How is Oregon doing with its efforts to dismantle systemic racism?
The Reimagine Oregon project launched last summer with an ambitious policy agenda to dismantle systemic racism in the state — in housing, education, health care, policing and more. We hear from three project organizers about what progress Oregon has made over the past year, what still needs to happen and where their focus is right now.
Our guests are KairosPDX Executive Director Kali Thorne Ladd, JOIN Executive Director Katrina Holland and Urban League of Portland President and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. “Oregon, this is your chance. Now is your chance to prove that Black lives matter in a tangible and actionable way.” Kali Thorne Ladd said that last summer. She’s the executive director of the Kairos PDX Charter School. She and other prominent Black leaders in Oregon came together this past July to launch Reimagine Oregon. The idea behind the project was to capture the momentum built from two months of protests over racial injustice in Portland and around the country and to use that momentum to push for concrete policy changes in everything from policing and education, to housing and health care. It was a sweeping call and it had an unprecedented level of buy-in from elected leaders in the state. Given that the murder of George Floyd sparked this project, we thought we would take some time today on the week of the one year anniversary to ask what has actually changed in Oregon and what remains the same. So Kali Thorne Ladd joins us now. We’re also joined by Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland and Katrina Holland. She is the executive director of Join, a nonprofit serving people experiencing homelessness. It’s great to have all three of you on the show today. Thanks for joining us.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Thank you, Thanks for having us.
Dave Miller: Katrina Holland first. I mentioned those lines from Kali Thorne Ladd just now. You said something similar in that press conference to launch this project back in July. You talked about the pattern you’ve seen over and over where people protest and largely white leaders acknowledge Black pain and apologize and promise to do more and then nothing really changes. So, the reimagined Oregon project was explicitly designed to break that cycle. In the big picture, do you think it’s working?
Katrina Holland: You know, that’s a fair question. Dave. And I think it depends on who you ask.
Dave Miller: I’m going to ask you to start with.
Katrina Holland: Well, what I will say is this: I think that I have definitely noticed a shift in the way that elected officials are engaging with Black community around some of these policy changes. I’ll talk about that more in a minute. I think that we’ve definitely seen a greater sense of urgency in the way that folks are responding to what folks are saying is important to them. I have specifically noticed a change in the way and nature of engagement that the state legislature or a few legislators have sort of listened and observed and acted on some of the things that we recommended which is a shift. Now, have we gotten some things across the finish line? There are a few things that have gone across the finish line. We’ve seen some historic investments in Gresham through Metro. We’ve seen some pretty innovative initiatives with Trimet and transportation and housing conversations, a conversation that’s been around since 2016 that wasn’t really going anywhere, has seen a lot of significant progress in the state legislature. We’ll see what happens if the republicans decide to stay. I would also say that one of the messages that we tried to get across is that it’s just as important that elected leaders change the nature and way they engage with Black community in this process, just as important as what we pass. So we very emphatically and repetitively stated this is an iterative process. None of us know what it’s like to function outside of white supremacy. So there’s a lot of dreaming and a lot of talking and a lot of back and forth about what things are going to look like and what things we want and that iterative process instead of like a challenging back and forth sort of head to head combat is the way that we need to engage in this process, because historically, as you just said, that’s not been the experience of the Black community, and I think that we’ve seen some movement in that - obviously some jurisdictions have a long way to go. I’d say in some ways, yes, in some ways, no. Is that a fair statement, Nkenge, colleague?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: I agree completely.
Dave Miller: Well, Nkenge, let me let me go to you and I want to talk specifics about housing, about criminal justice, about education as we go. But sticking, Nkenge, for a second with the big picture, do you feel for example, that elected officials, I mean, when the governor was a part of your call, the Multnomah County Chair, county commissioners, this was last July, did you feel like elected officials up and down the power structure were more likely to take your calls in May or June or July of 2020 than they would have been, say a year earlier?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Oh, sure. But I’ll do one better. Instead of taking my calls, they were calling me. And that is substantially different.
Dave Miller: Is that the case now? Can you get through as easily and are you getting calls as much almost a year later?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Well, they’re certainly not calling me as much. They’re not reaching out to the Urban League as often. I can certainly tell you that. Specifically, quite frankly, with regard to the recent stimulus dollars that are coming to the states, I was surprised by how few elected leaders reached out at the county level, at the city level, at the state level, that reached out to be in touch with the Urban League of Portland, let alone to engage directly with the Reimagine Oregon project. So I would say certainly it’s tapered off and at the same time, am I able to pick up the phone and call them? Sure, sure I am.
Dave Miller: But I guess what I’m wondering about is the extent to which the sense of urgency that was so obvious last summer, the extent to which you still feel that especially from white elected leaders.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Man, well, let’s be real frank about this. The sense of urgency is certainly felt by some and I am pleased to see it, when we convene with elected officials, especially when we gather, when they’re gathered in a room together, they are able to feed off each other’s energy to continue to encourage them to keep pushing, because they’ve got a lot on their plate. There’s a lot going on. It’s a very busy time, both personally and professionally for elected officials. I totally understand that, just as there is for me and Kali and Katrina and the other folks who are pushing for change across our state. We all have a lot on our plates. So it does take some fortification and reinvigoration. So we certainly have some elected officials that are doing that, that are fortifying themselves and they’re remaining invigorated to seize the moment that we’re in right now. But there are certainly others who have begun to fall into their old patterns of, ‘oh yes, this is so important. Only if we knew what to do about it. Oh yes, Let’s wring our hands and navel gaze for a while because we’ve hired five Black people and now we’re gonna wait and let them fix everything, even though I’m the elected official whose job it is to serve everybody.’ I’m starting to see that more often and, it’s troubling because it’s only been a year, Dave.
Dave Miller: Kali, I’m sticking with the big picture for one more minute. I want to play all of you and our audience something that Governor Brown said at that public unveiling of this Reimagine Oregon project this past July. Here’s Governor Brown: “We need to change how we listen, to engage with, respond to and support Black, indigenous and people of color and tribal members here in the state of Oregon. That means a lot more listening and a lot more learning. And for me it means centering racial equity as I build the state budget, centering racial equity as we develop our 2021 legislative agenda, as we recruit and promote people in state agencies and our boards and commissions.”
Dave Miller: So Kali, the whole point here as we’ve been talking about, the point of this project was to see results as opposed to just pretty words or as opposed to helping a white person learn about 400 years of racial injustice. So with that as a test, results, concrete actions. How would you grade governor brown?
Kali Thorne Ladd: Oh, really, that’s my question.
Dave Miller: It’s a question. We’ve got more coming.
Kali Thorne Ladd: I think there is improvement. I think I’m dodging the question a little bit. I think maybe where it was a D before, we’re sort of at a C+, B- range. I definitely see improved engagement, improved listening, improved willingness to have conversations and wrestle. And on education, there’s still, for sure, phone calls trying to figure out how to get it right. But how to lead in equity and get tangible results and move a system to do things differently to get an A grade, you need to be able to do that. You need to be able to bring your colleagues on board and understanding how you break the status quo to truly make a tangible difference. And I’m saying this really from the vantage point of education, not housing and criminal justice as much.
But we are making strides. We have an unprecedented number of bills up at the Legislature that are equity-focused. But I think the governor is still on a journey to figure out how to facilitate the change. What does that look like from a policy standpoint and how do we actually it and get buy-in from all the key stakeholders so that our children and our families can feel it.
Dave Miller: So let’s dig into some of these specifics because obviously that’s the heart of this. Starting with education, Kali, sticking with you. One of the bills you’ve pushed for is Senate Bill 236. It would prevent preschools that receive state funds from suspending kids or expelling kids. It passed in the Senate, it’s now being considered in a House committee. What’s the idea behind this and how is this idea connected to racial equity?
Kali Thorne Ladd: Well, the criminalization of Black children starts when they’re young. And unfortunately there has been copious amounts of research to show that there is bias that presents itself in preschool. There was a study that looked at just the images of Black children eliciting bias, of Black boys in particular and that for teachers, children as young as four years old elicit a fear response to cortisol response in the brain without them even being conscious of it. What that looks like though is that Black boys and Black girls, but Black boys moreso, are targeted and are suspended and expelled at much higher rates. So the very first experience these young children have in a classroom setting, they are being told they don’t belong, that they need to get out and they are being told this for being children. When we’re talking about 4-year-olds, we’re talking about children who do not have, I mean, you have a five year old, they do not have the self-regulation skills, their brains are not developed, they are still processing. And so how emotions look is, sometimes its behavior, sometimes it’s big emotions, but that’s children being children, that’s not unique to Black boys. And so SB 236 is saying we cannot allow for us to get rid of our Black boys and girls, at any cost; that our job as educators is to educate them, to work with them, to sit with them, to be with them, to support them, and that we cannot absolve ourselves from that duty. The ban is controversial. With the ban, we have tried really hard to ensure in another bill that we have been a big supporter of, HB 2166, that there is funding to ensure that educators have professional development and training. Admittedly, not everybody has the tools to work with diverse children. This is why the race of a teacher matters. But neither here nor there, we are saying it is intolerable to kick kids out, and in preschool, unlike elementary school, we don’t have a mandate to educate children in early childhood, it’s a private system. So unless you are explicit about this, children may not even have access to a school. If you kick a kid out of a preschool, that may mean they have no early childhood education. And everybody knows how important early childhood education is to the long term success of the child. So we’re just putting our feet in the sand and saying, ‘hey, it’s intolerable’. I think the net impact of that, beyond children being removed and not having schooling is this most social, emotional, mental impact of being told that you don’t belong here in your first experience and it’s traumatic for children and that trauma is not right, not fair, it’s biased, it’s racist. So I think I’m excited about this bill. It’s not across the finish line yet. It needs to be. So anyone listening that wants to advocate, call your legislators. It’s right now sitting in the House Early Childhood Committee and I do believe Rhett Power, who is the chair of that committee is working hard to try and get it passed.
Dave Miller: There are actually several policy demands in the education section, calling for restorative justice practices in schools as opposed to existing discipline systems and obviously expulsion or or being suspended. Those are examples of existing discipline systems in that case in preschool. What would restorative justice look like for kids, say in elementary or middle schools?
Kali Thorne Ladd: Well, Black children are the most suspended and expelled children of any race and ethnicity in the system. Black boys are most expelled. Black girls are the only girl of color that is expelled in some cases at higher rates than boys of color. So, it means seeing their humanity and not feeling that their very existence is a threat to you as an educator. It means working to not penalize children for being children, but learning skills that work with children and understand how they come to the table as a whole child. It’s fully seeing the child and the willingness to work with them. I think behaviors are real in terms of kids acting out and doing things that they shouldn’t, but when children know that they’re loved, when they know that they are seen and valued, they want to do well. We are wired that way as human beings. And there’s a lot of research in neuroscience to prove this to be true. So if we can do a better job of implementing practices that see children, that value, that listen to them, active listening, to children, to our Black children and what they have to say, to see them as an asset and not a threat, to see them as a ‘value add’ and not ‘at risk’. That changes the way we interact with them and when we change the way we interact with them all benefit. And so I think restorative practice is really about changing the school climate as it pertains to Black children, in a way that supports them. And we obviously do this at Kairos. It does change the way children show up when they are valued, when their culture is affirmed, it changes the way they show up and human beings want to be loved and cared for. I’ve listened to students, teenagers, you know, adolescent youth talk about when that teacher sees them, when they believe in them, the difference it makes, they want to perform well, they want to be their best selves. And when they’re having struggles at school, they feel safe coming and talking to someone. Kids don’t often feel safe, restorative practice makes schools safer for all children. Right now, it’s not safe for a lot of Black youth, and other youth of color, which is unacceptable because public education is for all children. And so all children should feel safe in the schools, but that’s not the case and I can go on and on. But hopefully that answers your question.
Dave Miller: It did. And let me just remind folks if you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the policy changes put forward last July by a coalition of Black leaders in Oregon. The group is called Reimagine Oregon. We’re talking with three members of this group today, Katrina Holland is the executive director of Join, the nonprofit serves people experiencing homelessness, Kali Thorne Ladd is executive director of the Kairos PDX nonprofit, and Nkenge Harmon Johnson is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland. Katrina, so let’s focus for a second on one of the bills that you’re supporting this session, House Bill 20-100 would let local organizations get public housing funding directly from the state as opposed to having to go through, what are essentially, if I understand correctly, gatekeepers,18 regional gatekeepers. What’s the connection between this bill and racial justice?
Katrina Holland: Yeah, absolutely. This one’s a little wonky. So the basics are, there’s a section of funding in the state that is sort of isolated to community action agencies and based off of how some of the language is written in-statute, that money can only be distributed to community action agencies. It’s not allowed to be competitive, it’s not allowed to be bidded on by other folks. The OHCS, the Organ Housing and Community Services, the agency that runs these funds is not allowed to give money directly to people who are outside of that network. And what that impact is de facto. And this is what we were trying to get across to legislators is Black and brown, culturally specific agencies are legally prohibited from engaging with the state for hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency rent assistance. And if you look at the folks who sort of experience disparities in the system with regard to rental assistance, with regard to housing placement and other things that some of this money is used for, there’s a disparate impact on Black and brown people. So not only is the system basically saying you’re not allowed to receive these dollars unless you go through these predominantly white led organizations, but we understand that there are disparities in the system for how people access those dollars and too bad. That’s basically what the statute, that’s what the impact of the statute is. Depending on who you talk to, some folks say it was intentional back in the day when that was established. For some folks, they say, well actually the intent was to try to prevent geographical disparities to ensure that rural areas in Oregon received dollars proportionate to their need and dollars proportionate to their populations. But regardless of whatever the intent is, the impact is the Urban League of Portland can’t go to the state and say I need X number of millions of dollars for rent assistance dollars to serve my community. And to us, that is the epitome of what institutional and structural racism looks like. So we told Oregon Housing and Community Services, we need to change this system, we need to find a way to be more inclusive and allow people to have access to these dollars. It was, I can’t lie to you, Dave, it was a very ugly, ugly fight and to be totally honest, it’s still not across the finish line.
Dave Miller: It’s been referred to Ways and Means, right, as of a month ago, which is sometimes a place where bills go to die, right?
Katrina Holland: So my understanding is, there’s a lot of legislators, Representative Fahey, Senator Jama, Speaker Kotek and some others who have been really adamant about putting as much omph and some of their power behind that to say ‘we’ve got to get this passed’, and we’ve got to get it passed this session. This is not something that we can wait on because what is the justification here? There is none. So the bill will remove that language so that Oregon Housing and Community Services can move forward. But it also establishes a task force to work through some of the difficult, some of the nuances and difficulties, right? Because another thing that we wanted to make sure to communicate is that some of these dollars are invested in long term solutions for people. And the last thing we want to do is create harm. But where are those investments? What are they, how do we protect them, the dollars that are available, how do we redirect those efficiently? What is the new funding structure going to look like? So we can dismantle this institutionally racist practice and policy. And so there’s only an $11,000 impact. So I assume that Senator Steiner Hayward and Senator Johnson won’t see that as too bad and we’ll do the work necessary to get it out of Ways and Means. Yeah, that’s sort of where it stands right now.
Dave Miller: Nkenge, let’s turn to criminal justice and policing - an object of huge concern and interest. And one where more so at the state level, there has been some movement. Bills have passed, but some before Reimagine Oregon was announced and some this year. What do you see as the most significant changes that have been put in place?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Oh goodness. That have been put in place. Dave, I sort of want to demure from that question, because while there have been changes, they’re not terribly significant. And what I mean by that is in the grand scheme of things, and it’s important for me that I keep my eyes on the grand scheme of things, because we’re making incremental changes that matter and that need to happen. But at the same time, we’re so far away from creating safety and justice in our state that I want to be really careful about applauding ourselves for these these little teeny baby steps, because then what we’ve seen is that even folks who claim to be progressives will pat themselves on the back and then they’ll go away from the conversation. Well, we did the little thing, so the big thing is really hard and we just won’t get to that.
Dave Miller: So let’s focus on the big thing or the big things. Which of those are top of mind to you?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: You know, I think top of mine is H. B. 2002. I saw that just this afternoon, that it’s moving on to Ways and Means, it’s been passed out of the House Rules Committee and now it’s moving on to Ways and Means.
Dave Miller: Can you remind our listeners what it would do?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Yeah. So this is the big package of police reform and public safety transformation. And I think you had Lamar Wise and a group of other folks on, I don’t know, maybe last month, Dave. I try to listen to your show all the time.
Dave Miller: That sounds about accurate, but time is, you know, a confusing bowl of oatmeal right now.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: But it’s talking about declaring sort of a public safety, how we declare emergencies, that allow the police to have additional sort of use of force and aggressive tactics in place. It includes providing for criminal sentence reductions. And that’s a big deal, right, because we have over incarcerated, frankly Oregon is a high incarceration state, so we put everybody behind bars too often, quite frankly. But Black and brown people receive the brunt of that. So this bill has a lot to do with changing the way that we approach criminal justice sentencing, but also reevaluating some some existing sentences, specific for certain felonies other than other than murder and for some other serious crimes. So there’s a there’s a bunch of stuff in the bill and in some ways that’s great because a bunch of stuff needs to be different, at the same time, it’s challenging because it provides an opportunity for legislators to say, well,
I like the idea, but here’s this little part of the bill that I don’t care for, so for that reason, I’m not going to support it. You know, we’ll see. Right now, it has good momentum and we are thankful for the legislators that today passed it out of the Rules Committee, and now it’s on to Ways and Means where we’re hoping that it continues to maintain its momentum.
Dave Miller: If I could switch us for a second from the state level to the local level, I’m thinking about Portland in particular, what stands out to you in terms of what you’ve seen in Portland, the changes you have or haven’t seen in policing in Portland in particular?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: You know what’s interesting, and I think it does relate to HB 2002, is that law enforcement figures I’ve said Yes, yes, we understand that there’s a need for change. And then when we talk about actually making change, they don’t want to do it. They object to any changes that we suggest. And we asked for their changes. They have none other than give us more money to do what police have been doing for quite some time In Portland, that certainly is the case. So while there have been some changes, for example, and I think more in terms of tactics, right? So the mayor and some other, and some police folks wanted to reinvigorate, revitalized, regroup, their gang enforcement task force that was shown by the Portland City Auditor to really be a Black man patrol, they were stopping Black men in Portland at more than six times the rate of anyone else. Even though the percentage of Black men of the population in Portland is quite small and they weren’t getting many guns off the street and they were very expensive and weren’t providing data to show that they were doing anything else that was that useful. But still there was this strong push in City Hall to revitalize that team. So, on the one hand, what’s changed is that while the push happened and it failed, it wasn’t successful. But the idea that we even had to revisit it was pretty disappointing because we should be at this point, Dave, where we’re saying OK, we’ve tried these things for decades and decades. They don’t work that well. What social scientists tell us is that investing in housing, that actually keeps our streets safer because people with comfortable homes tend to stay in them, investing in workforce and in education. It works because people with good jobs don’t tend to be out shooting their neighbors at night. So we’re not seeing those kinds of changes at the local level that we really are hoping to see, especially given the new stimulus money that’s coming from the federal government. Suddenly there’s enough money to fund these priorities that are costly and will take some time. But before there wasn’t the money, supposedly. Now there is. And so I’m really hoping that those transformative decisions are what Portland and other local communities are going to undertake
Dave Miller: Kali, if I may, Kali, because we’re talking here about either returning to, in the case of policing, a new name for an old idea in terms of police efforts to reduce gang violence or gun violence. But Kali, we’ve seen something which is not necessarily a return to old models, but in some ways a new backlash against the push for racial justice policy changes in various states in the country. We’ve seen four states recently passing laws restricting the way teachers can talk about racism and sexism. How much backlash to this racial justice movement have you seen in Portland, specifically?
Kali Thorne Ladd: In Portland, specifically?
Dave Miller: In Portland or in Oregon? I mean, Idaho is, for example, is one of the states that passed that law.
Kali Thorne Ladd: It’s really frightening. We see it in Oregon and this last school board election, there were a number of races in Multnomah County, Washington County, Clackamas County, Lane County, that had very conservative school board members that do agree with the mindset of critical race theory is bad, which is a framework, the legal framework that has, it’s just being misrepresented. But aside from that, there is a huge backlash that we see in Oregon in the way that we see it in other states. And I think what’s so troubling to me is we had so much conversation over the last year about an antiracist society and what people are thinking about is if you don’t address history and have real constructive conversations with children and help them build empathy and understand the story, the true story and true narrative of how racism has showed up in our in our structures and our systems, we will never build an anti racist society. Our children learn at a very young age what racism is and how it shows up. If they’re to do anything about it, if they are to be better people than ourselves, they need to be talking about it when they’re young, in school, and they need to be learning real history and the fact that people are standing, the same people sometimes who say, you know, I believe in antiracist society, are the ones impeding real conversations for children who are naturally empathetic to happen in schools, which is a safe place to have conversations and to learn real history so that they don’t repeat the past. And so it’s mind boggling to me, and I think people feel like they’re losing something, which is absurd. I think all of us can agree we need to do a better job of seeing each other’s humanity. Ignoring the real stories that they bring, this idea that color blindness is somehow better when we were created as unique individuals with beautiful culture that has been tried to be, erasure has happened and we each have something to contribute to society. That is the kind of society I think that thrives and it is an active effort to stop anything in my opinion, that resembles a thriving community when we shut down what children learn.
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: I can only imagine being concerned about losing racism, right? I mean, that’s what some of the folks we encounter are afraid of and Dave, it’s the comfort zone factor. I think now we’re at the point for many elected officials and members of the public where their comfort zone is at risk and during the pandemic, they were uncomfortable for lots of different reasons and so maybe it was more palatable. But now that they’re trying to “return to normal”, they don’t want to change what works for them. Even if it doesn’t work for Asian Oregonians, even if it doesn’t work for Black Oregonians. Those who are comfortable would like to retain their comfort for as long as they possibly can, because they’ve always had it.
Kali Thorne Ladd: It doesn’t actually work for them. They just don’t seem to realize it doesn’t work. Right?
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: That’s right.
Dave Miller: Katrina Holland, I think you wanted to jump in and I’m going to give you the last word before we have to say goodbye.
Katrina Holland: Well, I was just gonna say, I think what Kali and Nkenge bring up about the comfort zone is 100% accurate. And we warned that, we’ve warned that to the elected officials when we engaged in this process. We said very clearly, listen, some of this stuff that you’re gonna move forward, that we’ve been talking about for several years and we’re finally going to try to get across the finish line, people are going to be upset. You will see white backlash from that. People will call you and say, you’re making a mistake, you’re taking away my money, you’re taking away this, you’re taking away that. And your job as elected officials who have dedicated themselves to this process of beginning to dismantle structural racism in Oregon is to counter that, is to work through it to let people know this is what needs to change if we want to become an antiracist state, this is what needs to change if we want to get rid of some of the racism, that a lot of our neighbors and fellow Oregonians are experiencing, it’s not acceptable and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Sorry. Here we go. And so I think that’s where, that’s the epitome of what the Reimagine Oregon project is. We’re beginning to dismantle the comfort zone of these white supremacist structures and processes and engagements that we’ve lived in for so long. Our hope is that this next year, we’ll begin to see a lot of much more forward movement and some of these things that we’ve put forward cross the finish line and continue to establish a foundation that we’ll continue to build on for many years to come.
Dave Miller: Katrina Holland, Nkenge Harmon Johnson and Kali Thorne Ladd, thanks very much for joining us.
Kali Thorne Ladd: Thank you for having us. Dave,
Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Thank you for having us.
Dave Miller: Katrina Holland is the executive director of Join. Kali Thorne Ladd is the executive director of the Kairos PDX nonprofit, Nkenge Harmon Johnson is the president and CEO of the Urban League of Portland. Coming up after a break, we’re going to talk to the Beaverton fencer, Mariel Zagunis, a two time Olympic champion who’s hoping to be able to compete in the Tokyo games. We’re also going to hear from a Portland political scientist who says this year’s Olympics should be canceled.
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