Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? Over the past several months, we interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. Some are working from the inside to change institutional practice. Others are organizing communities on the outside to keep government accountable. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Juan Sebastian Arias interviewed Desiree Williams-Rajee, former Equity Program Manager for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your role with the City of Portland.
I served as the Equity Program Manager for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for the past 5 years, and worked for the City for four years before that. During that time, I helped create the Office of Equity and Human Rights. We did a lot of research on what Seattle and King County were doing, and tried to adapt a model for our form of government. My Bureau was also working on a strategic plan for the City at the same time, and, as a result of some great community organizing, elevated equity to be the overarching framework for the plan. My Bureau created the equity position to continue to advance the work at the department level.
My role was the first of its kind in the City, and in a government sustainability department. I always described the role as twofold. On one hand, I provided technical assistance on applying an equity lens to the programs, services and policies of the department. On the other, I supported organizational culture change to foster effective equity work. I just very recently transitioned into doing consulting work as an independent contractor.
Q: What inspired you to do racial equity work?
Race was always something we were conscious of growing up. I am Filipino and Black. My sister was called chink and I was called the n-word. My parents didn’t hide from us the struggles that they and my grandparents went through either, which went far beyond name calling.
I think many families hide these stories because they are painful or feel ashamed. But my mom intentionally raised us to see race and prejudice early on, engaged us in honest conversations and taught us to be change agents so that we could transform things we felt were unjust or wrong. She taught us to see problems as systems. This is completely contrary to how she was raised, she was disciplined for speaking her mind, or questioning “fact” and “authority.” She was taught to not have a voice. My mother has definitely inspired me to do this work, to feel confident in being who I am and going against the grain. Because of her and her encouragement, this work has always been an extension of who I am, and what I’ve felt I am here to do.
The struggles and accomplishments of my family inspire me to persevere in light of huge odds. As I get older, I realize more and more that equity, this pursuit of justice and self-determination, is a means of reclaiming our collective humanity, and asserting my own. That is the engine that drives me.
Q: What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
What I’m most proud of is the change in culture at the Bureau. The Bureau has developed a deeper understanding of institutional racism and of what racial equity means. This doesn’t mean we fixed everything, but once you have that understanding, it begs the question of what work do you need to do to address it. Compared to 5 or 7 years ago, the Bureau is very different today. We know that institutional change happens slowly, but when I look back, I see it didn’t take that long to get here, and that gives me hope about what’s possible in the next 5 or 10 years.
I’m also really proud of the opportunities I had to really think outside the box and try new things. In government you don’t always have that flexibility, but I was given that with our Climate Action Plan, which instigated a shift in climate and sustainability planning incorporating an equity lens, and rethinking how we engage with communities in these processes.
For one of my final projects for the Bureau I was able to assemble a cross department team to provide technical assistance to our local day labor center, Voz. Bureau staff worked as consultants – we provided bilingual facilitation, economic research, and professional planning expertise. The process resulted in both groups mutually building capacity – government staff gaining a deeper understanding of the lives of day laborers and the Center staff and day laborers gaining increased knowledge of climate, environment, and green jobs so that they could engage in future policy processes. We provided the work as a public service, just as we would have developed an area plan, but focused on people instead of a geography with an intentional lens to racial justice. I think there is a seed in this project for a new way that government can proactively partner with racial justice community organizations.
Q: What’s been most challenging?
Expectations: the urgency of racial equity work, and the practicality of how long change actually takes. Balancing those expectations, and balancing people’s individual ability to move forward, is tough. To navigate that from all different levels of government, from electeds to leadership to frontline staff, that’s a lot of people and it’s hard to get them in lockstep with each other. And that’s just the internal politics. Communities have real justified expectations of success and an urgent need to have government operate differently. We need to see small steps as success, but also figure out how to work towards bigger ones. It’s a combination of managing expectations and doing work that matters to people who are impacted the most.
Q: What is the greatest opportunity for local governments to advance racial equity?
In my mind, it’s culture work. This is a bit unpopular because in government, people are really focused on outcomes and metrics, and rightfully so – how else do you prove something is different? But I don’t think that different outcomes can happen without changing the culture of government. And that’s a different kind of work. If we focus on outcomes and metrics, what are we really measuring if the culture that produced those outcomes and metrics never changed?
Culture is an incredibly hard thing to transform because it is rooted in our identities and we don’t even know it’s there. Changing culture puts into perspective how big of a thing we are trying to tackle. It is what is below the surface of the iceberg. Resistance to change is probably the strongest thing on earth. We need more people that understand the way that culture works and operates, and who are equipped with the skills for shifting it. This is the heavy lifting work that begins after the equity or diversity training is over. There is no checklist for it.
Our greatest opportunity to learn in fact comes from social movement building, like the civil rights movement. The organizing work in the 60’s and 70’s created some of the greatest social changes we have ever seen that also translated into policy. I think the greatest opportunity we have is a young professional cadre that can bring racial justice movement building work into government. It took a generation of people to open the system and another generation to learn the system. Our new generation of government leaders can hopefully transform it.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
Lack of imagination. We need a better vision about what we’re trying to accomplish and we need mechanisms to get visionary people into government. Right now, the definition of a good functioning government has not been one that serves communities of color and low-income people. We need people who can hold the importance of how government needs to function, but also transition into a new way of serving all communities. So much of our social justice discourse is about what doesn’t work, or reactive to the broken systems. We need creative outside of the box thinking.
I’ve often said this new vision is hard to see because we don’t have a point in history that we can point to that was socially just in our lived memories. The longer I do this work though, I realize we have a different kind of memory that needs to be tapped into– it is the memory that we are all connected. Social disconnection caused by racism and other manufactured oppression constructs in this country have prevented us from seeing one another for who we really are. That means that the type of vision we must have is one that allows us to see each other’s humanity, and fight for it as if it were our own.