What if Oregon’s decision-makers reflected our communities’ full diversity?

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Photo credit: Oregonlive.com, Jamie Francis

[Image description: A close-up photo portrait of Arthur Honeyman wearing a black beret.]

Arthur Honeyman was a prolific essayist, poet, publisher and disability rights activist. At a time when people with disabilities were not guaranteed the right to an education, Art, who had cerebral palsy, fought to attend Portland State University. He earned his undergraduate degree there, as well as a master’s degree in literature. Among Art’s many other life adventures and achievements: running for Oregon’s state legislature twice, rolling his wheelchair from Portland to Salem along the freeway to protest lack of disability access on buses, stowing away on a freight train, performing with a contact-improvisation dance group, and freeing his mother from a mental institution. Art did things his own way; he was a leader.

We recently renamed one of our conference rooms after Art. We wanted to honor his legacy as a powerful social justice leader. Of course, this gesture means little in comparison to the many actions we still need to take toward fully incorporating disability equity in our work.

At Northwest Health Foundation, we know that communities and individuals most affected by inequities are usually excluded from decision-making. We also know the lived experience of those most affected matters. When these communities, with their diverse experiences and perspectives, are represented on school boards and city councils, in the legislature and every other type of policy-making position in between, policies work better for all of us.

[Image description: A chart titled “Elected Officials Identifying as Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Oregon, 2016.” The chart shows 100 icons of people, including eight dark blue and 92 light green.]

In Oregon, our decision-makers do not represent all of us; 67% of elected leaders are white men, 26% are white women. We don’t know how many of our elected leaders identify as having a disability, but we imagine it’s not representative of our state’s population. This is a problem. When decision-makers don’t reflect the communities they’re meant to serve, the policies they make can fall flat. More often than not, these policies reflect dominant culture notions about who gets what, how much, why and how. For people with disabilities, this results in policies that don’t address inequities or issues of power and representation. Whether intentionally or not, these policies harm our communities.

[Image description: Text reads, “1 out of 5 Americans has a disability.” An icon depicting a person in a wheelchair rolls left, away from a row of four stick figures. An icon depicting a person with a prosthetic leg runs right, away from a second row of four stick figures.]

Imagine if Arthur Honeyman had won his campaign for state legislature. With his voice in the capitol, demanding Oregon meet the needs of people with disabilities, think how much more inclusive our policies would be today. Imagine if one-fifth or more of our legislators had disabilities, reflecting the one-fifth of Americans who have disabilities. Even better, imagine if all our decision-makers and leaders throughout the region reflected our communities’ full disability diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, geographical diversity, gender diversity and all the other myriad identities of Oregon residents. Our policies would work better for everyone. For us, this is civic health, and it is linked to the health of all Oregonians.

That’s why we’re currently looking for ten leaders with disabilities from throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington to participate in a Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative. It’s also why we’re prioritizing leaders with disabilities who identify as people of color, immigrants, refugees and/or LGBTQ, as well as folks who live outside of the Portland metro area.

[Image description: Top Left, Two young adults with Down Syndrome smile. Both wear glasses. One sits in a wheelchair. The other leans on the back of the wheelchair.; Top Right, A person with glasses and a graying beard smiles.; Bottom Left, A person with short curly hair and red lipstick smiles.; Bottom Right, A child with glasses sits on their parent’s lap.]

The Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative will meet four times over the span of a year to discuss a vision and strategy for ensuring the voices and experiences of people with disabilities are represented in decision-making; deepen their understanding of disability justice; and discuss how disability-led organizations, community of color-led organizations, funders and leadership programs can work together in new ways.

We know there are so many great leaders like Arthur Honeyman. Long-term, we hope to see people with disabilities and people who understand, and are committed to, disability justice in decision-making positions throughout our region.

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