Portland is very proud of its equity lens. Flip through any new city policy or report and you’ll see the phrase jump out at you—a subtle reminder to any reader that the city is incredibly woke. In theory, it’s great to know Portland’s looking at big issues through a filter that considers race, gender, poverty, disability, and any other factors that disadvantage communities and individuals. In practice, though? That lens comes with a few blind spots.
For example, Portland has yet to use that equality lens to examine the city’s 108 advisory boards and committees, the volunteer-led groups that hash out city issues—involving anything from police reform to budget cuts—before the ideas reach city council.
Anyone with an extra hour or two a month can volunteer to join a committee. Anyone, that is, who subscribes to a newsletter that may mention it in passing; or stumbles upon a cluttered city website; or hears about it from a friend of a friend of a city staffer. Anyone who knows that city committees are things that exist. (Did you? Probably not!)
Unsurprisingly, the majority of people who apply to join a committee in Portland are those who apply for everything: white men. By now, you’ve hopefully seen the data that cis white men systematically overestimate their qualifications for any role, while women, people of color, members of the queer community, and other minority groups severely underestimate their ability to succeed in the same role.
“Just like in the rest of our society, men tend to volunteer for everything and anything,” says City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who says she’s watched this cycle repeat itself for decades. As someone who’s occasionally been the only woman on a committee, she also knows how “unpleasant” it can be to be the minority in the room.
At last week’s city council session, Fritz stopped a vote that would have appointed five more men to the city’s all-male Alternative Technology Committee. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone who appears to be a woman on this committee,” Fritz noted. “Why is that?”
“It could be no women applied?” a city staffer replied. “I’m not really sure.” Fritz asked her to go back and bring back a few female nominees.
Unlike in other areas of the city, the process of appointing individuals to advisory committees doesn’t come with an equity lens. There’s no standard for guaranteeing the members of, say, the Golf Advisory Committee or the Floating Structures Board of Appeals represent the diverse communities impacted by their work.
Departments can request help from the Office of Equity and Human Rights (OEHR) to make more equitable committee choices, but it’s an optional step.
“We’re kind of like vampires,” says OEHR spokesperson Jeff Selby. “We have to be invited into your house before we can enter.” That means, he says, there’s little consistency in member diversity across these committees.
But wait! There’s hope. In November, the city council approved a resolution that would create stricter standards for advisory boards and committees. According to Suk Rhee, director of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (soon to be renamed “Office of Community and Civic Life”), she’ll be hiring someone in the next few months whose sole job is to create those standards.
“We’re not interested in tokenism,” Rhee says. “But we do need different perspectives to benefit from our city’s diversity.”
Will new policies help bring more voices to our currently scattered and unbalanced committee system? It’s likely. But, as Fritz notes, new rules can only go so far.
“We can create new policies until we’re blue in the face,” she says. “But we can’t do much until we change hearts and minds.”