At the Organizing Communities of Color event in St. Paul, a packed house heard directly from five representatives of Portland’s Coalition of Communities of Color. Their message: Diverse communities can advance individual visibility and change lives . . . by working together.
Lee Po Cha, director of Asian Family Center and a Coalition leader, described the organization’s work as oxymoronic: Six groups deftly balance cultural specificity and collective action.
African American, African immigrant and refugee, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American and Slavic communities have joined forces in the Coalition.
An example of their “one for all” commitment was how they divvied up a $1 million grant from Multnomah County, Oregon. Working strictly by consensus, they agreed to take equal cuts of the money (even though sizes and needs of each group differed greatly). This action — putting “us” before “me” — enabled them to demonstrate the larger needs of all communities of color, and local government subsequently increased the overall pool of dollars available to everyone.
How Bad Is It Really?
Before the Coalition established its voice in Portland, progress for communities of color was stuck in circular arguments about need. Energy was exhausted trying to prove, over and over, that people of color exist, that they matter, and that the disparities are shockingly real. Coalition director Julia Meier described just one of the most pernicious attitudes they faced in Portland: “We are too progressive to be racist.” (Sound familiar in the Twin Cities, anyone?)
It was time to finally put to rest the “how big is the problem” arguments and shift the conversation toward strategies and solutions, said Meier. To do that, the Coalition invested heavily in a five-year participatory research project using culturally specific methodology.
The report, Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile, documents the facts: the percentage of people of color is growing dramatically, the disparities are worse than in comparable areas in the U.S., and the gaps are widening every day. (If this doesn’t sound familiar, take a look at Minnesota Compass.)
Policy Can Influence Outcomes
With the facts now printed in black and white (and reinforced in multiple media by local nonprofits), the Portland Coalition has redirected its energy to changing public policy.
The group’s eleven consensus-based policy recommendations include: expanding funding for culturally specific services; emphasizing poverty-reduction strategies; reducing disparities with firm timelines, policy commitments and resources; prioritizing education and early childhood services; funding community development; disclosing race and ethnicity data for mainstream service providers; and more.
Matt Morton, executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center and another Coalition leader, cited several examples of their achievements: racial equity policies, culturally appropriate data and research policies, affirmative action policies, and equity in public contracting policies.
Out of Trust, Progress
The Portland representatives all emphasized that their success stems from their shared values of acceptance and understanding of all cultures, trust, unity, mutual support, and equity and justice for all people.
Their vision — of increased political power, greater representation of communities of color in key leadership positions, and influence in decision-making — no doubt mirrors the vision of many individuals across Minnesota.
Event host Gary Cunningham, vice president of programs at Northwest Area Foundation (an MCF member), challenged the Twin Cities audience to act on that vision. As he noted, a coalition of diverse organizations organized the March on Washington, a turning point in the civil rights movement 50 years ago. Today, a new coalition must come together in Minnesota, as in Portland, to express with a united voice the commonality and diversity of community needs.
– Wendy Wehr, MCF vice president of communications and information services