February 14, 2018

Centering equity in rural Oregon: An interview with Kelly Poe


Meyer’s focus on equity over the past few years has brought a powerful intention to our grantmaking and opened the door for community-serving organizations and institutions across the state to build their own equity infrastructure. This has been especially evident in rural Oregon communities. To tell the story of where and how equity has emerged, and operates, in three rural Oregon counties, we sat down with Kelly Poe, director of community based services at Malheur Education Service District.

Education service districts across Oregon are designed to provide services and programs that meet the specific needs of their local school districts. Like school districts, their purpose is to assure that all students have the educational opportunities that will prepare them for success beyond high school. Malheur Education Service District defines its work as a crucial ingredient across the entire education continuum, from birth to college and/or career.


Tell us about yourself and your work at Malheur Education Service District.

Kelly Poe:

I’m the director of community based services, and I serve Malheur, Baker and Wallowa counties. The position was created when the Commission on Children and Families went away, and the education service district chose to fully embrace the zero to 20 continuum of education. My job was to focus on those things outside K-12 walls. The Early Learning Division was formed (in the Oregon Department of Education), and they created hubs and regional hubs.

The Early Learning Division also required us to provide eight hours of structural racism training. I knew it was coming about a year before it actually was a requirement. I also knew that every time I talked about equity to our community advisory groups, cradle-to-career partners or one of the three counties, I could feel the tension in the room. People stiffened up and got ready to defend themselves.

Because it is a much easier conversation talking about equality, rather than equity, I knew it was going to be a challenging conversation. We could require people to attend an eight-hour structural racism training and they would, but behaviors and attitudes would not necessarily change.


Why do you think equality is an easier conversation and equity is a hard conversation?

Kelly Poe:

People don’t understand what equity is right off, and when you say equity, they immediately think you’re saying equality. And they treat everybody the same, because they love everybody. I have to say that in all three of my counties, I have not found a single person that sets out in their day to do bad things. Or to harm people. Or to plan to do disservice to families. They don’t.

I’ve met only really good people who want to do good work. And I am that person, too. I am that person who wakes up every day and sets out to do good work but realized, part way down the road, that my good intent is actually doing harm, and the sooner I find out, the better for everyone. So I have that lens when I look at other people and I think: They intend to do good, so let’s get informed of what equity is.


How do you start an equity conversation?

Kelly Poe:

One of the things that we’ve been saying is, “equity begins where equality leaves off,” and that’s been a good opener for some of our conversations.

I heard Dr. Bill Grace speak at a Ford Family Foundation workshop. He creates a space where people relax their guard and can have authentic, genuine conversations. He calls it “gracious space.” And I knew that’s what we needed.

We needed somebody to come to our communities who used common language, who could get people to that place of having a conversation and not be defensive. I called Bill and said, “This is what’s going on, we’re going to have to do this training, and I don’t think we’re prepared. It’s not going to make a difference. I want to do something that’s going to make a difference.” I know we have huge disparities in our communities and three counties that are extremely different from one another. As much as you say eastern Oregon is different from Portland, Wallowa County is different from Malheur County, and Baker County is different from either of the other two. You can’t do the same thing in each one of the counties; it has to be different.

Through a technical assistance grant from Ford, we paid for Bill to help us develop our plan and facilitate focus groups and a three-county workshop. After we completed the focus groups, it was clear that a three-county workshop would not be successful, so we had three workshops.

Our focus groups defined “gracious space.” We also came to a common definition of equity. We talked about our values. About two months later, we picked up on those themes and did a community assessment, asking: “So where do you think you are, as a community, in advancing equity? Are you at a place where you really are just crossing the threshold of raising awareness? Or is your community aware but they’re not dissatisfied? Do we need to raise the dissatisfaction? Or are you at the place, community is aware, people are dissatisfied, and we want to take action?” We started in Wallowa County, then Baker, then Malheur. After we finished all three, we said, “Well, we have to make three plans. We can’t do one, three-county plan for anything.”

So, we have three plans. It took us nearly a year to raise the money. Meyer was first. (Meyer program officer) Sally Yee believed in us. She said, “This is the conversation that we need to have.”


Meyer invested in this work in August 2016. How is it going so far?

Kelly Poe:

We have a really great group in Malheur County that meets with Bill once a month either in-person or we all get together in a room and he Skypes in. There’s 18 of us, including elders, members of the faith community, education and social services. We have nonprofits, health care, mental health; it’s just across the spectrum.

In Baker and Wallowa counties, we’re creating leadership groups, and they want to go deep.

People are passionate about this, but then when the work begins, it gets hard. One of the first things that Bill does is walk us through an exercise that helps us identify our own core values, and then we find common group values. So each county has a list of core, common values, and we can hold each other accountable to those. Love and family are core values that are in all three counties. Integrity and community, too. They’re all good values, but to be able to hold each other accountable, it requires us to go deep. It requires you to make this work meaningful.


What evidence are you seeing that work is taking shape in communities?

Kelly Poe:

They’re taking it in, and they are stepping up, but the reality of it is that some conversations are really challenging. Each community has a little bit different feel to it; there are three separate answers.

In Wallowa County, the workshops are complete and received really positive feedback. Conversations have ranged from creating a sense of belonging to the increasing fear of the newest members of the community. Our work with values-based leadership has been occuring at the same time as other diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trainings through the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District, so the local effort is on multiple fronts.

In Baker County, there’s a small group of people, about 15-20, who really caught on to values-based leadership as a tool in their own organizations. They are actively working toward embedding the values conversation into a plan to move work forward. They’ve created a monthly meeting that explores the book “Sharing the Rock: Shaping Our Future through Leadership for the Common Good” and creates a support network for sharing challenges and progress on how each participant, and organization they represent, is advancing equity. This group has great leadership and diversity. They’ve also done a deep dive into the history of Baker County, which is very complex. They’re continuing to build a deeper understanding of the work, what they believe and what their organizations can do collectively in preparation for moving forward larger community impact.

In Malheur County, we really felt the urgency, and we were ready to take action quickly, but we still focused on the need for relationship building. We initially intended to do a project, but because there is so much work to do, we couldn’t agree on one. Instead, we decided to create a movement, and that’s what the proclamation is: The Malheur County Compact for Advancing Equity is an effort to get institutions on board for proclaiming the need to advance equity throughout the whole community. Each of the organizations that signed the compact designated someone to attend and participate in the monthly, three-hour equity team meetings.

Another example of how the work is taking shape is a gathering of equity team members and community members focused on the topic of safety concerns for the refugees arriving in the Ontario area. This group, now known as Newcomers Support Committee, had no idea what they needed to do or how they were going to do it at first, but through their collaborative effort to authentically engage community, they developed a strategy, wrote a concept and submitted a proposal to the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funders Collaborative for consideration. Right now, we’re planning our second equity summit, scheduled for Nov. 1, 2018, and we hope it will be an opportunity for local institutions to “raise the bar” by showcasing their equity work.

In each community, the pace is appropriate, and in each situation, the community is working together to create a sense of belonging. I know people are going to say, “Oh, we’re not like them.” And they’re right. But this is just an example of something that could happen, and it only happened because local people drove it.


How do you think this will impact your work and the communities you serve?

Kelly Poe:

The commonality across all three counties is our ultimate goal of people who live in the community feeling like they belong and are welcome. We acknowledge now there are people in our community who don’t feel welcome, so knowing that, how do we create a community where there is a sense of belonging? In Malheur County, they call it “hope”; everyone should have a sense of hope. In every community, the end game is that everyone feels like they belong.

The Newcomers Support Committee learned this when they discovered there are refugees who arrive here and never feel like they are a part of the community. They’re required to stay one year, but after that, they leave. So how do we create a community that makes them want to stay? It’s huge for a community to say, “We want you to stay. You add to the fabric of our community; your culture makes us better.” It’s a shift in all three counties to say, “You think differently than I do and you believe differently than I do, and we need you to be here. Our differences make our community better.” That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish.


Very well said, Kelly. Thank you for your time!

*While listening to Kelly describe the equity journey of Malheur, Baker and Wallowa counties, I was struck by the importance of communities to firmly establish their core beliefs and common values. As Meyer staff travel around the state, we often hear, “We’re different than them. That won’t work here.” And they’re right; of course communities are different. In our interview with Kelly, she artfully described exactly how different seemingly similar communities can actually be. But that’s not the reason something, equity in this case, might work in one community and not the other. The real barrier is a community’s lack of clarity — or identity — around the subject matter. If you’ve never ventured into the conversation, and you look at what someone else has accomplished, it’s understandable that your first response might be, “We’re different than them.”

But here’s the real difference between communities that have embraced equity and those that haven’t: When a community establishes its equity identity (i.e., common language, values, beliefs, accountability structures and protocols), they’re free to explore what other organizations and communities have done to advance equity and say, “That might not be exactly what we need, but it looks interesting and we might be able to modify it so we can accomplish our own goals.”

Once you’ve established the key foundational elements of your equity identity, you can then bring in new partners and new ideas and not relinquish or sacrifice any of what makes you, your organization or your community unique in the process. Your identity stays intact, and as Kelly suggests, new relationships and new information simply add to the “fabric of the community.”

— Matt