June 19, 2019

For more than 500,000 Latinxs in Oregon, the numbers are encouraging. High school graduation rates are up 22 percent over six years. There are 6,300 Latinx-owned businesses in Oregon—a number that has doubled in a 10-year span. And household buying power in Portland alone is at $4 billion.

But there’s more work that needs to be done to make real, systemic changes, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said during the keynote address on Tuesday, June 18, at the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber’s Annual Membership Luncheon.

Commissioner Vega Pederson speaks at the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber Luncheon

The Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber aims to advance Latinx prosperity and community through networking, workshops for small businesses, support for Latinx professionals, and scholarship and education opportunities for Latinx students.

Tuesday’s address functioned as a general report on the issues affecting Oregon’s Latinx community and the work the County has done to raise the bar for Latinx residents. Topics ranged from access to transportation and early learning, to environmental justice and institutional racism. Commissioners Lori Stegmann, Susheela Jayapal and Sharon Meieran were also in attendance.

“To make real progress, to make the real, systematic changes that are going to make a difference in the lives of the 500,000 Latinxs in Oregon, we need to be leading with race and constantly applying an equity lens to the work we’re doing,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “That’s hard work, but I’m proud to say that is exactly the work we’re doing at Multnomah County.”

Improving access to transportation

Communities of color in east Portland face the greatest disparities when it comes to accessing reliable transportation in Portland. So when the Legislature passed a transportation package in 2017, Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson urged TriMet to focus on equity with its $50 million annual budget increase.

Her focus: service expansion, low income fares, and bus electrification. Families in east Portland have limited service close to where they live, she said, and those who do lack frequent access or weekend or evening service. Multnomah County has worked with TriMet to enroll more than 10,000 people in its low-income fare program, with the program on track to reach 15,000 in its first year.

Commissioner Vega Pederson also called for more investments in electric buses. Average levels of diesel pollution in Multnomah County are five to 10 times more than Oregon’s health benchmark. The largest diesel user in Oregon? TriMet.

Up until recently, Commissioner Vega Pederson said, only five electric buses were in TriMet’s future. Now, she says, there are funds to purchase 60 in the near future and convert the entire fleet over the next 22 years.

“Those three objectives - more service, a low-income fare, and electric buses - are a win for underserved communities and underserved people throughout our region.” Commissioner Vega Pederson said.

Achieving preschool for all

Research has shown early education can make a dramatic difference in a child’s school experience and achievement. But only 15 percent of 3- and 4-year olds in Multnomah County have access to publicly-funded preschool programs.

Last year, Commissioner Vega Pederson convened the Preschool For All Task Force—a group of parents, teachers and local leaders involved with education, healthcare, business, and philanthropy.

The group aims to develop its vision of a publicly-funded program that would expand access to preschool, especially for families who face significant barriers. The task force will publish its report in July, and then shift its focus to building the investment.

“I strongly believe that early childhood education is one of the best investments that we can make in our children and families,” Commissioner Vega Pederson said. “Our goal is to build on the work of the Preschool for All Task Force over the next year and get the initiative ready for a ballot measure.”

“A just renewable energy future”

One of Commissioner Vega Pederson’s first acts as commissioner was getting the City and County to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050. And last fall, she sponsored a resolution committing Multnomah County to the principles of environmental justice whenever making policies affecting vulnerable communities.

Commissioner Vega Pederson has also worked to reduce emissions from industrial facilities, strengthen rules on diesel emissions, and implement clean diesel contracting standards with other regional governments. She’s also fought for more funding to help small business owners adopt clean diesel equipment.

“We must make major transitions over the next 30 years to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis; but we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past,” she said. “We must center and enable the communities that have been shut out of the corridors of power for too long, and I’m fighting to make sure we do just that.“

Investing in diversity and equity

Commissioner Vega Pederson touted new initiatives aimed at raising the supply of women and minorities entering the construction trades, increasing pre-apprenticeship programs and retention programs for underrepresented groups, and supporting small businesses with mentoring and technical assistance.

While the County aims to diversify its workforce, she said, leaders are also making big changes to confront institutional racism.

This year, she said, the Board approved $2 million towards strengthening workforce equity efforts. The investment will bolster protected class complaints, leadership development and accountability programs, and civil rights policies.

She also secured investments aimed at helping immigrants and refugees who need assistance accessing services. And she supported additional funding for the 2020 Census to better count underserved communities.

“I think we are leading with equity and empowering others,” she said. “I think we want to make space for other voices and listen first. I think we’re focused on those most marginalized and committed to focusing time and resources on communities - on our community. And I know we are seeing positive things happen as a result.”

A look ahead

While Commissioner Vega Pederson acknowledged national policies and rhetoric against immigrants and refugees, she shared renewed hope in a future that values diversity and equity.

But that takes work and a plan to get there, she said. Calling on business leaders and community partners, the Commissioner urged others to create an Equity Action Plan for the region.

“We still have a long way to go, but I believe we’re on the right path, and that together we can continue marching forward,” she said.

“Let’s get to work!”