Lawmakers representing Oregon’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) caucus are lauding the accomplishments they’ve made in Salem during this year’s legislative session, with headline-grabbing bills seeking to address social inequity, racial justice and police accountability issues that are central to the dialogue taking place throughout the nation.
The group of 12 lawmakers currently has seven bills awaiting Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, 25 that have made it through either one or both chambers of the legislature and an additional 70 that are making their way through committee and chamber votes as the session enters its final stretch.
Those bills include many policies which aim to level the playing field for low-income Oregonians and communities of color who have been hardest hit by the health and economic impacts created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few examples: extending the grace period for repayment of back rent; setting the stage for cheaper power bills for low-income Oregonians; and standardizing how institutions of higher education determine college readiness for both traditional and high school equivalent students.
But in a press conference Thursday, Oregon’s BIPOC lawmakers promised they don’t plan to rest. They outlined an equally ambitious agenda for the remaining five and a half weeks of the session, including a major effort by state Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland, to promote policy around bias and hate crimes.
According to Pham, the BIPOC caucus is proposing a budget package to target hate crimes that would do three things: bolster staffing for the state Department of Justice’s bias crimes hotline; fund organizations that support victims of hate crimes including individual, families and businesses who are targeted in their communities; and create a clearinghouse for data on these types of crimes so that the DOJ can better understand how to track and respond to them.
“I know my community in the Asian-American Pacific Island (AAPI) community, we’ve seen a 505% increase in the last year in hate and bias crime reports,” Pham said. “We need to analyze the data we’re getting [from] the DOJ to figure out where the patterns are and potential strategies we can take to protect Oregonians.”
Pham’s announcement of her caucus’ effort to address hate and bias crimes coincides with the signing of a bill by President Joe Biden that specifically aims to address growing concern around crimes committed against members of the nation’s AAPI communities. According to NPR’s Barbara Sprunt, the bill will boost support for local and state efforts to make reporting hate crimes more accessible and ensure that resources are available in multiple languages. How that federal legislation will play into the BIPOC caucuses efforts here in Oregon is yet to be determined.
Just this week, another concurrent effort on this topic through SB 289 would prohibit people convicted of bias crimes while on state waters or public recreation land from entering state park lands for up to five years. That bill received a hearing Thursday in the House’s judiciary committee — chaired by Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley — and is scheduled for a work session next week.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, also announced Thursday that she and others in the House rules committee are wrapping up work on HB 2337, a bill that aims to clarify ways for state agencies and third-party health contractors to collect data on race, ethnicity, preferred language and disability following a 2013 mandate that they begin tracking those statistics. It would also declare racism a public health crisis, a move many jurisdictions across the country have made recently.
The idea behind the bill is that the state having the data will allow the Oregon Health Authority to better understand how concerns of public health affect different demographics to then find ways to respond to those inequities. It would also ask OHA to dispatch mobile health units trained to meet the needs of Oregon’s communities of color and indigenous tribes.
According to Salinas, the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the need to track this type of data.
“Our BIPOC communities were asking for this data because we knew that our folks were getting sicker at rates beyond what they should be getting sick and beyond their white counterparts,” Salinas said. “We also weren’t recovering as fast, but we didn’t have data on any of this.”
According to documents OPB received Thursday through a public records request, Oregon’s BIPOC lawmakers also have big aspirations in the use of federal aid they’ve been allocated to bolster equity and inclusion work throughout their districts and beyond.
Pham is prioritizing projects in her East Portland district — which includes the city’s Jade District along east 82nd Avenue — that address well-documented and ongoing safety concerns around transportation and walkability of neighborhoods.
She’s also giving three-quarters of her $2 million allocation to the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, a nonprofit coalition based in her district — and where Pham cut her teeth as an organizer — that seeks to advance AAPI leaders and promote equity through community organizing. Those dollars would specifically be earmarked for the acquisition of property to build housing opportunities for AAPI communities and others struggling with housing insecurity and displacement.
Salinas is proposing to funnel $400,000 of her portion of American Rescue Plan Act funds to a group run by former Portland Public Schools administrator Willie Poinsette, called Respond to Racism. Poinsette and her organization have been active in hosting events to create a dialogue around racial justice and social equity in Lake Oswego and beyond.
Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick of Portland — the longest serving member of the BIPOC caucus — is looking to give $1 million to the Judicial Department to modernize its electronic records system and improve accessibility. He’s proposing to give another $1.4 million to Home Forward, a Portland-based group that works to help vulnerable Oregonians access affordable housing and other services.
The work that BIPOC lawmakers have completed this year and what they plan to accomplish moving forward has provided Frederick and his colleagues with a sense of triumph and inspiration as they navigate uncharted waters, they said.
“What we’ve seen in the session so far has been significantly more than symbolism and some significant clear action,” Frederick said. “I’m very proud to be part of this group, proud to be part of the legislature that begins this process of not only addressing some of the past wrongs, but setting ourselves up for a future that we can be proud of.”
Rep. Teresa Alonso-Leon, D-Woodburn, added that this moment in Oregon and the nation’s history is one that stands for much more than just the work they’re doing. She believes it is teeing up the narrative for the next generation of BIPOC leaders.
“The other piece that I think is really important in leading as a legislator of color being part of the BIPOC caucus is that we get to have representation at the Capitol in a way that we haven’t done since the beginning of this legislative body,” Alonso-Leon said. “And we have folks in our communities who get to look at us and say, I can do that too someday.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Khanh Pham’s first name. OPB regrets the error.