The Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) is the statewide group that investigates 2,200 cases of labor law violation every year, but now its new Council on Civil Rights has lofty goals to transform Oregon’s civil rights environment.

At the very first meeting of the new statewide Council yesterday afternoon, the 25-member group laid out an incredibly ambitious goal: their first project is to create equal pay for equal work in Oregon. Our state ranks 25th in the nation for wage discrepancies between women and men. On average nationwide, women earn 30 percent less than men. The wage gap is even larger for women of color and has persisted, in the words of BOLI Commissioner Brad Avakian, “literally forever.”

Avakian hand-picked the Council from some of state’s the most outspoken and effective civil rights leaders. Reading through the demographic background of the council’s 22 members is like paging through the roster for a state-appointed Captain Planet squad: four queer activists, two Native American men, a former maid from Mexico City, a Cambodian refugee, and, perhaps for quirky comic relief, KPOJ talk-radio host/stand-up comedian Carl Wolfson.

The group’s strong rhetoric at its first meeting surprised me, sometimes sounding more like a group of fringe activists holding a meeting at Red & Black than state-approved leaders sitting around a conference table in suits.

“This is not about ‘What laws do we need?’ but how we can create a culture shift in this state,” said council commissioner Brad Avakian, referring to the equal pay plan. “We may decide that the laws themselves are enough for enforcement, but not enough to create a culture shift.”

Council interim co-chair James Mason is a calm, thoughtful fellow who says things like, “We usually come together to do. We don’t often come together to be.” On equal pay, he opined, “As a male, we often think to apologize for that 77 cents on the dollar. I’ve learned that often the only purpose of our guilt, our sorrow is to make us feel better as an individual. It is our responsibility to act upon the privileges that we have not earned.”

Over the coming months, the council will research wage disparities and draft an action plan for creating equal pay in Oregon. Is it idealistic to think that a brain trust of one state’s civil rights leaders actually come up with a written document that will upset a universal practice?
“Oregon has never waited around for other people to decide how to get things done,” said Avakian. “If I thought it was impossible, I wouldn’t have asked them to do it.”