DANTE JAMES officially starts as director of Portland's brand-new Office of Equity and Human Rights on Thursday, March 15.
With an eclectic background—working as a public defender for a youth court, teaching law at the University of Denver, and heading a small-business equity program, to name a few—James is no stranger to community equity issues.
But with a tough city budget season and this year's elections threatening to renew political wrangling over his office, the Mercury decided to check in with James for his thoughts on the new job and what he hopes to work on first. (Hint: It might not be North Williams.)
MERCURY: This is an entirely new office. What's your approach to getting it up and running?
DANTE JAMES: Well, I'm new to Portland, too. I need to see what policies and programs are already in place and evaluate before I can start anything. First, I need to sit down with Amanda Fritz and others in the office to put together a strategic plan.
Mayor Sam Adams and Commissioner Fritz—the movers and shakers behind the new office and your hiring—might both be out of office next year. What does that mean for you?
The mission of the office isn't contingent on who is in the mayor or commissioner seat. I would like to continue working with Fritz; she has been a strong figure behind the program, but a new commissioner will not change the office's goals.
What will your background in social justice bring to the new office?
It's always nice to bring a different perspective and viewpoint to the table. While some issues I found in Denver may coincide with issues in Portland, I may be able to approach them in a different way. But really, there are only so many ways to try to be fair.
What attracted you to the position? What about the city stood out to you?
I think what makes Portland unique is its absolute focus on this office and on equity. The support and drive behind this new program really drew me in.
Are there any areas you plan on tackling first? What's your take on the Albina/North Williams gentrification?
I don't have a specific target. I want to ensure that there is political, social, and economic equality across the city. I'm aware of the history of Albina, I know about the devastating impact it's seen over the years. But that's no more my focus than another area or demographic of the city. City dollars should be distributed equally.
Speaking of dollars, how do you plan on allocating the office's $1.1 million budget?
I have yet to jump into financial planning. I want to look into how the city plans on spending contracting dollars, and make sure our office spends fairly.
What's your plan for your first week?
We're going to go over the changing mission of the office with the new staff and get started on a strategic plan. A lot of city staff, commissioner, and community meetings are in store as well. It's going to be a whirlwind, I'm sure.