations of color have been coerced or duped, paid or bribed into endorsing fluoridation both ignores the facts and is grossly dismissive of the work done by organizations and communities who serve our most vulnerable Portlanders.

It’s a position that is at best negligent and at worst bigoted, and it implies these organizations and communities are either intellectually incapable of making evidence-based decisions or are so naïve and unsophisticated that they’ll believe anything.

Neither is true.

Local culturally-specific, community-based organizations have spent the better part of the last three years documenting the experiences of communities of color in Multnomah County. The report, “Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile” (pdf) is the first of a series of reports, followed by six subsequent community-specific reports on the African American, African immigrant and refugee, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American, and Slavic communities.

As the title suggests, the results of the report are unsettling, yet they also provide new opportunity for creating a policy environment that supports rather than harms communities of color, a surprisingly uncommon strategy for our city, county, or state. Water fluoridation is one such public health initiative.

So, after we settle fluoridation (at least until the next election), let’s begin to address the overwhelmingly incorrect assumptions we continue to make about the communities and people who live in our city; let's stop talking about Portland being a "white city" and come to a shared realization that 33% of our community are people of color and over 50% of our children are of color; let’s begin to realign conventional wisdom with reality; let’s no longer allow the deepening disparities experienced by our communities of color to be shrouded by our preferred, pseudo-progressive utopian view of Portland. Let’s not allow our leaders or our media to disparage our neighbors before first demanding a higher level of understanding and appreciation for their condition.

The opportunity for success of one-third of today’s population is intrinsically tied to the other two-thirds, and it is the focused investment on our most vulnerable and underserved communities that our city, county, and state’s future depends. I choose to stand with the organizations whose collective action continues to weave our traditionally marginalized communities into the fabric of Portland, and I ask all Portlanders to join me in this effort. Be an ally or be an advocate, and whatever you do, be a part of Portland's future.

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