2020 set the stage for challenging some of the most profound structures and assumptions that this state and country have been built upon—through genocide, land theft, slavery, and colonialism.
The murder of George Floyd and uprisings for Black lives have accelerated changes that community members have been demanding for generations, while the pandemic and economic crisis made racial inequities clearer than ever. Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) leaders and organizers worked with communities to expand the universe of what is possible for racial justice in Oregon.
These events have been historic catalysts, but communities of color have been working to build power, shift narratives, and implement change for years. The ability to respond to this moment represents those decades of work, and we saw results through unprecedented investments in racial justice policies like the Oregon Cares Fund, the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, and reinvestments into community safety. At the ballot, culturally-specific organizations led progressive ballot measure campaigns and a new class of elected officials of color won throughout the region.
While the turmoil of 2020 may have been unique, these wins occurred within our existing political confines. In 2021, we’ll have the opportunity to change some of these structures within the City of Portland and build a more inclusive, equitable city.
We’ll be looking to BIPOC Portlanders to drive forward decisions about how our government and democracy operate through the Charter Commission. The Commission is composed of 20 members appointed by the City Council and tasked with reviewing the City of Portland Charter, the City’s founding document that establishes the form and structure of our city government. The Commission has immense latitude in what they can review, and the power to make recommendations to the Council and voters.
The Commission brought forward hundreds of applicants, with more than half of the appointees identifying as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, or Pacific Islander. In a year of increasing recognition of the need for Black women to lead, it’s especially heartening to see the number of Black women with deep community experience who will help lead this process by serving as Commission members. Community leadership and lived experience—not political connections—were key for many of these appointees.
A number of potential ways to reform our charter have been discussed, including ending Portland’s commission form of government, rethinking our voting methods, and reimagining public safety. A 2019 report from the City Club of Portland laid out a set of recommendations to move away from a commission form of government and toward a structure with a mayor and city manager, a larger council, and districted elections. This would potentially make Portland’s city government more representative of all Portlanders.
The commission form of government isn’t the only big democracy issue on the table. Representation is necessary, but not sufficient to pass policies that center racial justice. How we elect our lawmakers matters in addition to how they govern. Rethinking our voting methods was the subject of a second City Club report released this past fall. The charter review is an opportunity to rethink voting methods and consider systems such as ranked choice voting and multimember districts. This begins with hearing from communities about how they want to voice their interests.
Commissioners should address fundamental questions: How do BIPOC Portlanders interact with the city of Portland, and what vision do they have for an inclusive democracy? Community members may know it’s not working, but what are the failures, and most importantly, what is the vision for a government that prioritizes their needs in policies and investments, and equitably delivers services? How do we want our voices to be heard?
The Commission won’t be able to do this work alone, and the city must continue its investment in BIPOC leadership by supporting community engagement.
But to make real change, engagement won’t be enough. We’ll be organizing to support the development of policies that were driven by community. Collecting feedback won’t be enough for an issue as momentous as this. We risk the new iteration of government driven by the same powerful interests who already have the greatest access to City Hall. That can never be acceptable again.
Whatever recommendations emerge—if any—would likely appear on the ballot in 2022. That means the work of movement building begins now. Centering BIPOC communities in policy development, leading in engagement and advocacy that advances the work of the Commission, and looking to build an inclusive campaign that builds political power is an ambitious project.
Let’s get to work.
Jenny Lee is the deputy director at the Coalition of Communities of Color and has worked to advance racial and economic justice using a range of strategies, including legislative and electoral advocacy, organizing, and litigation. She grew up in Washington County and now lives in Southeast Portland.
Marcus C. Mundy is the Executive Director of the Coalition of Communities of Color, an alliance of culturally-specific community-based organizations. The proud father of four children, Marcus previously served as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Portland and has held a host of other leadership positions in both the private and public sectors.