In May, I was fortunate to travel to Oregon, an almost indescribably beautiful state where I’d previously only spent a short weekend decades ago. I was blown away by the environmental beauty and the foresight of Governor Tom McCall who, almost 45 years ago, championed urban planning and restraints on sprawl that have yielded the most walkable, livable, sustainable and just plain awesome neighborhoods today.I could not stop raving (and posting) about the colors as I traveled: the extraordinarily diverse hues of roses, rhododendron, dogwood and other blossoms; the vibrantly overgrown greens of foliage that made rainy days as glorious as sunny ones; the bluest-hued oceans where gray whales migrated with their young. Yet, some color was missing from this picture. There have always been too few black people in Oregon. On this trip, I learned why. The 33rd state in the Union was founded as a white supremacist utopia.
Oregon was the only state to enter the Union with an exclusion clause in its Constitution. Slavery was illegal, but black residents had to report twice a year for lashing “till they quit the territory.” Interracial marriages were illegal till 1951. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting the vote to black men was not ratified in Oregon until 1959. There’s more. But who knew? Did they talk about this on Portlandia and, because I don’t watch TV, I missed it?
There is good news, though. Businesses in so many sectors are secure and thriving. There’s a huge, world-class (and gorgeous) medical complex in Portland, as just one example. The public transportation systems are epic. And leaders in individual companies and institutions, as well as those responsible for citywide and sector-specific diversity initiatives, understand the importance of diversity for their futures. They are taking strong steps to implement fully inclusive practices in their companies, schools and communities.
Portland has the oldest continually chartered chapter of the NAACP west of the Mississippi. Planners for a new and visionary University of Oregon campus in Bend are bringing diverse, especially Latino and Native, voices into the earliest stages of the process. Among the business leaders and everyday citizens with whom I spoke, there is an unflinching honesty about history, and strong accountability and advocacy to change things. Opportunities in the Oregon of today are ripe.Speaking with people on the ground about all of this reminded me yet again of the myriad ways in which so many people have been disenfranchised in the US, and of how little most of us know about this. It raised questions about what solutions can have what kinds of effects, and on how broad a scale. At the same time as I pondered these questions, I was awed by a sense of place, community, aesthetic and wonder. This stunning state and the cities I visited certainly have the ethos and the resources to put systems of equity and racial justice in place on a grand scale. We will have to stay tuned.
Jody Alyn works with organizations that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems and seriously improve results.
Leave a Reply