This summer, Portland city employees received a survey aiming to answer a basic question: How satisfied are Black staff?
One hundred-three employees responded. Eight of them reported feeling supported in their jobs.
City Council members received the survey findings Tuesday as part of a work session on supporting Black employees. The numbers appeared to shock many commissioners, who regularly list anti-racism and equity as the city’s top values.
But it underscored what many staffers say they have been trying to get officials to pay attention to for years: Black employees working for one of America’s whitest cities feel undervalued and overburdened.
“If this survey were a report card that was grading Black people’s experience… this would give the city of Portland a fail,” said Portland Housing Bureau coordinator Ira Bailey, who presented the findings to the council.
Bailey is one of six leaders of the City African-American Network, a volunteer group for Black city employees that works to improve the experience of the city’s Black staff. In the last few years, the group has spearheaded three reports on Black employees as well as Tuesday’s work session.
According to the presentation, 49% of respondents said they felt tokenized at work; 53% said they did not feel secure disclosing mental health distress to their supervisors.
“The reality is that Black employees are not feeling supported,” said Tyesha McCool-Riley, a mental health program specialist with the Office of Community and Civic Life. “They’re not feeling like they have the ability to actually access support and resources they need to feel like they actually want to stay in the job.”
The group members said they’d struggled to get basic demographic data from the city’s human resources bureau, including a list of the city’s Black employees they sought as they worked to expand the group’s membership. The data they were able to retrieve showed the percentage of Black employees in city government has decreased over the past few years even as the Portland City Council became historically diverse. In 2019, there were 793 Black employees, composing 7.7% of the workforce. The most recent data showed 456 employees who identified as Black, or 6.7% of the city workforce. (The total number of city employees has also dropped during that time, though the overall percentage of the workforce that identifies as white has increased slightly.)
According to the group’s analysis, most of the city’s remaining Black staff were employed in service or administrative support positions. The Portland Parks Bureau, which employs a high number of seasonal workers, had the most Black staff followed by the Bureau of Transportation, which required a large number of maintenance workers. The Bureau of Equity and Human Rights had the highest percentage of Black staff.
Just under 4% of the Portland Police Bureau identified as Black.
“I think that tells a story in and of itself of where Black employees are valued within the city of Portland and where they get entryway,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said.
As the first Black female commissioner in Portland history, Hardesty said she’d been met with resistance and skepticism by city officials when she first took office. Changing the culture of City Hall, she said, was not a question of policy. It was a matter of changing how supervisors and managers viewed Black employees.
“I know exactly how you feel, because I feel it every day in the seat I’m in,” she said.