Equity, diversity, inclusion: priority for Clackamas County
For Martine Coblentz, building trust is the most important part of her job. As Clackamas County's equity and inclusion officer, Coblentz is helping lead the administration in ensuring that the county is a safe, inclusive and equitable space, both for those who work there, as well as the thousands of citizens who receive its services.
"One of the priorities of 'Performance Clackamas' is building public trust with government, and historically marginalized groups, especially, haven't had the best experiences with government," Coblentz said. "It's so important that we have more folks who are a reflection of what we see in the community. It builds comfort and trust, but it also helps ensure we do better as an organization."
That baseline of trust, according to Coblentz, is the foundation upon which rest the relationships she's building with each county department. And after just three months in her role, Coblentz — with the help of dozens of other county employees — says she's making serious headway in chipping away at old systems that exclude or create barriers.
Over the past decade, Coblentz said diversity, equity and inclusion has grown from sort of an afterthought to becoming a cornerstone of Clackamas County's operations. As society continues to build a better understanding of the struggles that traditionally marginalized groups face in our world, Clackamas County has begun a bit of self-reflection by looking inward at what policies, codes and practices can be changed to make certain that everyone who seeks to engage in county business or work on its behalf has a fair shake and is treated with respect.
Since taking on her new role with the county back in July — her second stint as a Clackamas County employee after having worked as a mediator/facilitator for county resolution services from 2012-19 — Coblentz and her team have started to dig into county code in search of laws that perpetuate bias or discrimination. From there, they plan to analyze departmental policies to search for similar issues and develop a list of priorities on how county administration and the Board of County Commissioners might correct those flaws.
The county also recently hosted a series of internal listening sessions throughout the summer for employees to talk about their experiences around race. Those forums yielded some specific goals for the Coblentz's office to tackle while they continue their work scouring county code and policy. One priority was ensuring that there's a clear process for people who experience microaggressions — instances of subtle, sometimes unintentional racism — discrimination or bias know where to go for recourse and to give feedback in order to correct the situation. Another was that employees said they'd like to see Coblentz's office work on helping the county build a sense of belonging and engagement for all, which has led to an emphasis on creating resource groups for employees to foster connections across departments.
But possibly the biggest priority that came from those listening sessions was for the county to review its recruitment and retention practices. And Coblentz's job has been made a bit easier through the support she's received from the county's human resources department in taking a hard look at how the county is trying to acquire diverse talent pools and hold onto employees whose background, experience and point of view that it cherishes.
For JJ Peters, the county's recruitment manager, she's glad to see an importance placed on the county's willingness to explore conversations that lead to better policies and practices shaped through an equity lens.
Peters said that her office is diving headfirst into the process of reviewing its practices with the guidance of Coblentz and the rest of the county's equity and inclusion staff.
One of their most recent discoveries was that internal promotional recruitments requested by county departments usually were only drawing one or two applicants, and, more often than not, it wasn't a very diverse applicant pool.
According to Peters, this discovery led County Administrator Gary Schmidt in February to lay out some new guidelines for filling vacant positions. The new guidelines state that all vacant positions now require an open, competitive recruitment rather than just pulling from internal applicants with a few exceptions for positions contractually obligated by a bargaining agreement.
"Obviously it's a balance because we also do need to be aware and help find promotional opportunities for our workforce, otherwise we're going to lose them to other organizations," Peters said. "It's one of the many things on our list to discuss with Martine and her team about how do we go about ensuring that we have additional promotional opportunities for staff but also make sure that we are open and inclusive with our hiring processes."
Peters — who has worked for Clackamas County for more than 20 years — recently spoke at a virtual town hall hosted Partners in Diversity, a nonprofit that specializes in recruitment efforts with an emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion. The group has been a longtime collaborator of Metro, Clackamas County and its neighbors.
During the town hall, Peters gave a few examples of ways her department is focusing on equity in reviewing its practices, including applying the equity lens to implementation of Oregon's Equal Pay Act in not requiring minimum education as a qualification for any job. Peters' department is working with the equity and inclusion office to provide training to hiring managers on implicit bias.
She also described how important it is for organizations, both in public and the private sector, to have chief executives and boards that promote accountability in making equity, diversity and inclusion a priority in all its practices. Peters said her own chief executive, Schmidt, has shown a proclivity over the past several months to put a real emphasis on creating an environment where the equity lens is central to all business.
"I have heard him in more than one meeting share with refreshing transparency, his past mistakes as a leader, and his commitment to this work moving forward," Peters said. "His willingness to not only make the tough decisions and have the tough conversations is so critical to the success of our organization, and in particular our equity, diversity and inclusion efforts."
The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners has backed Coblentz's focus on strengthening the county's efforts to promote equity in all aspects of its business. Most recently, the board approved this week signing on to a new regional framework to ensure the local construction workforce hires more women and people of color. The framework known as the Construction Careers Pathway Project (C2P2), was developed by Metro following a market study it commissioned in partnership with the city of Portland. That study found a severe lag in the regional construction workforce versus the number of projects expected over the next decade, and in particular, a severe lack of women and people of color represented. The framework sets several milestones for the county to work toward, including creating clear workforce diversity goals such as a minimum of 14% of all work hours being performed by women and 25% of all work hours being performed by persons of color, both journey and apprentice level workers.
The framework requires all Clackamas Water Environment Services and Department of Transportation Development contractors to have written policies promoting inclusive workplaces and a zero-tolerance for bullying and harassment.
It also allocates $50,000 to the Clackamas Workforce Partnership to invest in workforce supply by establishing a pre-apprenticeship program in the county that would provide training, tools, uniforms, career education and other services to a cohort of approximately 20 participants.
Before it unanimously approved the plan, the board of commissioners raved over the effort, stating that the program is more than worthy of county funding to contract with pre-apprenticeship programs that focus on support equity and inclusion workforce goals.
Commissioner Paul Savas had some questions about what the $50,000 would provide specifically and how it would fit into the current workforce development landscape with already established pre-apprenticeship programs, but ultimately expressed his support.
"I think (this program) sounds wonderful, and it's for a good cause recognizing the need for workers and trying to get a more diverse workforce," Savas said.
Commissioner Martha Schrader noted that she hopes to see these workforce development investments paired with other local programs that provide early childcare for working parents in order to not only help people get the training they require to earn a living wage, but some help with raising their families as well. She hopes to help usher in more investments in the realm workforce development that focus on equity and inclusion in the near the future.
"This is the first time in a very long time we've given any direct dollars to our workforce partnership," Schrader said. "I'm not talking about anything big or large at this point... but I hope in the future we continue to support this effort because it should be one of our primary goals."
According to Coblentz, the C2P2 is a great move on the board's behalf in working toward shattering the proverbial "glass ceiling" in certain skilled trade sectors such as construction for both women and people of color.
"The fact that the board unanimously voted yes for C2P2 is a sign that the county is really looking at the value of bringing folks in who have historically been kept out of certain fields and trades," Coblentz said. "It addresses so many things. We're growing a vibrant economy by giving people opportunities to have living wages so they can help support their family. We want folks of color, women, people from many different marginalized groups living in Clackamas County to help our community thrive and be better."
Coblentz said the C2P2 is just one step in a larger effort that the county is mounting to shift paradigms around how equity, diversity and inclusion are implemented in Clackamas County, and each new program and project adds to the conversation being had by leaders on how to better serve all employees and constituents.
"The county is in a place where we're really looking within," she said. "We are not afraid to look at where we were, where are the areas we're doing well, and what are the areas can we grow and improve."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.