Dr. Markisha Smith speaking at a June 2020 press conference at Portland City Hall.
Dr. Markisha Smith speaking at a June 2020 press conference at Portland City Hall. City of Portland

Last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that Dr. Markisha Smith, director of the city's Office of Equity and Human Rights, will be joining his office to serve a first-of-its-kind role: a "special advisor on racial justice and equity." Smith, who's been leading the Office of Equity since February 2019, has been increasingly called on by Wheeler to weigh in on citywide issues regarding racial equity issues. With the new role, beginning February 8, Smith will be formally recognized for that extra work—and be able to ensure equity becomes more than just an easy buzzword in the mayor's office. Smith will take on the new responsibility while continuing to lead the city's equity office.

Smith's past experience as a high school teacher, college educator, and the equity director for the Oregon Department of Education will inform the way she approaches her new job. In a conversation with the Mercury, Smith said she wants to focus on educating city leaders on equity blind spots and how to regain the long-squandered trust of Portland's Black communities. Above all, Smith is eager to make sure the momentum from 2020's racial justice protests and calls for change continues to roll forward in City Hall. Here's that conversation:


MERCURY: I want to start by returning to a statement you read in early June, shortly after the murder of George Floyd and the start of racial justice protests in Portland. You said, “Black folks can no longer be responsible for carrying the burden for white fragility, while guilt, for trying to fix a system that was never designed for them in the first place.”

In many ways, that seems like a job requirement for you right now. How do you think about that burden as you enter this new role?

SMITH: Here’s the thing. It’s that, and . There's a kind of duplicity in my role. I believe I’ve been called to do this work, but at the same time, the work is holding white folks responsible for their actions. In cities across the country, the burden of everything that has to do with racial equity and diversity—whatever you want to call it—becomes the sole responsibility of people of color. It almost gives this waiver to white folks from taking responsibility to do that work. That's why I'm interested in disrupting.

I want a call to action to white folks to be allies in this city, to step into spaces that their Black colleagues might not be able to and demand better. That’s part of what I’m envisioning for the expansion of my role. I want to really look at the things that [the city] is saying in regards to equity, and compare that to what we're actually doing. It can't just be lip service anymore.

Folks know when what we're saying is real and authentic, and they know when it's performative. So much of the equity work in this city has been performative…. We make it seem like we’re doing the work, but it's not actually happening. I want the mayor to be self-reflective and to use that self reflection to be like, “Okay, how can I disrupt or dismantle a system of oppression and replace that with something that can better serve this community."

How do you see your time being divided between leading the Office of Equity and Human Rights and advising the mayor's office?

I think it’ll just flow. For me, this first month will be about acclimating myself to the leadership structure [of the mayor's office], looking at what their priorities are, and then developing a work plan from there. I'll still spend most of my time with the Office of Equity. Right now we're working on putting out our strategic plan, which will really give people an idea of what our office does.

Will that strategic plan come come with additional requests in your office's 2021-2022 proposed budget?

You know, the Fall Budget Monitoring Process [an opportunity for City Council to make mid-year adjustments to the city's budget] was like an Oprah giveaway for our office. It was like, "You get a position, and you get a position, and you get a position." The Office of Equity and Human Rights was given five additional positions and funding for professional development, and that has really set us up for a while. So no, we have no asks in this budget cycle.

It's wild to think that, just last year we were having conversations about giving up desk phones to save money. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I feel like we are going in the right direction.

I want to zoom back out to last summer. So often, we see these horrible moments where Black people are killed by police and galvanize massive protests and calls for systemic change. But then a year later, things have returned to the status quo. Whether it's Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, or Breonna Taylor. How do you think these conversations can stay front and center at the city level without having to see another murder to spark outrage? Do you fear that your office could lose its funding without this pressure?

It’s easy to get comfortable, but these aren’t comfortable times. Part of my role is that we’re reminding people that yes, I’m excited about where we’re going, but this work alone is not going to fix racism. I think people get a false sense of security when they throw money at things, and that includes city government. Sure, put money towards something, but that's got to be accompanied with action. We have to ask ourselves, "How can this outlive this moment? "

For me, that means I’m going to continue to push to keep our office's budget intact. We can say we’re committed to anti-racism and equity, but we can’t in the same breath say we have to make budget cuts and get rid of the Office of Equity. We, as a city, need to consider which non-negotiables we’re going to commit to keeping in our budget to not get complacent. Complacent says, "last hired, first to go" when making budget cuts. That's not going to work for me. I’m going to keep holding people’s feet to the fire.

What would you say to Portlanders to keep them from falling victim to that kind of complacency around racial justice?

I'd say think about the families of individuals who have lost their lives. Think about who is disproportionately being impacted by COVID-19. Really just take a look around you and think about the experiences of others who don't look like you.

Most Portlanders have been able to go back to normal after last year. Maybe they donated or protested for a little bit, and it was emotional, but then they went back home. Black and brown people are living with this reality every day. There’s nothing new about the Black community experiencing loss and trauma. So I'd say, just pay attention. Think about ways you can help. If you’re in a position where you have power or leverage, use it to dismantle something that is upholding inequity. If something doesn’t sit well, if something doesn’t feel right.... speak up. Interrupt it. You've got to be continuing to say to yourself, "I’ve got my eyes open," and not just these brief moments of wokeness, but for the long game.

So, we’re obviously talking about white Portlanders. What about Portland’s Black community, especially those who have reasons to distrust the government and diversity programs. How do you rebuild that trust?

First, we as a city must acknowledge that there’s been harm done. The Black community has reason to have mistrust in government structures. To move forward, we first have to be willing to acknowledge that practices and policies have been harmful to our Black community.

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Then we can collectively work toward solutions. [The city] often listens to Black communities just when we need a stamp of approval on an issue, and it's usually after we've already made up our minds. It's an afterthought. We have to be honest in how we, as a city, have been deceptive. I think transparency will help rebuild those bridges.

I have to be honest with myself, too, since I am a member of the Black community—but I am also part of the system that's done harm. Me saying that can build trust with the community. I know I’ve contributed to and benefited from the system, but now I’m in a point where I’m interrupting that.

That means our government will have to listen to stuff that’s painful, they'll have to sit with it and realize that this isn’t about their feelings. This is about rebuilding trust with a community that has every reason to not trust us.