Breaking down bias
Hundreds of people from Lake Oswego, West Linn, Wilsonville, Tualatin and Tigard gathered Saturday, Oct. 19, at Lake Oswego High School to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion at the first Multi-City Equity Summit.
These cities, their corresponding school districts, the West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Community, Respond to Racism (LO) and LO for LOve worked together to create the event. The goal was to acknowledge that barriers exist that prevent some people from fully participating in the quality of life that the communities have to offer.
The summit had roots in a February 2018 trip in which 18 Lake Oswego School District representatives and community leaders traveled to Los Angeles for a two-day workshop at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. The trip followed multiple racist incidents in the Lake Oswego School District, and was planned to help inform the district's future discussions about race.
"I believe that lessons learned and contacts made by individuals at the summit will be carried back to their respective communities," said Bill House of West Linn after the summit. "These lessons will provide a solid foundation for transforming our local communities to places where all people are welcome, and individuals consider viewing their community through an equity lens as an asset both personally and collectively."
David Salerno Owens, the Lake Oswego School District's director of equity, was hired shortly after the trip and directed to begin the planning stages of an equity summit.
"At first we started with just Lake Oswego, and we had started to plan for that. But as we were creating our plans, several cities started hearing about us coming together to do this and they wanted to be a part of it," Salerno Owens said.
"So we actually had to take some time to gather collective stakeholders from other cities and figure out who we really wanted to be a part of this project," he said. "Then the planning was able to start coming off the ground."
First, the West Linn Alliance for Inclusive Community joined in, and helped bring along the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. Salerno Owens and his team decided to see if Tigard and Tualatin had any interest in participating, and the rest is history.
"It was definitely something that our collective cities were on board with and wanted to be a part of," he said.
The summit opened with keynote speaker Marvin Lynn, the dean of the College of Education at Portland State University. Lynn, a Chicago native who moved to Tigard in 2017, delivered a presentation titled "Conceptualizing and Building a 'Beloved Community' in Oregon: Race, Multiculturalism and Intersectionality."
The presentation gave a broad overview of how divisions manifest around race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and religion — divides that Lynn categorized as social constructs. He also emphasized that despite its reputation as a homogenous state, Oregon is continuing to diversify at a rapid pace.
And part of creating a more equitable society is learning to embrace change and discomfort, according to Lynn.
"You will be uncomfortable at some point — I am uncomfortable all the time, particularly when I talk about these conversations," Lynn said. "Live with that discomfort. Because when you're doing this equity work and trying to advance change in your community, it can be quite discomforting at times. And that's a normal reaction."
Other featured speakers included Assistant Clackamas County Administrator Emmett Wheatfall; Lake Oswego's Paul Miller, an author and professor; Willamette University professor Emily Drew; Charu Nair, an equity consultant; former Director of Equity and Inclusion for Denver Public Schools Bill de la Cruz; Markisha Smith, the new director for the Bureau of Equity and Human Rights for the City of Portland; and others with expertise in different aspects of race, racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Nair, who acted as the program chair for the summit and runs a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting company called Keys 2 DEI, said she and the steering committee thoughtfully created the day's schedule to lead to the maximum amount of learning, engagement and participation.
"We spent a lot of time finely crafting the flow of the day, the speakers and our sessions to allow for a comfortable engagement space for people to share their experiences," Nair said.
Nair led a session titled "Breaking the Bias Code: Unlock, Harness and Transform the Largest Hidden Barrier to Inclusion," in which she focused on personal accountability for biases one may hold.
Nair described bias as similar to a blind spot in a car. You can't see it in your normal vision, but once you check it, you realize how dangerous it can be.
"Bias is hardwired in our brains to keep us alive. To keep us safe, we go toward the familiar and away from the unfamiliar," she said. "But if we can begin to break those bias bubbles, take the areas that are unknown and make them known, we can begin to break down our biases."
Nair said it takes time to break down biases, because they are innate in the human brain.
"It becomes a lifelong effort to fill those gaps and engage with communities (different than yours)," she said. "The idea is to keep the conversation going, both internally within yourself and externally with other people."
Council president reflects on event
Wilsonville Council President Kristin Akervall was the only Wilsonville city councilor to attend the summit, but other community leaders like Planning Commissioners Kamryn Mesbah and Jerry Greenfield; resident and state Rep. Courtney Neron; West-Linn Wilsonville School District Superintendent Kathy Ludwig, and City of Wilsonville staff members were in attendance.
Noting how past government officials heavily contributed to racism in the state of Oregon and beyond, Akervall emphasized the value of current leaders congregating to discuss these issues.
"I took away how important it is to have government and schools and different facets being involved in this work together," she said. "If you go back and identify, 'Yes, there's inequality in our society; let's acknowledge that.' Also looking at what our history is and reflect that government and schools have had a history of creating this equality: segregated schools, redlining, unequal schools, black exclusion laws in Oregon — this is our history."
In assessing the job Wilsonville leaders have done to promote diversity and inclusion, Akverall highlighted multicultural programs the Wilsonville Public Library and the Parks & Recreation Department offer, the Town Center Plan public outreach and the work of South Metro Area Regional Transit (SMART).
However, she said the City and community can do more and would support a group similar to Respond to Racism sprouting up in Wilsonville. She also hopes this conversation will continue at the City level.
"I see it at work in our city. I also think we can do more and can continue to do more. I think that it's something that has to be woven into all the activities we do," Akervall said. "I don't think it's a check-the-box scenario. It's not solved with a single initiative or a group of initiatives."
One of the key nuggets Akervall took away from the event was when a speaker told the audience not to
confuse discomfort with being un-
"Sometimes this topic is sensitive and we can shy away from having these conversations trying to protect our own comfort," she said. "I really liked that quote and I'm going to keep that with me."
Keeping the momentum going
Former LOSD Communications Director Christine Moses attended last year's conference at the Museum of Tolerance, and has seen just how far the district has come since that time. Moses talked about that experience during a panel discussion, "Building Bridges: One Community's Journey to the Museum of Tolerance," at the equity summit.
"I was really honored to be up there talking about tthe rip, and seeing that things really can come to fruition," she said. "Change can happen. To have nearly 400 people show up on a Saturday shows that there really is a need for it."
Moses, who as a woman of color in the Lake Oswego community has seen troubling incidents occur in the district's past, said she felt a sense of hope for the community as a result of the summit.
"I have hope on a big scale. I walked away knowing that each of the people who attended will make ripples," she said. "Those ripples touch other people, and they touch other people, and so on."
The goal for organizers of the Oct. 19 summit was to keep the momentum and conversation going far into the future.
"We're striving to make sure this isn't just a one-off event, but a continuing conversation not just of one city but a group of cities together, a group of school boards, different governmental agencies saying, 'What are we doing and not doing? What do we need to change?'" said West Linn City Councilor Jules Walters, who was on the planning committee for the summit.
Salerno Owens said that because this summit took about 18 months to plan, seeing it actually happen was quite special.
"I really do feel that a lot of people came out of it just thinking about how wonderful the day was. We've been planning this for a long time, and to actually see this happen was humbling," he said. "It was amazing to see so many people from so many different walks of life together, having a shared experience, learning and collaborating. People were really a part of this day, and their hearts were definitely there."
Corey Buchanan and Patrick Malee contributed to this report.
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