On Tuesday evening, in delaying yet again the opening of a new middle school in the Albina neighborhood, the Portland Public Schools board delivered yet another blow to a community that has faced generations of systemic racism. For years, Harriet Tubman School served students in Northeast Portland, including Faubion K-8 students for the past two years as their new school was under construction.
In their vote to delay the long-promised opening of Tubman as a middle school, the board cited legitimate concerns about environmental hazards at the site. But why is this concern only causing a delay now? Why wasn’t it addressed when Tubman served neighborhood children for years? Why not when Faubion School, which serves more than 70% students of color, was moved into the building in 2015? The answer is clear. It’s yet another example of the systemic racism faced by communities of color in Portland. This must change. And that change requires those of us who don’t face institutionalized barriers or who don’t have to worry about being targeted because of our skin color or race to examine our own roles in allowing pervasive racism.
In changing the culture that has allowed racism, our community must commit to changes in election systems that allow this structural racism. In the Oregon legislature, six new legislators of color were elected in November. They were undoubtedly elected because of their strong qualifications, and they were elected because they represent an increasingly diverse state, with districts that reflect that diversity and allow voters to choose candidates from their local communities. The State House is still not representative of the state’s diversity as a whole, but it’s much closer to being so than Portland City Council and the Portland Public Schools (PPS) Board.
In May, school board elections were held in each of the six public school districts in Portland, including PPS. Prior to that election, 47% of the students who attend public schools within the city of Portland were students of color, yet only 22% of the elected school board members were people of color. In a district such as David Douglas, which has gone from 26% students of color to 61% students of color in just 15 years, having board members with diverse backgrounds and experiences has a direct impact upon students and families in the district. There were certainly some encouraging results in the May election, such as young leaders of color in Jessica Arzate and Ana del Rocio being elected to the MESD and David Douglas boards, respectively.
The PPS Board, however, is not reflective of the students it represents. This will not change as long as candidates continue to be elected districtwide, although they represent specific zones. Why should someone who lives in Sellwood or Multnomah Village help choose a board member who represents students and families in North or Northeast Portland? Until we change how board members are elected, our school board will continue to be overwhelmingly white, in a district with 45% students of color. The diversity of students in Portland Public Schools and districts in East Multnomah County need diverse voices to represent and reflect the experiences of students and families. If there were school board members who more closely reflected the families who live in the Albina neighborhood, or the children who attend Faubion, would our community have let the pollution concerns slide?
Portland City Council faces a similar lack of representation. Of the City Commissioners, there are no individuals of color. Until this most recent election, all five members lived in southwest Portland. Money equals power, and without district-based elections, underserved neighborhoods in Northeast and East Portland will continue to lack any real voice. It’s absolutely time to expand the Portland City Council, and elect council members who will represent their neighborhoods, as it is done in some form or fashion in every other major American city.
Why does this matter now? Portland is a city with a racist history, and one with historically discriminatory policies toward people of color. As many low-income families and families of color are being forced out of Portland’s core neighborhoods, and Portland is viewed as a city that is unwelcoming to people of color, it becomes even more critical that people whose lives are being disrupted have a seat at the table. It is incumbent upon those of us who have traditionally had the table set in our favor to demand more equitable structures in our community.