A year ago this week, Multnomah County employees filled the County’s board room to experience live music, dance and speakers at the 2019 Juneteenth celebration, hosted by Multnomah County’s Employees of Color Employee Resource Group. This year, Juneteenth, which falls on this Friday, takes place in a dramatically different world.
Against the backdrop of historic demonstrations locally and across the country in support of Black lives and decrying the systemic racism Black Americans experience in this country, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners proclaimed June 19 Juneteenth Day in Multnomah County. The Board heard testimony from a lineup of speakers that included County employees, as well as Black youth and young adults, who spoke about their experiences, the resilience and beauty of the Black community, and the urgent need for deep systemic change.
Juneteenth, a melding of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” recognizes the day in 1865 that news of the abolition of slavery reached enslaved people in Galveston, Tex., two months after the end of the Civil War, and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, Juneteenth is also a day to reflect on Black liberation: freedom that was delayed in 1865 and remains deferred for millions of Black Americans by systemic oppression and racism, the progress that has been made since emancipation in the face of structural inequities, and the resilience and strength of Black people who continue to fight for full liberation.
Larry Turner, an employee of the Multnomah County behavioral health services division and the chair of the Employees of Color employee resource group, opened testimony by sharing that he had spent much of the previous night imagining himself among the crowd of enslaved people in Galveston the day the news of emancipation arrived.
“I was just thinking about how they felt there on that hot June day when they heard the news. Probably some of them were crying, some of them were probably trembling, some of them were standing in disbelief, some of them threw their hats probably in the air and grabbed one another and danced and sang,” Turner said. “Then when the celebration was probably over that evening, there was probably the enslaved, Black African who said, ‘Is we really free?’”
Turner traced the path of historic Black milestones in America, punctuating each with the Black community questioning if they were yet truly free. He acknowledged the County board’s efforts to support Black employees and other employees of color, referencing the designation of Juneteenth as a paid holiday and the adoption of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan. But current events, heavy with turmoil, lead him to still ask the question of true freedom now.
Pointing to the County's tools and commitment to ensuring that Black employees work and are truly seen across the organization, Turner urged the Board and the County to continue to take action “so that one day we won’t have to ask the question, ‘Is we really free?’ That’s the Juneteenth the Employees of Color [group] is proclaiming.”
Kimmy Hicks, a quality assurance project manager for the Integrated Clinical Service division, shared that the Managers of Color employee resource group, which she co-chairs, promotes and assists in enhancing multi-cultural competence and equity in Multnomah County by providing a forum for managers of color to facilitate, lead, support and actively participate in that work.
“As an African American and Puerto Rican woman, I am invested in undoing institutionalized racism, and thank you for being invested with me,” she said to the Board. “Together, we can create tangible change in our county and our community by creating and implementing policy practices and laws that embed equity and address racial disparity into workflows and processes that need to be operationalized in our programs.”
Tameka Brazile, a prevention and health promotion director for the Public Health division, turned the spotlight onto the youth and young adult participants of the I Am M.O.R.E. (Making Other Resiliency Experiences) project.
“The youth and emerging adults today will show how they are using artistic forms to alleviate the stress and trauma that they are experiencing,” Brazile said. “We must respond as a system to community demands. We must do what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the fierce urgency of now,’ and we must take intentional actions to uplift and preserve Black health, Black lives, and the well-being of Black folks from the cradle to the cane.”
Belise Nishimwe and Justice English shared with the Board that participating in I Am M.O.R.E. gave them and other young people of color a better idea of who they were capable of becoming and helped them recognize that their voice matters. They also segued into a video featuring I Am M.O.R.E. participants speaking about love, community and celebration in poetic verse.
Germaine Flentroy II shared his personal experience of a harrowing and unjust encounter with a police officer who profiled him, sharing that he wanted to use his voice to ensure that no one else has to experience the fear he did. Milen Gebreamla, who has served on the Multnomah Youth Commission for three years, read aloud a call to action and a letter the commission wrote in support of the Black Lives Movement, urging “our local elected officials to take actions and amplify the Black voice and commit to funding Black teachers.”
The final youth speaker, Laila Vickers, read a stirring poem she wrote, titled “To My Ancestors.” She then read the full proclamation, proclaiming June 19 Juneteenth Day in Multnomah County.
The slate of speakers left the Board of Commissioners in awe.
“I really loved sort of the full circle, how Larry really created such a picture of your ancestors; it was sort of like bringing us to where they were and what that experience for them must have been,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “Then coming full circle to Laila's poem, and with all of you filling in between with so much beauty and poignancy and strength and resilience.”
“You reminded us and Juneteenth reminds us of resilience and ancestors and joy and strength and suffering. It reminds us that we need to remember our history and acknowledge our history, and that's been what the movement is that we are seeing across the country,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson shared, “This was such a beautiful way to celebrate Juneteenth here at Multnomah County and to move this resolution forward. Larry and Tameka, thank you very much for all you do at Multnomah County every day and being a part of this presentation… I have been so grateful that the voices of youth have been so centered in our resolution today: the power of your poetry, the power of you sharing your experiences.”
“Your voice matters,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, addressing each speaker by name. “Far too many of us know that our civil rights are not safe merely because they are written in the Constitution. There are instances every day that remind us of the gravity and importance of this fight towards justice, equity, and inclusion.”
Chair Deborah Kafoury brought the meeting to a close by thanking Turner, Hicks and Brazile for their service to the County and their significant roles in pushing the organization closer to equity. She then turned her attention to the youth presenters, saying, “I appreciate that we had this opportunity today to showcase the youth. I think Belise, you said it best when you said, ‘We are young, gifted, and Black, and now we can share with our community exactly what that means.’ You are young, gifted and Black, and you are all amazing.”