Uplifting voices: DEI efforts in our community

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Here at Clackamas County, we continue to share our stories regarding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). Recognizing the importance of uplifting voices and making the invisible visible within communities is critical to our work and efforts, so that people thrive and have a sense of safety, connection, and belonging.

Clackamas County is one part of a larger cultural shift. DEI work is made of a collection of people and organizations across our community, with the passion and goal to recognize, value, and celebrate all residents. Because we can only do this work in a larger collection, we'd like to specifically recognize Lake Oswego, Milwaukie, and Clackamas Community College, who all took action to create new positions that center and uplift DEI efforts. An edited version of these answers appears in the May 2022 edition of #MyClackCo magazine.

The DEI Experts: Leading the way and making change happen

What do you hope to accomplish in this position? Do you have overarching goals?

Casey Layton, Clackamas Community College Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer: Students come to Clackamas Community College (CCC) for many reasons. Some are seeking degree or certificate completion, while others are looking for career enhancement or engaging in our community education programs. I hope to help create an environment where all students reach the goals they have set for themselves, while experiencing a strong sense of belonging and accomplishment along the way. Whatever their reason for coming to CCC, I want them to know we are here to support their efforts.

We are embarking on a new adventure to establish a post-COVID culture. We have the opportunity to transform practices that were once necessary safety measures, like virtual meetings and increased online learning modalities, into options to enhance our programs.  

One of my main goals in this position is to continue the great work that was started before I arrived with implementing the actions of the college’s DEI Strategic Plan. This plan outlines specific actions the college is seeking to embed with the purpose of:

  • Building the foundation needed to create and sustain a DEI culture at CCC,
  • Eliminating equity gaps for students, and
  • Aligning instructional culture with principles and practices of equitable and inclusive teaching and learning

All of this will take time, and I cannot do it by myself, so another one of my goals is to continue to build relationships with both internal and external partners. Many hands make light work.

Jon Hennington, Milwaukie Equity Program Manager: First, we want to grow a workplace where people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and others from historically marginalized communities feel not just welcomed, but also valued and respected as core members of our team. Second, building on the foundation laid by our staff before my arrival, develop processes by which we assess potential benefits and harms our decisions and actions may have on marginalized communities – both prior to and after implementing a project or policy. It is my goal that these processes become so engrained within our work that it becomes second nature to everything we do.

Guilian Del Rio, Lake Oswego Equity Program Manager: As the new Equity Program Manager, my goal is to implement the city’s DEI strategies in order to develop a more inclusive culture, retain and recruit a diverse workforce, and support a diverse community. The most foremost overarching goal I currently have is promoting awareness of DEI practices internally and externally. Currently, I am assisting in the planning and promotion of cultural events that celebrate our diverse communities in Lake Oswego. I am also the staff liaison to the DEI Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the council regarding civic engagement. I will also be providing training opportunities to staff that will further develop their understanding of DEI topics specifically in cultural competency, unconscious bias, and workplace inclusion. Our goal is to kick off these trainings this summer. I hope to assist city staff and community members in further developing their DEI lens to enact change within their department and neighborhoods.

Since stepping into your position, have there been any incidents or policies that you have turned into an opportunity for stakeholders to better understand DEI principles?  

Guilian Del Rio: One of the major policy changes that turned into a learning opportunity for city employees was the amendment made to our public contracting rules. As a part of the 2021 city council goals, staff was directed to develop approaches to increase opportunities for firms certified by the state of Oregon’s Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity (COBID) to contract with the city. In the city of Lake Oswego, each department handles their own contracting process, meaning there is not a standardized process for contract solicitation. The solicitation process and screening can be a point of DEI-policy intervention to create a more diverse contracting pool. By creating an equitable solicitation process that requires departments to search for firms in the state’s COBID database, the city is stimulating the local economy, while giving minority-owned businesses an equal opportunity.

Jon Hennington: I worked with several residents who sought to show support for a marginalized community. There was a great deal of passion and support for the group in question, however, some of the residents failed to recognize that there were members of that very group among them, and that their voices and wishes were not being heard. Sometimes there is so much desire to do good, that we forget to ask those who we are trying to support what it is that they want. EDI work is as much about listening as it is doing. We must continue to learn from those we seek to elevate, or we are simply using them as a platform for our own ends. That is a humbling lesson for all of us.

Casey Layton: What I find, and this is a personal perspective and observation, is there is a silent majority of folks wanting desperately to engage in DEI work, yet are fearful of making a mistake or being mislabeled as bigoted, narrow-minded or prejudiced. Often we need to be reminded that large-scale change begins with small, maybe unconscious transitions. From redesigning meeting formats and updating printed materials, to slowing down decision-making to be more inclusive. It is important to understand the difference between changes in hearts, behaviors and habits versus adherence to a rule.

My style and approach to equity principles is centered in cultural humility. I am lucky enough to have paradigm-shifting conversations with folks regularly in my work. There is no end point of practicing listening for understanding, patience, self-advocacy and critical thinking. I personally use these opportunities to increase my self awareness of my own biases. I encourage and help others to do the same.

What is your assessment of resident/student understanding and valuing of DEI? 

Jon Hennington: There are so many members of this community who are actively learning, listening and sharing lessons learned with one another. When I last updated the city council on the city’s EDI goal, I told them that there is no place I’d rather be doing this work than Milwaukie. Our residents and staff are overwhelmingly supportive and so many are leading on this work out of a genuine desire to ensure that every voice is heard and that no members of our community are left behind. Not every individual will agree, of course, but I am so grateful that most of this community chooses to lead with love.

Guilian Del Rio: Community members have actively engaged in the development of DEI in Lake Oswego by serving on various boards, planning cultural events, and even participating in various task forces. This foundational work has spanned for many years and we are at the stage of institutionalizing these concepts into policies, action plans, and the overall citywide DEI strategy. It is inspiring to work besides these community members who share a passion and commitment for serving our community. As the new Equity Program Manager, the community of Lake Oswego is my most valuable tool in furthering the implementation of DEI programming internally and externally. As we evolve into a more diverse community, I believe that the resident population’s understanding of DEI topics will continue to grow.

Casey Layton: I have been in contact with the Associated Student Government and students engaged in the Multicultural Center. They have spoken quite frankly about their support of DEI programs on the campus, however we all agree that this is still a work in progress. My hope is that both students and employees engage in critical thought and practice empathic ways to deliver their personal truth as we continue to walk down this path of dismantling oppressive systems. We want to be an organization that strives toward excellence and offers education to our students that is relevant to meet the needs of our diverse community. None of that can happen if we do not center intentional inclusion in our day-to-day functions and essential programming.

The Supportive Brass: Organizational heads key to these efforts

Why did your organization establish a DEI Officer position? 

Ann Ober, Milwaukie City Manager: The city council sets a limited number of priorities and in 2020, the equity, inclusion and justice goal became one of them. The murder of George Floyd and the upheaval caused by COVID led the city to determine that this was the opportunity to make real change and we could not let that pass us by. We believe that budgets and staffing levels are the manifestations of our priorities. Creating the Equity Program Manager position was our way of showing the importance of this work in the whole of the city’s functions and allows us the capacity to accomplish our commitments.

Tim Cook, Clackamas Community College President: CCC has made strides toward DEI for several years. There was a DEI committee made up of a small group of dedicated faculty and staff that was moving the work forward. In 2018, the college started working on a DEI strategic plan that was rolled out just prior to the pandemic. This 3-year plan outlined several goals and priorities for the college, such as professional development, recruitment/retention of faculty, staff and students, curricular transformation, etc.

In order to begin achieving these goals it was clear the college needed a DEI office and it needed a leader.  To be clear, DEI is the responsibility of everyone at the college, not just the DEI officer. However, we needed a leader who could come alongside the college to support, educate and inspire us to achieve our mission.

Megan Phalen, Lake Oswego Assistant City Manager: In 2017, the city council adopted a resolution affirming the city’s commitment to welcoming and including all people in our community. Similar to cities across the nation, the council recognized that Lake Oswego is, and will continue, experiencing demographic changes resulting in a more diverse population. As our population is becoming more diverse, we are committed to ensuring that all people have equitable access to city services, programs, and amenities. In 2019, the city created a DEI Task Force to further these efforts. The Task Force’s work resulted in a comprehensive recommendations report that is the foundation for the creation of the Equity Program Manager position.

What is the overall focus of the new DEI position? Is it looking internally, externally, or both?

Tim Cook: The overall focus of the position is to oversee the college’s DEI Strategic plan. This plan is now largely integrated into the overall strategic plan for the college. Clackamas County is diverse and is becoming more so every day. To provide high-quality education for everyone in the county, the college needs to be ready to meet the diverse needs of these individuals. 

So yes, the focus is both internal and external. As our student body becomes more diverse our faculty and staff need more professional development opportunities to support these students. We strive to be good community partners and this means we need to be engaged in all parts of the community so people see CCC as a welcoming, supportive place where individuals feel like they belong.

Megan Phalen: The Equity Program Manager is responsible for implementing the city’s DEI strategies, which includes the DEI Task Force recommendations. The goal of the role is to build a more inclusive culture, promote and retain a diverse workforce, and support an increasingly diverse community. The focus of the position is both internal and external to ensure that services, policies, guidelines, practices, and procedures are equitable and inclusive. More specifically, the external focus is on building relationships with organizations and businesses that support underrepresented communities, as well as supporting the DEI Advisory Board, which is responsible for advising city council on how to increase engagement in diverse communities. Internally, the Equity Program Manager is responsible for DEI-centered staff trainings, advising managers and employees on best practices related to DEI concepts, and supporting a cross-functional, employee-driven employee resource group to support implementation of the DEI strategies at the department level.

Ann Ober: Both, but we are trying to get our own house in order before leaning outward too far. Ideally, we would work 100% internally while focusing on our impacts externally. However, we are not alone in these decisions or needs and our community is seeking support in accomplishing aligned goals. We are uniquely positioned to facilitate real change across our city and to collaborate with our neighboring governments who find themselves in the same position. It is a dance, but we focus on individual successes that move us forward without overextending the capacity of staff.

The new position reports directly to you or your organizational leader – why is this direct connection important?

Megan Phalen: Yes, the Equity Program Manager reports to the Assistant City Manager and is part of the City Manager’s Office. It was important to have the Equity Program Manager role in that office to have a holistic view of city operations and all departments. The City Manager’s Office creates an ecosystem of how all the departments overlap and interact to support the council and community goals. By having DEI and the Equity Program Manager within the office, it becomes a fabric of our city operations and decision-making process, like sustainability and community engagement. Additionally, the Assistant City Manager is also the city’s Human Resources Director. With the Equity Program Manager reporting to the Assistant City Manager, there is a strong connection to both external and internal operations.

Ann Ober: That is correct. Our equity, inclusion and justice goal affects every decision we make. The placement of the Equity Program Manager reporting directly to the administration allows them to have the authority of the City Manager’s Office when in a meeting. It shows the commitment to and the seriousness with which we take this work.

Tim Cook: Yes, the position reports directly to me and is a member of the executive cabinet. It is important for this position to report directly to the president so the entire community understands the importance of this work. It’s not just another initiative, or add-on. It’s part of the everyday decision-making processes that happen at the college.  

To make the system change needed, access is important. Additionally, it shows that DEI is a priority to the college. It is work that I hope the entire institution will embrace and, as the leader of the institution, I need to model and support the work.