Gov. Brown takes first big steps toward racial equity; now Legislature must act
In 2021, we are embarking on a process to build an Oregon that we can all love. An Oregon where we can all be loved, respected, safe, and have the opportunity to thrive.
All of the most important issues that Oregonians face — economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, police accountability, health equity, climate change, education, housing and homelessness — are tied up in race.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday we just celebrated, reminded us, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." There is no more certain confirmation of that than the last year.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the wildfires, the so-called racial reckoning spurred by the death of yet another unarmed man of color and the incredulity we all have experienced in response to recent insurrectional events in our nation's capital have brought our state to a screeching halt.
This moment gives us an important chance to build back stronger and more resilient than ever, learning from the resiliency of Oregon's own Black and brown communities who have long been left out due to structural and institutional racism. These are the same communities that we must support as we recover from these crises, as these communities have, again, faced disproportionate negative impacts of these crises.
For far too long, Oregon's Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and Tribal members have not had a seat at the table. Traditionally, the Governor's Office budget and legislative agenda-building processes have been informed entirely by the agencies, policy advisers and stakeholders who had ready, easy access to the governor's team.
This year is different, and must be. It is why my colleagues and I have been active participants in Gov. Brown's recently formed, potentially groundbreaking, long overdue yet somehow still prescient Racial Justice Council (RJC). This group is the first of its kind in the nation. We are moving through a process without a roadmap or guidebook, instead knit together by the knowledge that together we can accomplish so much more than each of us can alone.
We each bring valuable perspectives from many different backgrounds and life stories, and serve this council from across the state of Oregon. Our facilitators focus on transformative systems change versus what can often be impotent discussions of inclusion that amount to much talk, and little definitive change.
We've been clear on the subject of racial justice: actions matter; policies matter; budgets matter. And it's long past time we take decisive anti-racist action here in the state of Oregon.
So, in honor of the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others, we advocated to center racial equity in the state budget and our 2021 legislative agenda.
Imperfect? Yes. Do we need to go further? Absolutely. But this is the start of a new era in Oregon, an Oregon that centers racial justice in making laws; in resource allocation and budget decisions, including the billions of dollars of state contracts available each year; the recruitment and promotion of BIPOC people in state agencies, boards and commissions; and, ultimately, reshaping the very foundations of state government that are required to truly address structural racism.
The intractable institution of racism won't be dismantled in one day, and Oregon's own origins are firmly rooted in systemic exclusion for people of color. However, I'm convinced we can dismantle it the same way that it was built: brick by brick.
That's why we've started here, at the beginning, in the room where budgets, investments and policy agendas are created. After generations of exclusion and racist policies, I hope government will take advantage of this opportunity to shape the future of our state for generations to come — a future where everyone has the chance to thrive. We all live here, so let's act like it.
This much is clear: Gov. Brown has committed to spending the balance of her term using her time and political power showing what innovative, courageous leadership looks like from the top. Oregon will have to hold her and all elected officials accountable, monitor their efforts and ensure that these good intentions are met with commensurate actions.
Further, and as important in our focus for this session, we must compel, encourage and demand that the legislators in Salem, who are likewise charged with delivering leadership, fair policies and security for the Oregonians they serve, deliver equity-based decisions that serve our entire state. Nothing short of that will be acceptable from any of our elected representatives.
Moreover, the Racial Justice Council was able to mobilize data, passion and lived experiences to form a cohesive set of recommendations and bills that informed the Governor's Recommended Budget and will help shape the future of our state. From housing to access-to-capital to health care to education to environment, our determined body put forth ideas to help us all, starting with the historically disadvantaged. While not every idea we proposed was adopted, without our feedback, analysis and input, many of the more sweeping and equity based ideas would have been omitted. We now call upon the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee and the House and Senate Leadership to move forward in this spirit. The equity-centered budget items come out of the rigorous collective work of the council, and it's now time for the Legislature to adopt these as our state's budget priorities.
Right now we're focused on the short-term goals, but what we are really doing is sowing the seeds for long-term change and to overhaul an entire system that was, candidly, built on racism. It will take time, it will take hard work, and it will take all of us. The longer term strategy is to infuse racial justice and implement racial impact statements at the outset of the budget process and build agency requests around these concerns — and then have the Legislature support these priorities accordingly.
These ideas need to become bills, which need to become laws.
However many good intentions collided to create the Racial Justice Council, it is unlikely that any of these will continue to happen without legislation for the mindful, deliberate, permanent and formal establishment of the Racial Justice Council, its work, and its goals.
Legislation to institutionalize the RJC is happening as we speak, and needs to be supported. Our legislators need to make this happen in this session, along with passing the bills and recommendations that came out of the RJC. No governor of Oregon has ever promoted such critical issues, nor listened to as many voices of their diverse residents. I hope our Legislature is likewise committed to leading for the tapestry of Oregonians that they represent.
This is the most important legislative session in Oregon's history, for it will determine if the laws and policies and budgets are decided fairly for all Oregonians. It is time for our elected officials to be bold, for all of our sakes.
Marcus Mundy serves as executive director at the Coalition of Communities of Color, a racial equity-focused, 19-member organization focusing on issues of social and economic justice using a racial equity lens.
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