Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity within government? Over the past year, we interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance racially equitable governance. What are their motivations and their challenges? 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 interviews Ben Duncan, Chief Diversity and Equity Officer for Multnomah County, Oregon.
Q: Let’s start with your current position. Can you describe your role?
I direct the Office of Diversity & Equity (ODE) for Multnomah County. At a high level, we’re responsible for Civil Rights, Title VI, and American Disabilities Act compliance. We also provide leadership around equity policy and analysis, do research and evaluation work, and offer training and facilitation on how to apply our department’s equity lens. ODE also houses our Multnomah Youth Commission, the official youth policy body for the county and the city, and runs our College to County Mentorship program. The office is about 5 years old, and I’ve been in position about 2.5 years.
Q: What inspired you to work in racial equity?
It was a combination of things. My father is from Alabama and African American. My mother is Jewish from Yonkers, NY. I grew up bi-racial and have a deep embedded care for people and an understanding of how suffering and harm hurt us. My personal identity is a big part of the story. You can’t grow up with a black and Jewish family and not care about racial justice.
Also, when I was doing environmental science work at the University of Oregon, I got into organizing. This was the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s with real energy around environmental activism and stewardship. There was a tension that I had when it felt the environmental movement cared more about owls and trees than about people. As I was exposed to the Environmental Justice movement, I saw a movement that was building power for low income communities of color and centering those experiences in the context of environmental policy and environmental harm. It was work that was more representative of who I was and what I believed and has shaped my work and approach ever since.
Q: In your opinion, what role does government have in addressing racial inequities?
At a high level, government got us into this mess and I believe government can get us out. I come from a “socialist-leaning” family with the idea that government, when done correctly by and with the people, can create great opportunities for fairness and justice, for the social welfare of fellow human beings.
The public sector, which is without the profit margin or profit motivation, has an incredible opportunity to do good by design. But it has the incredible opportunity to do harm as well. Still, government is uniquely positioned to look at the whole and to not be worried about profit margins and shareholders but to focus on what’s right.
Q: Tell me a story about one of your major accomplishments.
I think our Equity and Empowerment Lens is one of the seminal documents for equity analysis in the country. I’m proud of that.
I’m also proud of our ability to continue to shape the way that we think about how government operates. We’re having conversations about trauma, about whiteness, about white privilege, and about accounting for people’s spiritual wellbeing. These things are embedded into our tool. Empowerment as a theoretical frame is so critical. When we talk about sharing power and building capacity, empowerment is a guiding frame for that. This is what I’m most proud of. We used concepts that people weren’t willing to talk about a few years ago, and now people are diving into it. We are currently developing a Workforce Equity Strategic Plan that is centered on employees most impacted, meaning that our frontline employees will drive the process and the content. It’s utilizing the strength of organizing models and incorporating those principles inside government.
At the individual level, I’m proud of persevering. I’m proud to be able to walk into rooms and talk about disparities and racial justice, to talk about black people when looking at the data without being ostracized. To be valid and to be able to move conversations. I don’t think we take enough pride sometimes in our positional spaces – being the only person of color saying what needs to be said and to still be invited back to the next meeting.
Q: What have been the challenging aspects?
At the individual level, managing human beings is a whole endeavor. Not just the day to day, but I’ve had to make difficult budgetary and staffing decisions as well. There are people you love and care for but you have to make decisions about their future. It’s challenging when you know people got here because of their experiences, deep beliefs, and great passions.
But to really answer your question, it’s also the politics. I serve at the pleasure of the chair. The reality is that it’s challenging to learn how to navigate politics, how to communicate really difficult messages, and how to be critical without being so critical that you lose credibility. It’s always a challenge to come into a space, see the opportunity for equity to show up when it’s not, and to try to get people there.
Q: What have been the most rewarding aspects for you personally?
Some of it is the people. I love working with folks that are sharing in the struggle. There’s a bond of blood, sweat and tears that happens in the midst of this. I love being in the messiness.
It’s a great question. We did an exercise with our team a little back, and one of the things I reflected on that motivates me is respect. I do this work because I want my kid to see a father that dedicates his life to other people, because I want my colleagues to see a man pouring his heart into a better world. I find great dignity in doing his work and deep dignity when it advances people’s lives. As much as I hate the politics of bureaucracy, I love it.