Think Out Loud

Dismantling the comfort zone of white supremacy: the Reimagine Oregon Project, one year later

By OPB staff (OPB)
May 30, 2021 6:01 p.m.

The Reimagine Oregon project launched last summer with an ambitious policy agenda to dismantle systemic racism in the state — in housing, education, health care, policing and more.


OPB “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller spoke to three members of the Reimagine Oregon project, including KairosPDX executive director Kali Thorne Ladd, JOIN executive director Katrina Holland and Urban League of Portland president and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson.

Dave Miller: The idea behind the Reimagine Oregon project was to capture the momentum built from two months of protests over racial injustice in Portland and around the country and to use that momentum to push for concrete policy changes in everything from policing and education, to housing and health care.

It was a sweeping call and it had an unprecedented level of buy-in from elected leaders in the state. Given that the murder of George Floyd sparked this project, we thought we would take some time, one year later, to ask what has actually changed in Oregon and what remains the same.

Katrina, you talked about the pattern you’ve seen over and over where people protest and largely white leaders acknowledge Black pain and apologize and promise to do more and then nothing really changes. So, the Reimagine Oregon project was explicitly designed to break that cycle in the big picture. Do you think it’s working?

Katrina Holland: I have definitely noticed a shift in the way that elected officials are engaging with Black community around some of these policy changes. I think that we’ve definitely seen a greater sense of urgency in the way that folks are responding to what folks are saying is important to them. I have specifically noticed a change in the way of engagement in the state legislature. A few legislators have sort of listened and observed and acted on some of the things that we recommended, which is a shift right now. There are a few things that have gone across the finish line. We’ve seen some historic investments through Metro. We’ve seen some pretty innovative initiatives with TriMet and transportation and housing conversations, a conversation that’s been around since 2016 that wasn’t really going anywhere, and has seen a lot of significant progress in the state legislature.

It’s important that elected leaders change the nature and way they engage with the Black community in this process, which is just as important as what we pass. So we very emphatically and repetitively stated this is an iterative process. None of us know what it’s like to function outside of white supremacy.

So there’s a lot of dreaming and a lot of talking a lot back and forth about what things are going to look like, and what things we want and that iterative process is the way that we need to engage in this process, because historically that’s not been the experience of the Black community, and I think that we’ve seen some movement in that obviously some jurisdictions have a long way to go.

Dave Miller: Nkenge, do you feel for example, that elected officials up and down the power structure were more likely to take your calls last July, than say, a year earlier?

Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Oh, sure. But I’ll do one better. Instead of taking my calls, they were calling me. And that is substantially different.

Dave Miller: Is that the case now? Can you get through as easily and are you getting calls as much almost a year later?

Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Well, they’re certainly not calling me as much. They’re not reaching out to the Urban League as often. I can certainly tell you that, specifically, quite frankly with regard to the recent stimulus dollars that are coming to the states, I was surprised by how few elected leaders reached out at the county level, at the city level, at the state level that reached out to be in touch with the Urban League of Portland, let alone to engage directly with the Reimagine Oregon project. So I would say certainly it’s tapered off. At the same time, am I able to pick up the phone and call them? Sure, sure I am.

Dave Miller: I’m wondering, to the extent to which the sense of urgency that was so obvious last summer, do you still feel that especially from white elected leaders?


Nkenge Harmon Johnson: Well, let’s be real frank about this. The sense of urgency is certainly felt by some and I am pleased to see it when we, when we convene with elected officials, especially when they’re they’re gathered in a room together, they are able to feed off each other’s energy to continue to encourage them to keep pushing because they’ve got a lot on their plate. It’s a very busy time, both personally and professionally. If elected officials totally understand that, just as there is for me and Callie and Katrina and the other folks who are pushing for change across our state, that we all have a lot on our plates. So it does take some fortification and reinvigoration.

We certainly have select officials that are doing that, that are fortifying themselves and they’re remaining invigorated to seize the moment that we’re in right now. But there are certainly others who have begun to fall into their old patterns of, ‘oh yes, this is so important. If only we knew what to do about it. Oh yes, Let’s bring our hands and navel gaze for a while because we’ve hired five Black people and now we’re gonna wait and let them fix everything, even though I’m an elected official whose job it is to serve everybody.’

I’m starting to see that more often and you know, it’s troubling because it’s only been a year.

Dave Miller: Last year, Gov. Kate Brown said she wanted to center BIPOC voices in the state and center racial equity in the state budget and the 2021 legislative agenda. The whole point of this project was to see results. How would you grade Gov. Brown?

Kali Thorne Ladd: I think maybe where it was a D before, we’re sort of at a C+ B- range. I definitely see improved engagement, improved listening, improved willingness to have conversations and wrestle. But how to lead in equity and get tangible results and move a system to do things differently to get an A grade, you need to be able to do that. You need to be able to bring your colleagues on board and understand how you break status quo to truly make a tangible difference. And I’m saying this really from the vantage point of education, not housing and criminal justice as much. But we are making strides. We have an unprecedented number of bills up at the legislature that are equity focused. But I think the Governor is still on a journey to figure out how to facilitate the change.

Dave Miller: Turning to criminal justice and policing at the state level, there has been some movement, bills have passed, but some before Reimagine Oregon was announced and some passed this year. What do you see as the most significant changes that have been put in place?

Nkenge Harmon Johnson: I sort of wanted to demurrer from that question, because while there have been changes, they’re not terribly significant. And what I mean by that is in the grand scheme of things, and it’s important for me that I keep my eyes on the grand scheme of things, because we’re making incremental changes that matter and that need to happen. But at the same time, we’re so far away from creating safety and justice in our state that I want to be really careful about applauding ourselves for these these little teeny baby steps, because then what we’ve seen is that even folks who claim to be progressives will pat themselves on the back and then they’ll go away from the conversation.

Dave Miller: Nkenge, what stands out to you in terms of what you’ve seen in Portland? The changes you have or haven’t seen in policing in Portland in particular.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson: You know, what’s interesting, and I think it does relate to HB 2002, is that, um, law enforcement figures have said ‘yes, we understand that there’s a need for change.’ And then when we talk about actually making change, they don’t want to do it. They object to any changes that we suggest. And we asked for their changes. They have none other than ‘give us more money to do what police have been doing for quite some time’. So while there have been some changes, for example, the mayor and some police folks wanted to reinvigorate, revitalize, regroup, their gang enforcement task force that was shown by the Portland City auditor to really be a Black man patrol, they were stopping Black men in Portland. It’s more than six times the rate of anyone else. Even though the percentage of Black men of the population in Portland is quite small and they weren’t getting many guns off the street and they were very expensive and weren’t providing data to show that they were doing anything else. That was that was that useful. But still there was this strong push in City Hall to revitalize that team.

So, on the one hand, what’s changed is that while the push happened and it failed, it wasn’t successful. But the idea that we even had to revisit it was pretty disappointing. What social scientists tell us is that investing in housing, that actually keeps our streets safer because people with comfortable homes tend to stay in them, investing in workforce and in education. It works because people with good jobs don’t tend to be out shooting their neighbors at night.

So we’re not seeing those kinds of changes at the local level that we really are hoping to see, especially given the new stimulus money that’s coming from the federal government. Suddenly there’s enough money to fund these priorities that are costly and will take some time. I’m really hoping that those transformative decisions are what Portland and other local communities are going to undertake.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson: I think now we’re at the point for many elected officials and members of the public where their comfort zone is at risk and during the pandemic, they were uncomfortable for lots of different reasons. And so maybe it was more palatable. But now that they’re trying to “return to normal” they don’t want to change what works for them. Even if it doesn’t work for Asian Oregonians or Black Oregonians. Those who are comfortable would like to retain their comfort for as long as they possibly can, because they’ve always had it, it doesn’t actually work for them. They just don’t seem to realize it doesn’t work.

Katrina Holland: We’ve warned that of that to the elected officials when we engage in this process. We said very clearly, listen, some of this stuff that you’re gonna move forward that we’ve been talking about for several years and we’re finally going to try to get across the finish line, people are going to be upset. You will see white backlash from that. People will call you and say: you’re making a mistake, you’re taking away my money, you’re taking away this, you’re taking away that.

And your job as elected officials who have dedicated themselves to this process of beginning to dismantle structural racism in Oregon is to counter that, is to is to is to work through it to let people know this is what needs to change if we want to become an anti racist state, this is what needs to change if we want to get rid of some of the racism, that a lot of our, a lot of our neighbors and fellow Oregonians are experiencing, it’s not acceptable and it’s going to be uncomfortable. I think that’s the epitome of what the Reimagine Oregon project is. We’re beginning to dismantle the comfort zone of these white supremacist structures and processes and engagements that we’ve lived in for so long.

Our hope is that this next year will begin to see a lot of much more forward movement and some of these things that we’ve put forward across the finish line and and continue to establish a foundation that will continue to build on for many years to come.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the entire conversation using the audio player at the top of the story.