December 14, 2018

Health Department employee Larry Turner addresses the board Thursday surrounded by fellow members of the Multnomah County Employees of Color Employee Resource Group.

In a standing-room-only meeting, County employees filled the Multnomah Board Room Thursday, Dec. 13,  to participate in the first public hearing on the County’s workforce equity recommendations and a draft implementation plan.

“We have to talk about race and how we are being affected,” said Larry Turner, a clinical services specialist in the Mental Health and Addiction Services Division. “It’s going to be hard work. Are we ready to do that work? We, the Employees of Color are.”

“Racism in the United States is in the air that we breathe, it’s in the songs that we sing, and the stories we tell to our children,” said Jacob Mestman, the decision support manager at the Health Department who, as a white manager, wanted to acknowledge and take responsibility for his role in perpetuating racism. “True change is going to come from each of us looking inward, because racism isn’t just outside somewhere. It lives inside of each of us.”  

“We’re here today not just to move work forward, but to move hearts forward as an organization,” said Raymond De Silva, a decision support specialist in the Health Department. “For real transformation here at the county, it has to be led through workers of color.”

The public hearing is a turning point in the County’s efforts to implement a workforce equity strategic plan following powerful testimony in fall 2017 from employees of color who have felt discriminated against, devalued and dismissed at the County.

Jacob Mestman, a manager with the Health Department, acknowledged his role in perpetuating racism in his testimony and advocated for change.
In response to staff concerns, Chair Deborah Kafoury directed the Chief Operating Officer to hire an external consultant to investigate how the County’s policies and practices negatively affect employees of color. After a yearlong review, Jemmott Rollins Group, Inc., an equity-focused consultant firm, delivered its recommendations to the Board for improving workforce equity at the County.

The recommendations included strengthening the County’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan; creating a committee to help implement the plan; raising the role of the County’s Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE); and setting clear expectations for staff in leadership positions to promote equity and inclusion at the County.

“The vision of Multnomah County that inspires many of us must also be true for our workforce,” Kafoury said Thursday. “They should experience that support, transparency, compassion and inclusion every day at the place they work. That’s what workforce equity is all about: eliminating disparate experiences in our organization and making sure our walk matches our talk.”

During the hearing, Ben Duncan, the County’s Chief Diversity and Equity Officer, walked through the first steps of the County’s implementation plan. The meeting also marked the first of nearly a dozen opportunities for staff to review the plan and provide input.

Chair Kafoury’s Chief of Staff Kim Melton displays the draft Implementation plan as Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan looks on.
Duncan presented proposed actions for the County to take in order to fulfill the Jemmott Rollins recommendations. The actions, which can be read in detail online, include:

  • Strengthening communication channels that support workforce equity.

  • Making structural changes to create an environment of safety, trust and belonging.

  • Updating Office of Diversity and Equity job classifications and roles to have more oversight over promotion, professional development and retention.

  • Designing leadership development and onboarding models that focus on racial equity

  • Developing department-wide evaluation metrics to measure progress towards reaching equity goals

“We need to be challenged as an organization,” Duncan said. “Challenged to live up to the values that we strive for, questioned and held accountable for the decisions that we make. And we have an obligation to act, and to be willing to commit to systemic changes.”

Some of the concerns reported by employees have included barriers to equal employment, racial and protected class discrimination among staff, and departments that are behind on creating an equitable and inclusive environment for all.

Andrea Archuleta, a parole and probation officer, was recently honored for 20 years of service with the County. But while others were celebrating her, she said she was concerned about equity issues that persist at the County.

“We still have work to do” Archuleta said. “Department of Community Justice does need the structure of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. In order to make the significant changes to improve our employee morale, we need to shift our organizational culture.”

Over the next six weeks, the County will convene stakeholder groups to raise awareness about the plan and solicit feedback. The County has also launched a public website to follow the plan’s development.

Following the engagement process, the Board is expected to vote on the final implementation of the plan in early 2019. If adopted, it will officially be part of the County’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan.

“If we as a County value diversity, equity, transparency, and speaking truth to power, we must be open in our totality to the simple act of listening,” said Commissioner Loretta Smith. “Today is a day of hope: a day centered on the promise of better things yet to come.”

You can watch Thursday's hearing on the County's board meeting page