Portland racial equity panel isn’t optimistic about hitting its deadline

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Members of Portland’s new Racial Equity Steering Committee last week expressed frustration about the speed with which they are expected to act on problems that have existed for years and focused on the need for a facilitator to keep their work moving.

With an already tight deadline of late January to report to the City Council, members suggested they may need an extension from the city to finish their work.

At times speaking over each other and occasionally drifting into more general discussions about the role of a facilitator, the group’s second meeting ended without any actionable items.

Co-Chair Lelia DeAndrade, (lower right) speaks during the Oct. 7 meeting of Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The 13-member group, co-chaired by City Councilor Pious Ali and former Bowdoin College professor Lelia DeAndrade, has a budget of $17,500 to hire a facilitator and pay for other administrative needs, such as a researcher.

DeAndrade called the group’s schedule rigorous – it has about five months to complete its mission of addressing issues of systemic racism and inequality, and reviewing the city’s approach to policing and public safety.

The panel will also investigate the June protest that followed the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was in the custody of the police.

The committee’s work was meant to be concurrent with a community forum hosted by the Portland Public Library, with City Councilor Belinda Ray, to guide their discussion. But Ali and DeAndrade said it was their understanding the roles would be reversed and the steering committee’s work would inform the community discussion. Ali and DeAndrade said they didn’t want to wait for the community conversation, because it could delay the steering committee’s work for several months.

“If we wait,” Ali said, “our time will come and go.”

Committee members Jerome Bennett and Kate Knox expressed frustration over that decision. “I’m finding that as an area of real discomfort,” Knox said.

Ali also told the group City Manager Jon Jennings had planned to meet with them, but they decided it was too early.

“We agreed since we haven’t formed a cohesive working group yet, it’s not the right time for him to join us,” he said, adding once the group has a facilitator and is into its work, Jennings will meet with them “one time.”

As if to demonstrate DeAndrade’s argument in favor of a facilitator, at various points in the Oct. 7 meeting committee members spoke over each other, or branched into tangential topics.

DeAndrade said she anticipated a facilitator would also help her and Ali create an agenda each week, prepare for upcoming meetings and debrief members after meetings as a way to reflect on what they discussed. She said ideally, this person would have a background in racial equity work and understand systemic racism.

Other members of the group said they’d like to see a person of color fill the position, though DeAndrade said this would likely be further down the list of requirements.

“I’m hoping we can get someone to facilitate in a straightforward manner,” she said, adding she wants the conversations to be accessible to all those participating.

She said the panel could also use its funding to try to find someone who could do other administrative work, such as recording meeting minutes and doing research. She admitted it is unlikely, however, they will find one person to do everything.

Committee member Jonathan Sahrbeck, who is the Cumberland County district attorney, added “We don’t want to go searching for a unicorn and then be disappointed when we don’t find one.”

DeAndrade said the group is beginning its work with the understanding there isn’t racial equity: “Racial equity means race is not a predictor of outcomes, it is not a predictor of contact with public safety, with legal action, with violence.”

“Our focus is what we can we do within the system,” she added, “not ‘let’s look for the bad people.’”

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