Underrepresented Communities Empowered To Lead
Blake has always wanted to be part of the decision-making process within local government. “I want to serve in the capacity of a public sector board or commission, and maybe even one day run for something in the county that I live in,” said Blake.
“I want to be a decision maker in the room when these decisions are made, because I want to be able to speak for the voices that aren’t always allowed in the room.”
Becoming a civic leader and getting involved with local government isn’t a new dream for Blake. This is something he has wanted for a long time.
Blake now lives a comfortable life in Washington County, just west of Portland Oregon. He owns a small travel agency business that he built from the ground up, is married, and owns a house. Although his life is now stable, it hasn’t always been that way.
Blake explained, “As a black person in America, you deal with the struggles as they present themselves. Whether I was overlooked for a promotion, overlooked for a position, whether I lost a client because they discovered I was black, whether I was not rented an apartment because they didn’t feel comfortable renting to a black person. Whatever those experiences are, I’ve lived it.”
Throughout his life, Blake has dealt with financial struggle, joblessness, housing insecurity, and medical insecurity. But he’s thankful that he was born with a strong sense of resilience.“I can really make up a good batch of lemonade. So when the lemons come, I make it work.”
“I’m thankful that there hasn’t been one big life-derailing moment. But there have been those thousand little cuts that happen in the life of a person of color that I’ve experienced.”
Blake was on a mission to change things, not just for himself, but for his community. Although he had an educational background in public administration, when it came to finding actual opportunities to get involved, he didn’t see an avenue. He didn’t even know if it was possible for him. For years he looked for a program that would help him get a foot in the door. “I want to make sure that I’m knowledgeable enough to know how to prevent something that can negatively impact people’s lives. And so, I needed a program that was going to prepare me to take on a leadership role.”
“Having the desire and having the opportunity are two different things. Now the opportunity has presented itself,” said Blake.
The Washington County Civic Leaders Project was created with the goal of increasing the number of people from underrepresented communities in civic engagement opportunities at the county level, and in the future, to have more people representing communities of color in elected positions.
Patricia Alvarado, Director of Educations Programs at Adelante Mujeres, headed up the project. “Adelante’s focus of services has been the Latino community, but we felt that we could successfully outreach to other immigrant or underrepresented communities as they experience similar barriers as the Latino community,” said Patricia.
A couple weeks into the program, Blake said that his favorite part has been connecting with other members of Washington County communities and learning what their challenges are. “I’m so thankful that everything aligned to take on this opportunity. I’m so fully engaged in this,” said Blake.
As the course progressed, various topics were covered, such as county services and commissions, and the role of county government, civil rights and responsibilities, power dynamics, environmental justice, civic engagement, and advocacy — all using a teaching methodology that Adelante Mujeres uses throughout all of our education programs: Popular Education.
Patricia explains, “With a popular education focus we are able to draw from a collective knowledge and make sure that participants’ experiences are valued and shared with other people. At the same time we are providing them with time to do deep reflection on the information received, as well as determine how they will apply it to their personal and professional lives.”
On graduation day, friends and families of the participants, as well as other community members, came together and watched as each cohort member walked to the front to receive their certificate of completion.
As a handful of the participants gave one final impassioned speech to the crowd, the room radiated with hope. Hope for the future. Hope for underrepresented communities. It was felt across the room — a sense that the voices that have been left out of the decision-making room for so many years were no longer going to be excluded. Change is coming.
Blake made the rounds with his camera, ensuring this day would be forever captured. “I was hoping to understand the county and all of the different operations of decision making, and I did get to learn that, so it definitely met my expectations,” said Blake. “I’ve actually engaged with some elected officials and some board members already to figure out ways in which I can contribute to the community, and also become a connector to people who are not otherwise engaged.”
“I think that there’s too many people who have presumptions about how government is structured and how organizations like this are managed and how decisions are made, and they erroneously think that any old person can do this. There needs to be some training, there needs to be some rigor and learning and understanding how processes work, because our country hasn’t come this far by happenstance, people just operating off the cuff. There is structure. There are norms, and there are ways that we make decisions, and that’s why we’re here.
And so recognizing that our structure, although not perfect by any means, it’s a structure that’s workable, and it’s a structure that can be tweaked and improved so that we can have better outcomes for people that have been historically underrepresented in the decision making process,” says Blake.
Although this was a pilot project, there are already conversations about continuing the project and doing a second cohort this upcoming year.
To the strong leaders that completed the course: we applaud your dedication, strength, passion, and drive to make a difference in your communities. May the door to the decision-making room never be closed to you.