July 26, 2017

Dancing with equity in rural Oregon

Salsa, tango, the running man, Highland jig: These were a few dance styles offered by the audience at the annual CONNECT conference in Pendleton in May. I began my keynote speech by asking the audience to shout out their favorite dance style in popcorn fashion.

The title of my talk was “Dancing with JEDI: Creating a Just, Equitable, Diverse and Inclusive Environmental Movement.” Why dance? Because no one approach to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion fits all. Challenges around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are unique to the situation and people involved and require different, creative approaches to succeed. When working with individuals, groups and communities, the diversity of ways of operating are just as diverse as the numerous ways of executing the multitude of dance styles.

The crowd was mainly people from land trusts, soil and water conservation districts, watershed councils, and government agencies across rural Oregon. The questions that brought us together: What does equity look like for organizations working in rural communities and how is equity applied to the work?

Meyer’s definition of equity is “the existence of conditions where all people can reach their full potential.” In our grantmaking, this means supporting organizations and efforts that provide positive outcomes for communities facing disparities. Some of those communities the Healthy Environmental portfolio has explicitly identified are, but not limited to, low-income communities, tribes and indigenous communities, communities of color, refugees, and immigrants. The two populations most commonly discussed in my interactions with rural environmental organizations are communities of color and low-income communities, so I focused on these communities as I shared equity concepts that day in Pendleton.

Racial and ethnic equity

“Equity doesn’t apply here.”

“There are no people of color where we live.”

“We are not racially diverse.”

These are a few of the statements I’ve heard when discussing racial equity in rural Oregon. They’re often wrong.

The notion that there are not people of color in rural Oregon is simply false. On the contrary, plenty of people of color reside in communities across the state’s vast rural areas. According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimate, five of the six Oregon counties with the highest percentages of people of color are rural. Morrow, Jefferson, Malheur, Hood River and Umatilla counties range from 34 percent to 41 percent people of color. In the few regions where people of color make up less than 10 percent of the population, communities of color are extremely marginalized and need support now more than ever.

(Note: The U.S. Census Bureau often shares data for two similar sounding racial categories: “White alone” and “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino.” “White alone” includes Hispanics who identify as white. Those who identify as “Hispanic or Latino,” which is treated as an ethnic category in the U.S. census data, are asked to identify a race, which may be “White alone," “Black or African American alone," “American Indian and Alaska Native alone," “Asian alone," “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone," or “Two or More Races”. Meyer focuses on the “White Non-Hispanic or Latino” population, which is often a much lower percentage — by up to 30 percentage points  than the “White alone” category. For example, in Malheur County, 92.1 percent of the population identifies as “White alone” while just 61.6 percent identified as “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino.” If misinterpreted, this data can mislead even the well-intentioned.)

Socioeconomic equity

The Healthy Environment portfolio frequently receives applications from rural organizations that identify support for low-income communities without mentioning how low-income communities are included and benefiting from their work or how the perspective of low-income communities has shaped the project plan. Since equity outcomes are most effectively accomplished through intention and purpose, we seek a deliberate approach to serving and providing value for communities facing disparities. In other words, we seek a clear demonstration of how low-income communities benefit because of the organization’s work. For example, are those below the poverty line receiving jobs or other economic benefits because of the organization’s work? Are low-income communities directly receiving the environmental benefits of the organization’s work?

Working in partnership

Meyer’s mission is to “work with and invest in organizations, communities, ideas and efforts that contribute to a flourishing and equitable Oregon.” Simply put, we are here to partner with and support organizations in both grantmaking and non-grantmaking capacities. This past spring, Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio hosted two webinars featuring rural organizations, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, and Rogue Climate, that included equitable approaches to their work. We also presented at a conference focused on water resources planning efforts in regions around Oregon where the idea of identifying and addressing “voice gaps” in community engagement and collaborative efforts was an approach to include equity. These non-grantmaking activities provided us with crucial opportunities to have in-depth conversations about equity with rural organizations.

Furthermore, we encourage organizations to meet with us to discuss how equity fits or might fit into their work. I recently met with an executive director of an organization based in eastern Oregon. Initially, he did not believe that equity applied to his work. As he shared the activities of his organization, we realized that he may be addressing socioeconomic equity, such as creating jobs and reducing the poverty rate in his county. The executive director left to explore these connections as he prepares an application for Meyer’s 2018 annual grant cycle.

As I closed my keynote speech in Pendleton, I shared an Emma Goldman quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” which can be interpreted “to be a part of your crucial work, you need to let me dance the way I like to dance.” Meyer’s Healthy Environment team is committed to partnering with rural organizations so that all of our communities prosper, dancing and moving in our own dance style, creating, together, an Oregon that is flourishing and equitable for all.

— Marcelo