Community members of Lake Oswego,
As we approach the two-year anniversary of Respond to Racism, it’s important to recognize progress. In regards to the City of Lake Oswego, we were happy to see the adoption of a resolution affirming LO as a welcoming and inclusive city. Likewise, we are excited about the possibilities surrounding the City’s upcoming diversity task force. That said, based on how the process has gone so far, we have concerns and want to do all we can to make sure that this doesn’t become a missed opportunity.
We can personally attest to the fact that there are a number of well-intentioned people who have been integral in getting the task force to the point where it is today. However, we’re not sure that everyone understands the deficit from which LO is operating and how the potential failure of this task force could not just be an isolated misstep, but the impetus for discouraging further participation in local government and life in LO in general.
This is perhaps best exemplified by our grievances with the selection process itself. During the Apr. 23 meeting to discuss the task force, Mayor Studebaker, city councilors, and other stakeholders at the table that day proposed to head the selection process. While it should be noted that the first city councilor of color in LO’s history, Daniel Nguyen, was not in attendance that day due to a scheduling conflict, everyone else in attendance mused on a selection criteria that established groups like “business owners” and “parents of students” as identities that needed to be represented, while allotting a single space for a person of color, an LGBTQ person, a woman, and someone who is differently abled. This predominantly white group also tasked themselves with determining whether applicants would be the best representatives for their respective groups. Furthermore, since that time, they have determined that only residents and LO business owners will be eligible to serve on the task force, excluding a number of people of color in particular who work and/or volunteer in the town and play key roles in the community.
First of all, this is troubling because it creates the foundations for a task force with all white people and one person of color attempting to represent the needs and concerns of the various ethnic groups in LO, all who have their own unique experiences and issues. The same could be said for the proposed LGBTQ representative, among others. In itself, that’s a lot of pressure to put on individual citizens. When you factor in the context of LO’s history and the fact that there are no safeguards in place to ensure people who speak their truth aren’t retaliated against, it’s not hard to see how a number of candidates will be discouraged from even applying. After all, why would anyone believe they’re going into this with support when students and families who have taken a public stand have been repeatedly (and often quietly in terms of news coverage) run out of town?
In addition to tokenism, this proposed process also equates things like owning a business with being part of a historically marginalized community. This false equivalency threatens to derail the purpose of this task force, which should be to move the needle for marginalized communities in LO, especially those who haven’t had consistent advocacy. It’s no secret that the push for this task force came from the emergence of groups like RtR and the larger movement for racial justice in the city. To turn this task force into little more than an embarrassing photo op (which is what will happen if this group is all white with one person of color) would be a slap in the face to all the good faith efforts that have gotten us this far in the process.
Lastly, we are concerned with the timetable around both the selection process and the task force itself. During the aforementioned meeting, people at the table discussed taking a month to select candidates and emphasized a sunset date after six months for the task force as a whole. It’s hard to imagine how the serious structural problems with the selection process or the deep-seated, decades-long issues the task force is supposed to address can be meaningfully tackled in these short time frames, especially when the people making the decisions come in with varying levels of cultural competency and track records in regards to equity.
With all these concerns in mind, we strongly encourage the City’s DEI subcommittee to consult heavily with community stakeholders and outside experts who have proven track records in promoting equity. This will ensure there is intentionality in addressing the needs of as many of LO’s marginalized communities as possible, as opposed to choosing from a small pool of people who are already comfortable with City Hall and pose the least threat to rock the boat. If this means expanding the selection process beyond a month, then so be it. Getting this right is that important.
Likewise, we believe that the DEI subcommittee needs to revise and expand the task force’s assignments in order to treat the issues with the seriousness they deserve. Currently, the task force has all of two charges, which are to identify barriers to participation in the City’s Boards & Commissions and devise methods to increase the applicant pool for City job openings. There is no reason this task force shouldn’t address minority business concerns, inclusion in public art, and the overt racism and microaggressions that hurt the liveability of this town for people of color. If we’re serious about identifying barriers, the task force should be organizing and hosting listening sessions with specific groups (i.e. Black LO residents, Asian LO residents, LGBTQ youth, business owners of color, etc.) and that work should include being intentional about supporting those who volunteer to participate. Lastly, the task force should devise action items with real resources behind them. LO is not devoid of the resources to support these efforts in ways other communities cannot. As such, this power gives us the responsibility of modeling what effective investment in equity can look like.
As this process continues, we encourage concerned community members to make their voices heard and exert their influence to accelerate the change we hope to see. This includes researching and attending DEI subcommittee meetings, writing local elected officials, submitting letters to the editor to the LO Review, meeting and organizing with other concerned citizens, and utilizing social media to further the discussion and keep others up to date on upcoming meetings and milestones. For those thinking of applying, please know that RtR has your back and will work as citizen voices to amplify your concerns.
Ultimately, this task force will be a reflection of our collective vision and will to make substantive changes as a town. We must be proactive and necessarily aggressive in order to make sure it is as effective as it can be.
The Respond to Racism Steering Committee