Registration is now open for #ELGL20: Local Gov Oktoberfest! Register today!

Podcast: Workforce Equity with Ben Duncan, Multnomah County, OR

Posted on July 24, 2020


Ben Duncan GovLove

Ben Duncan

Ben Duncan
Chief Diversity and Equity Officer
Multnomah County, Oregon
Bio | LinkedIn


Community organizing in government. Ben Duncan, Chief Diversity and Equity Officer for Multnomah County, Oregon, joined the podcast to talk about his career working on equity issues which began with environmental justice and health issues. He discussed the County’s Workforce Equity Strategic Plan and how employees have been engaged to improve their workplace. He also shared the work he’s done on the strategies Multnomah County is implementing to improve the diversity of their workforce and how the organization uses an equity lens.

Host: Ben Kittelson

Subscribe:Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotifyRSS Feed


Learn More

Multnomah County Office of Diversity and Equity

OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon

Workforce Equity Strategic Plan

Equity and Empowerment Lens

Employee Resource Groups

Walking our talk: County employees brief Board of Commissioners on progress of workforce equity efforts

Walking the talk: Meet Multnomah County’s new chief diversity and equity officer

The People Behind the Movement: Ben Duncan

 


Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hey ya’ll. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. We’ve got a great episode for you today. We’re taking a trip to talk Equity in Multnomah County, Oregon. Before we get into today’s episode, I do want to send a reminder to our listeners about the ELGL annual conference. As you know, the conference that had to be rescheduled due to the COVID 19 pandemic, but we are going digital and it’s now going to, the conference will now take place over the whole month of October. We’re gonna call it ELGL Oktoberfest. Details will be announced soon. But we’re spreading that conference out to avoid that Zoom burnout. And as a reminder, the best way to support GovLove is by   becoming an ELGL member and going to ELGL events. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Ben Duncan is the Chief Diversity and Equity Officer for Multnomah County, Oregon. He has been with the county since 2004 when he began his career in Environmental Health as a community health worker. He has since worked as a health educator, policy analyst and manager of the Health Equity initiative. He’s also a founding board member of OPAL Environmental Justice, Oregon, an organization that organizes low income and people of color to build power for environmental justice and civil rights. With that, Ben, welcome to GovLove. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Duncan

My pleasure to be here. Thanks.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, excited to dive into our conversation. But we do have a tradition on the podcast to let our guests warm up a little with a lightning round – some more fun questions. So my first question for you, what book are you reading?

Ben Duncan

Well, I wish I could say I was reading like James Baldwin or Audrey Lorde or Maya Angelou or someone like that, but you know, make me sound more well read and give your listeners some great ideas but honestly, you’ve kind of uncovered with the first question my guiltiest of pleasures. So I read a lot of James Patterson and Clive Cussler. It has quick chapters, mindless plots, characters without much depth, which really gives me just a reprieve from the complexity of kind of my day to day, allows me to tune out at the end of the long days, and I just started a new one. I don’t even know what it’s called, which is embarrassing. They all start to blend you know, some mystery gamer gets into a harrowing, harrowing situation and saves the world. That’s my self-care.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. No, I totally like recognize that I’m, I just read like a, what’s his name, James Crumley book, who’s like, kind of in that same vein, like mystery Western like writer. So, so yeah, it’s a way to escape the , from your day to day. Cool. And my next lightning round question for you. Are you in this you know, time of working from home and during the pandemic, are you watching or bingeing any TV right now?

Ben Duncan

I don’t really. I mean, I occasionally punish myself with you know, CNN and you know, talking heads on television. There’s always a few dramas, you know, like USA Network that are terrible television I watch but not really a TV binger. Although, you know if it wasn’t COVID I could sit and watch sports on television all day, but not really watching anything again, not for your listeners to give any great new show that they should tune into.

Ben Kittelson

What was the first concert that you went to?

Ben Duncan

You know, it was interesting. I was thinking about this, you know. Branford Marsalis had Wolf Trap, in Virginia. It was the first concert I went to with my family. And I’ve been a big fan of jazz, especially that New Orleans sound since I was a kid. Probably the first concert I went to, which I don’t even remember with my friends was probably like, Allman Brothers or something like that at the New York Film Fair. I grew up in Syracuse was where the State Fair is. And so they always had bands that would play for free. And so it was probably someone like that, you know, some Southern rock or somewhere fair music, you know.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, no, that’s a great. My last lightning round question for you, where do you go for inspiration?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I’ll give a cheesy answer. Because, but my work is really inspiring. And, you know, when I think about, you know, every day I get the opportunity to kind of witness and be surrounded by just so many people who are just giving so much of themselves in service to others, and particularly this moment, you know, not just what we’re seeing in our streets, but you know, for an organization like Multnomah County that, you know, is running our emergency operations, folks volunteering in shelters. You know, front-line workers, you know, putting their own lives and safety at times at risk, and the service to the communities they’re part of and the communities they serve. So you know, I’m motivated by by watching the incredible public servants that I’m surrounded by. So it’s you know, it’s a cheesy answer, you know, cheesy answer I like to get out in the woods, we like to go camping and things like that. I don’t know if I get inspired by that. It gives me kind of breath to kind of come back and keep pushing myself to do the work with others.

Ben Kittelson

I like that. I like that. And the best part about that question is that people interpret it like in a bunch of different ways. So that definitely counts. Yeah. So I always like to hear from folks like how they ended up in local government, because there are so many paths to you know, this field. And so for you, you know, growing up in Syracuse, now you’re out on the west coast, like how did you end up kind of in local government in your, the job you’re in today?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I mean, you know, you can edit if I, if I cause something. I’m going to try not to. [Laughter] This is the problem. I’ll try to be mindful of that. ……kind of ask backwards and into government I, I kind of cut my teeth as an organizer, particularly in campus organizing at the University of Oregon. But I actually I met a guy on a bus one day. I was doing a stint with AmeriCorps with the Center for Social and Environmental Justice at WSU, Washington State University in Vancouver. I used to take the bus out there, I didn’t have a car I was, you know, broke. But I heard you know, this guy’s talking about brownfields. You know, in those days, I used to talk to people on the buses and man brownfields, you know, there’s an environmental justice group that would be great to connect with. And, you know, it just so happens that this this individual, Kevin Odell, who, still, after all these years, is doing incredible work on the East Coast now. But he said, you know, listen, man, you got to start coming to these meetings that we’re doing in environmental health. And he was, he was an organizer by trade and working in Multnomah County Public Health, and I started going to these meetings. And he left Multnomah County to form what was then called Pace, which is what was a was an acronym for protocol for assessing community excellence, but we’ll put that aside. Ultimately that became OPAL. So he left for OPAL. I came on as a founding board member, and I took his job at the county. But here I am, you know, 15-16 years later, you know, my first my first title was Community Connector, really, quite literally went door to door in low income housing projects and tried to organize families that had children with asthma.

Ben Kittelson

Wow. Well, and I know I wanted to make sure I ask you about OPAL. So I guess this this is a good time to.  So can you talk more about that organization’s work and kind of what they do and kind of what made you want to kind of, I don’t know, get involved with that?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I mean, you know, backing up a little bit, I mean, I my bachelor’s is in Environmental Science. And you know, when I moved to Oregon in the late 90s it was, you know, for folks on the west coast, so remember the spotted owl? You know, save the old …. spotted owl. You know, you had folks in rural Oregon talking about, you know, save, save a forester, eat an owl kind of thing. And what I, what I really recognized, you know, as I was getting into more of the, what we might call militant environmentalism, is that the narrative was really limiting when it came to human beings. And when I discovered this concept of environmental racism and environmental justice that was led by people of color, in particular women of color, but it was a movement that was centering human health and human justice as an out, you know, kind of a next phase of the civil rights movement or an extension of the civil rights bill. And I really don’t really into that. And so OPAL really represents that, you know, the work that we were doing, you know, early on at the county that Kevin was doing at Multnomah County with others was really around understanding the relationship to where people live and their health and what we thought and in those days, you know, you had the old, you know, transparencies, you know, that you put on top of …. layering of Tableau and stuff like we do now. But you put it on, we looked at where low income people, people of color, increased cancer risk, asthma rates, we started looking at very specific areas of our city, that were really what we would now call environmental justice communities, communities that were bearing the brunt of environmental hazard. So OPAL was really founded on this idea that we would focus on kind of air toxics and air quality and really do the organizing work that really was necessary outside of government to be able to create real change in community and build power in community. So, you know, I served for about a decade, 11 years on the OPAL board. We talked a little bit about the holy trinity of environmental justice, of air toxics, housing, god I’m forgetting the last one, housing transportation sorry, that those kind of intersections of primary areas of focus. And, you know, OPAL, you know, has largely been focused on transportation. We did a lot of work organizing bus riders. We have a bus rider, you know, OPAL has a Bus Riders Unite model, where literally you’re organizing folks meet them on buses, buses, they come on and really hold power in the organization, drive the decision making, the activism, the policy work, supported by staff. And then now OPAL, as it’s continuing to grow is working on statewide policy, looking at climate justice, you know, through an anti kind of capitalist model, and we’re trying to do inter-sectional, multiracial, multi generational organizing. So I, you know, it’s a proud part of my past, you know, I’m not as engaged in the day to day, you know, they say, you know, the older you get, you start sending money. You don’t let the people do the work and but it’s a I’m really proud of the work they’re doing. They’re a force in the State of Oregon. And just an incredible group of leaders who really are building from the ground up.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s really cool. And I mean, it’s not a topic that I don’t know that like environmental justice, I don’t know that it’s, like, widespread in like the local government field or like public administration field. And so like, how did maybe OPAL’s work or, like coincide with or connect with the Multnomah County Health Department? Like what, what was kind of the connection there that to like, like policies or actions that local governments can take to kind of impact environmental justice?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I mean, you’re really referencing the entire kind of arc of my career kind of came in, right talking and really, it’s like, you know, I started as what we call the community connector or what would call a community health worker now, you know, kinsmen kind of working family to family, doing home visits. And we were framing the work around environmental justice, which was what really was like, what the hell is government’s talking about environmental racism? [Laughter] Like that’s, that’s incredible, right? My boss, you know, I still keep in touch with her you know, my first boss and she was like, man, I didn’t even have health insurance. I was on call, temp. She was like, man, you didn’t even want to work for government. So let’s, you know, let’s hold this. But we’d really started with, you know, working individually with families of children with asthma, right asthma being a kind of a public health issue that was deeply tied to where people live right. So these families were living next to highways, they were living in substandard housing, they had lack of access to good medical care, you know, all these things, right. So when you think about asthma triggers, whether it’s air toxics, or things that people were using to try to address mold, or cockroaches, or rats and rodents, you had all these kind of things that were exacerbating this condition. So we started with that home visiting model, working with community health nurses to make sure that these families could manage their asthma. From that, then I started saying, you know, working with groups of families or with entire housing, you know, communities as a health educator, and then it was really about how do we, you know, and I look back on this with, with, with some learning, of course, you know, it’s kind of like how do we teach you how to, you know, how to be safe and you know, you know, exercise and wear a condom and and, and that was part of that growth. But what we also recognize is that if we didn’t then address housing standards, right, so Multnomah County I’ve worked as a policy analyst. All right, so we started looking at whether it was bedbug policy, whether as transportation, air toxics, and housing standards, housing inspection, rights of tenants, it really was this intersection of all these kind of cumulative burdens that communities were experiencing that showed up in population level health outcomes. And so, you know, that was the impetus also for our health equity initiative. Right. So it’s kind of this trajectory, where my personal career has kind of also meant that the focus of my work, as Multnomah County was getting more sophisticated in the focus has been on the same trajectory, really moving from the individual level, to kind of the community level, to the population and policy level. And now really at the place where we’re looking at systemic issues like racism, oppression and discrimination, lack of power. So it’s been a really powerful journey. And I think that as Multnomah County has gotten better at this work, it’s, you know, I’ve grown with it.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. No that’s such a cool perspective of like, growing up with the organization. In a way, like on this topic, you kind of referenced in your, in your answers, but what was it like switching from being an activist and organizer into working for government? Like, what was that kind of transition for you like?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, the transitions still happening, right. So, in years of trying to figure it out, I have a colleague, Zan Gibbs out of San Antonio, and what we often use the phrase, beer activists, right. What does it mean to work in these bureaucracies and still maintain you know, I guess a level of credibility and integrity, around the idea that organizing and building power and community is the work of government. Now, obviously, you know, when we talk about organizing, you know, Multnomah County as an entity is kind of formally on the streets, for example, you know, protesting, but what does it mean to continually challenge critique, you know, conduct power analysis and work at every level of an organization to create change. And so, you know, I don’t know if it is a transition. I mean, I think for some people, the pace of bureaucracy can be really challenging and the politics of local government or government at every level can be challenging. So I do think there’s a certain kind of mindset or temperament that allows folks like myself to be able to last this long. And at the same time, like I said, in my first answer, I’m inspired because I’m surrounded by activists. I’m surrounded by folks who, both formally and informally are organizing inside government, to not just transform our institutional culture, but to work to transform the way that government operates in its relationship and connection to community.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I think I think as in like a profession and as like a sector, like, we could do a better job of like tapping these people that are, like, so passionate and, you know, already organizing their community and talking about the issues that local governments can have an impact on. And instead of seeing them as like, you know, separate and apart, they’re like, kind of bringing them in and kind of integrating them into the work of local governments. So, it’s cool to see….

Ben Duncan

And then it happens. Right. And, you know, I mean, part of it is, you know, you know, this is a whole topic for another day is around what people get paid in the in the nonprofit sector. But, you know, you come in, you get paid a little more money, you get some benefits, you know, a good retirement plan. So, there’s a lot of, there’s a, there’s a lot to be cherished, in terms of government, and I know, even for my own family, you know, for many people of color, like public sector was your path to the middle class. So there is a lot of folks where it should be a nice, a natural and effective transition. And I think that’s where, you know, all of us in government need to be better about, you know, how do we better integrate those models and principles and values that come from community based organizing justice work on the streets, and integrate it more seamlessly in government.

Ben Kittelson

Interesting, have you, how have you done that kind of in your work? Or is that still kind of, like an ongoing effort?

Ben Duncan

I think it’s an ongoing effort. You know, I, you know, my office, like think I’m surrounded by activists. You know, folks that are kind of being paid to do equity work, I think are often of that kind of stripe, coming from a place where, you know, this is just another place to create change, you know, another environment in which to do that from within. But, you know, maybe we’ll, we’ll talk about a little bit about this. You know, we have a model of Employee Resource Groups in Multnomah County where we’re literally using organizing tactics. And I’ve seen we, someone intentionally even though I often describe it, I’m both an ally and a target of that. Importantly, more importantly, because as I tell folks, you know, front-line employees, like I can leverage your anger to move … in this organization. But you have folks that, you know, were quite literally showing up to board meetings, and talking about their experiences of racism, you know, surrounded by their colleagues, protected by their union, you know, doing organizing work inside the government to create a better working environment. And I think what we’re seeing now across the country is more and more and more of that, of folks who are getting politically activated in the streets, and then going back to their workplace and be like, wait, what the hell. We got racist shit going on in this place too. You know, I’m going to take that here. And I think we’re seeing that type of energy show up in Multnomah County as we speak.

Ben Kittelson

Well kind of on that on that front like you guys, like you’ve had a focus on creating marketable workforce in the county. So I don’t know the best entry point to talking about this, but I know you guys have a great Workforce Equity Strategic Plan that I think I’ll link to in our show notes for this episode. But can you, can you tell our listeners a little about that work and maybe that plan or kind of an and, yeah, we’ll start there.

Ben Duncan

Yeah, and I just alluded to some at the start. I mean, this this was driven initially by a group of, of employees who are working with their labor union, and with community based organizations, kind of, you know, talking about in multiple ways, right. For the existing workforce, it’s how do we continue to retain, attract and promote, you know, some of the best talent that we have, as we bring people in, make sure that we are supporting them. From the, you know, union side, obviously, they’re they’re advocating for their members and dues, right and it increases their power. And for many of our community based partners, they also saw, as I said earlier, like government provides livable wages for people and, and making sure that, you know, it’s like every time you know, I remember a colleague, you know, community partner saying, you know, every time Multnomah County loses a good person of color, we all know about it, and it makes it that much harder to attract the next one. And I think that was a really powerful kind of frame. So really, I mean, there was a group that was having those conversations, but as I alluded to, like, why this work, got to where it did is because employees took the opportunity, I guess. They were courageous in just saying, we are harmed here. Now we also have internal data, right? We do a pretty robust employee survey, an HR trends reports that we’re saying if you’re a person of color in particular, you are experiencing a negative work environment compared to white counterparts. But also if you are an older employee, if you were playing with a disability if you’re an LGBTQ employee, so what we recognize through these stories, the power of those stories, is that Multnomah County as much as we love to be, you know, see ourselves as the progressive leaders, you know, that kind of look at like King County in Seattle and Multnomah County, it’s like, yeah, we’re doing, you know, we’re hot stuff here. But we’re not immune to all the isms that show up. And I think we had a sophisticated workplace. And as we talked about earlier, folks that had built some chops around organizing, who are like, we’re going to do this on county time. And we’re going to come to our leaders and talk about our experiences and demand change. And that really was the impetus and from that process, you know, our employee resource groups, you know, working, you know, in partnership with my office, you know, held listening sessions we took, they analyze their own data with some support from evaluators, but they analyzed their own data, they themed it, they created, you know, sessions where we talked about, okay, if that’s a theme, how do you build a strategy around that? And it really was a, you know, I think, you know, we could critique it, of course, but it really was a grassroots, what I would call grassroots organizing model within government to create change driven by frontline staff. And, you know, really quickly, you know, I was in a meeting with some of our executive leaders, and we had kind of a flowchart. And you know, it had, you know, we’re gonna engage employees at this level, and employees will do this. And then it’s like, bring it to directors, but we’re at the end, and I was like, yeah, you’re at the end, right?  Like y’all made all these decisions, you put us into where we are. [Laughter] So you’re going to be hearing what the ideas are. Now obviously leadership has to buy in. But when you have that type of energy and momentum, it puts people in a political space where you kind of have to move the work. And I’m really proud of that. Certainly, I think if you had some of the colleagues that we work together, it wasn’t perfect. And, you know, we battled in the back rooms, but we showed up in public with some pretty good force.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. So you mentioned the Employee Resource Groups a couple times, what can you tell people, can you expand more on what those are because it sounds like a way to almost like, institutionalize some of this like, like culture change and like, involvement. So this seems like a cool strategy that like, I don’t know, people might be able to adopt in their own organization. So what are kind of what’s kind of their role? How do they fit into the, into this?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I mean, the idea of employee resource groups or affinity groups, many, you know, I mean, you know, as lots of you know, you find these in the corporate world, you find them in government and you find them all you know, in lots of different settings. So, the concept is has been around for a long time. And I think what we recognized, at least, you know, the leaders of those groups recognize is that there was there was an opportunity, of course, to have, you know, Hispanic Heritage Day and Black History Month and you know, the things that affinity groups often do in organizations that I don’t want to dismiss as invaluable. But it was really a structure, right? I mean, it was about connecting people to each other. And then using the those connections, those relationships, those shared struggles and trauma, to turn the power of story into the power of action and policy change, which is, you know, organizing one on one, right You have to meet someone in the community who’s pissed off about something that is affecting their life and you say, hey, come join us, because I have that same frustration. And now together we have a more powerful voice. And so, you know, I’ve tried to talk about it because I do think you know, how we bring community organizing models into government to create change within our institutions, not just for the benefit of employees, but for the benefit of our services, for the advancement of more equitable and justice based budgets, to raise difficult conversations about, you know, how we design programs, etc. All of that can be initiated in these sorts of models. But it also, you know, we have 10 groups, everything we have LGBTQ and a veterans group, we have managers of color, employees of color, we have a group around disability, immigrant and refugee, which was the first one in the country to be established. So there’s i think older adults. So we have a number of these groups that are still designed around affinity that are being continually more sophisticated at being able to cross organize with each other. So you’re just kind of compounding this power and resource across the organization. And we have a policy, you know, leaders get 12 hours a month to dedicated of dedicated paid time to do this work, again, pushed by employees supported by our office and leadership. So it’s a it’s a pretty powerful model and one that I, I tried to talk about as much as possible, how do you how do you use this kind of innocuous idea of affinity and turn it into radical organizing, which is powerful and exciting.

Ben Kittelson

And so does your office then work with those groups to like, kind of support maybe some of the stuff they’re trying to pursue or maybe give them you know, I don’t know the data or the research they need? Is that kind of where you guys fit into that?

Ben Duncan

I think that’s the way to describe it. I mean, I think that’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having. What you know, they live under Office of Diversity and Equity, right by policy. We you know have a line item budget for each group and things like that, but they are self directed. And I’ve been very clear that these groups need to be self directed partly for my own political protection, quite frankly. So I’m like, I’m not controlling all these folks. [Laughter] Like they’re gonna do what they are gonna do, right. It’s my job to be in service to them. And so yeah, I mean, I think the type of things whether it’s research or political advocacy, or navigation, those are all the things I think we keep exploring, how do we do that better, recognizing that, you know, I serve at the pleasure of our chief executive, our county chair, so I am part of leadership, right? I’m not, you know, it’s not like separate. I am part of the leadership structure of this organization, which could also be interpreted as part of the problem. And so that balance is really one that needs to be kind of, you know, cautiously and carefully cultivated as we build that relationship. And recognizing again, as I said earlier, being both an ally and a target is part of the job.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, what a tough, that’s a it’s a tough balance that like you want to support their work, but at the same time, like they may be targeting you next. Yeah.

Ben Duncan

Yeah.

Ben Kittelson

So one like focus area of the of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, that you’ll have that I think, I know lots of local governments are trying to figure out and are interested in improving is around recruitment and pipeline. And I love I think I can’t I can remember if it was a strategy or whatever you guys call it, but it was something about ensuring the there are diverse candidates for a diverse candidate pools for all the positions they ya’ll are recruiting for. So what, can you talk maybe more about that focus areas specifically, and then maybe some of the things that Multnomah County’s done to kind of make progress on that front?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s, that’s, and certainly I think you’re right, it’s a it’s an often a starting point for many organizations is how do we diversify our institution? So I’ll use a you know, a few examples. You know, one, you know, as I said earlier, you know, Multnomah County is a pretty attractive workplace. You know, in terms of the work we’re doing so, you know, the recruitment, like candidate pools are not usually our challenge, although, you know, we’ve been much more intentional about utilizing, you know, you know, we kind of talk about all of our employees are recruiters. And so really utilizing the networks and relationships that are, you know, particularly our black indigenous people of color and other kind of, you know, what we call diverse communities, employees, you know, those networks and relationships, but some of the other things that I think that are kind of tangible at the organizational level, one is, how you write position descriptions. How does this position speak to me? How do we talk about lived experience as part of their qualifications for a job? How do we reduce barriers and minimum standards to make sure that our candidate pools are as broad as possible that we eliminate what we predictably and through data understand about access to higher education and access to certain types of employment, and really trying to get folks to understand that, you know, your lived experience is an incredible value in this organization. So how do you write position descriptions and draft interview questions and things like that, that get people speaking about, you know, their identity in ways that are part of the qualifications for the job, and not just saying, hey, are you black, which we understand obviously, is not legal. Right. So, you know, really getting creative about saying, you know, your identity, actually does influence the skills and, you know, that experience is applicable to the job that we’re doing. So I think that’s part of it. Outreach relationships certainly are part of it. And then we have a program that was ran out of my office for a number of years called College to County, which I think over time will be much more expanded. But what we did is really focused on a paid internship program. And that was a really important part of this, that these are paid interns, that is really focused on students of color, and immigrant refugee students, students with disabilities and students who are the first in their family to go to college. And how we do that. Because, you know, I mean, I don’t mean to be crass about it, but you know, if Johnny’s uncle runs the law firm, you know, you go and get the law firm in turn or, you know, if it’s not who you know, kind of thing, right, like we understand, you know, the way that social networks, particularly as it relates to employment, how they play out and are distributed across race and class. But what we do is, we work with student support programs that are specifically targeted for students of color, or for students with disability or for low income students. And so by partnering with those programs, we really have this pipeline of really just incredibly talented young, largely people of color, immigrant refugee interns who, who are doing incredible and substantive work in the organization. So, you know, I use those examples, and I think there’s a lot more work to do. Certainly there’s work in kind of the building and contract, you know, trades kind of area, but I just put those examples out as ways that I think there are tangible ways you can invest in, you know, internship programs that target students that often are left out of these models. You can write job descriptions that really speak to you know, diverse communities, people of color, bipoc folks, and you can continually try to build relationships with community based organizations, with folks in community, so when you put out a job description, you’re going to get a candidate pool that really is more reflective of the necessary qualifications for the job.

Ben Kittelson

Well, and so, the internship program, what’s kind of the scale of that? How many like interns like a year? And then is it, is it that you’re reaching out to I don’t know that the Black Student Union at Portland State University to kind of connect them with the internship program? Or what is the kind of groups that you’re targeting in these, in these colleges that are that are like that partner that you mentioned?

Ben Duncan

Yeah. That’s, that’s a that’s a good, good, good question. So one, our goals by 2022 is to have 50 positions. So it’s really been around 35 a year.

Ben Kittelson

That’s a good size.

Ben Duncan

It is a good size, and then today that’s across the organization. And, you know, many of these students have gone on to come back, you know, over, you know, holiday breaks and work through the summer. And so, you know, they have a relationship and they’re learning the culture and they’re building personal, you know, networks and, you know, making contacts that are really valuable not just whether they come into Multnomah County, but wherever they end up going. We also really screen for folks that have a real desire to do public service. So that’s part of the process. And these are folks that really see government as a viable opportunity. I mean, I tell this story, you know, we do taxation. You know, we have a division of Assessment, Referral and Taxation. It’s like property tax assessor’s, and, you know, 10 years ago, you know, that was like, you know, a bunch of old white guys, you know, and we started, you know, they, I give all credit to them, right? They were funding, you know, five, six positions a year. And now you go down there and you’re like, and you see these young brothers walking around, you’re like, yeah, [Laughter] like, and people are now buying houses and starting families. So you really start seeing like someone who probably never imagined, didn’t even, maybe he didn’t even know that property tax like assessment and appraisal was a job, who now have a career that can support family, that can you know, support wealth generation, etc. And I think your example is right, you know, whether it’s a Black Student Union or Multicultural Student Unions, you know, we have, I’m forgetting some of the names of the programs. But there’s student support programs, I’m just blanking, you know, right now on them, but they’re their referral systems. And so that’s what we rely on, is that students need to be referred out of one of these models. And I think as it grows, you know, we’ve talked about the concept of like, you know, client to county, or community to county, right as how do we start identifying folks that are working with our community based organizations, with our contracted partners, and really kind of broaden the network of folks that doesn’t just rely on college, which is just one path into this work and also, you know, limits the number of folks but yeah, I forgot the programs, but you know, they’re kind of programs that support low income students of color.

Ben Kittelson

Mm hmm. Well, another thing you said and kind of explained what y’all done is valuing that kind of lived experience and, and you’re right like that people that that come from different backgrounds and you know, are people of color, are black, like they can do things and they can be more effective at their job in some ways, because they have access to different communities and people will talk to them in different like, more than you know, they would me as like a white guy. So, but I’m always curious, like, yes, that like that’s a cool or not cool. That’s a good value and like, that’s like a good thing to do to broaden your and diversify your kind of applicant pool and people coming into your organization. But how do you like, is there a way or how have you guys done to like, like, institutionalize that or like, is it like a like, because that’s hard. It’s a harder thing to measure. I always think about like, what can an HR department like, put on a check, you know, put on an application as like a checkbox or like a, you know, a short answer form like, like, it’s easy to put like, you know, did you complete your BA, you know, did you, how many years of experience do you have? But it’s harder maybe to quantify, or maybe I haven’t thought of it. It’s harder to quantify that lived experience and kind of how that relates to the job. So have you guys had kind of success or like, done things like this? Does that make sense?

Ben Duncan

So I mean, there’s a couple things that maybe I’d speak to. One of, one of the things that we have instituted across this organization, is what we call culturally specific KSA’s, right. So knowledge, skills and abilities. So in some, you know some jobs, the KSA is going to be type 70 words a minute, or whatever it is. For other jobs, the KSA is culturally specific, right. Demonstrated knowledge, experience and relationship with blank community. And so those are things that you can measure through a you know, whether it’s kind of a written cover letter, or whether it’s through an interview panel, or really cult, you know, to making sure that HR screeners understand, you know, the relationship, oh this person’s lived in this community, they’ve worked in these type of organizations, like you know, they’ve touched these type of things and, and, you know, trying to build that into the process of application is important. And then we’ve built some of this stuff into workforce equity strategic planning, where we look at the candidate pool from application to hire, to try to say that we should never lose, you know, you should maintain that same level of kind of distribution of diverse candidacy throughout that entire process. And that is one way to measure it is to say, okay, where did folks drop off? Okay, we had a great candidate pool, but then we interviewed 10 white people. Like something between that candidate pool and that interview went wrong, yeah is or was problematic or needs some quality improvement. So I do think there’s ways to kind of think about that kind of disparate impact type analysis as you’re doing this work. So you can, you know, both proactively do it at the front end of hiring process, but also retrospectively kind of look and say, you know, maybe if we’d ask these questions differently, or maybe if our panel was constructed differently, we would have eliminated opportunities for bias and to show up in that process.

Ben Kittelson

Interesting. Cool, man, this is exciting. I want to go implement this in an organization. [Laughter] So I did read in preparing for this interview that you guys recently started a civil rights policy unit. Can you just, I mean, that’s seems like a cool group to have within an organization. What are they kind of, what are they gonna be working on? What’s kind of the focus of that group?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, I’m super excited about, about that work and the kind of it’s three staff within the Office of Diversity and Equity. So at a high level, there’s five kind of functions, I would say. One is doing all of our kind of civil rights compliance, so EEO-4 and, you know,  ….. and things like that. We are building out a stronger structure to support employee accommodations, and to kind of centralize some of the supports that really will help employees with disabilities access their full rights, but also to have a broader frame around disability, equity and the kind of intersection of race and disability in particular. They’ll be working on kind of policy research, analysis and analytics related to workforce equity. So all the things we’ve kind of been talking about that look at data, what is the data telling us? How are we improving? Where do we have gaps? Where are people’s experience? And how are those showing up? We do civil rights grievances for external complaints. So things are on like language access or denial of service based on civil rights protections, largely focused on informal resolution. So not really investigating, but working with the organization to ensure that if someone has been denied, or either real or perceived, denied access to services, we reconcile that and resolve those issues, and then broadly, special projects. So one of the things that we’ll be updating, for example, in the next year or so, is some work around culturally specific contracting, that really is about you know, kind of distributing more resources to organizations through our contracting process that are serving, that are not just serving, but are of from built with and centered on the communities that they’re serving. Right. And so there’s a lot of work there around how do you build that contract? How do you score, kind of RFPs and things like that, that is really exciting. But there’s kind of endless work around, you know, civil rights, and we just have some brilliant folks in those roles that, you know, it’s almost impossible to predict the type of influence they’ll have over the next coming years.

Ben Kittelson

That’s exciting. That’s awesome.

Ben Duncan

It is awesome.

Ben Kittelson

Um, so before we kind of end our chat, there was like going through your website, you guys have an awesome equity empowerment, like lens tool. And like, there’s, I’m gonna, I’ll have to link to all of the stuff you guys have. But can you can you like, what is the kind of equity and empowerment lens and maybe how do kind of departments or staff use that in their day to day work?

Ben Duncan

Yeah, that’s a that’s a great question. I won’t talk too much about what it is. Maybe these things are showing up as somewhat ubiquitous across lots of governments. But at its heart, it’s a quality improvement tool that tries to ensure that as we make decisions, design programs, advance policy that we are deeply integrating analysis around equity impacts. So we don’t have what you know, has often been called unintended consequences, trying to predict those things, and also to really focus and understand that we need to really have an intimate knowledge of how race in particular shows up as both potential benefit or potential burden, and I’ll use it, I’ll use an example. I mean, I think, you know, for Multnomah County it’s kind of been baked into the ways that we talk about it and do the work. You know, you watch some board meetings and everybody say, oh, we applied the equity lens, they’ve applied the equity lens. And I think, you know, often it’s less formal than, than kind of going through what we started out a decade ago, kind of really this kind of step by step process, which you know, it’s maybe another conversation for another day. But I do want to lift up an example because I think you know, our tool, I’d say we love our tool. I think it’s the only one in the country that includes empowerment as part of the, part of the title. It’s one of the few tools that really ask people to consider the physical, spiritual and emotional context. It’s one of the few tools that talks about trauma, and retraumatization. It’s one of the few tools that talks about environmental justice, one of the few tools that talks about sharing and building power. So there’s a lot of elements, I think, in our and in our tool that are really built out of social justice movements that reflect you know, I think, the best thinking and power of those movements. But I’ll use a quick example that I think really exemplifies, you know, the type of outcome that you can get by doing and it’s relevant because it’s related to criminal justice, which I think is important as we have this national dialogue about reform, reform, abolish, you know, filling all the blanks. But we created a what’s called the Diane Wade House, which is really an Afrocentric, transitional housing model that we developed. But if we look at the, what we do, we asked about people, place, process and power. So what we do is, we start with purpose. The purpose of this work was to reduce the utilization of jail, in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation Safety Justice Challenge. So we knew our purpose, we wanted to reimagine our utilization and reduce utilization of jail as a way to solve kind of criminal justice and behavioral health and mental health problems. So we asked the questions around people, what we did is looked at data, we know that black women in particular in this community, were experiencing co occurring kind of behavioral and mental health issues. We understood the trauma of jail as a as a housing option for folks particularly who are coming back into community so we had an intimate understanding right of the not just what the data was telling us, but who it was talking about. We looked at a process to ensure that as we did this work, we were engaging people from the community with lived experience in the criminal legal system to do this work that meant contracting with a group called Bridges to Change, who’s providing gender responsive trauma informed services that are Afrocentric, designed with, for and about the people that will be living there. When we talk about place, you know, it’s a low barrier, transitional housing, right. So it has, you know, reduces barriers to entry. So rather than place burdens on folks that we know, are most negatively impacted by a lack of housing and supportive services, we try to reduce all those barriers to make it easy to get in and hopefully easy to have success. And then this concept of power. It’s you know, when I think about how are we building capacity both for these women you know, black women who are in this these programs in this transitional housing, but also building power for the community by ensuring that there’s an empowerment model within the setting, building capacity for the community supported setting by contracting with an organization that provides mental health and behavioral services. So when you look at those, what we call our 5 P’s, by looking at the people, by thinking about the process and relationships that we have, by ensuring that our place is relevant and trauma informed. And when we think about power, how are we building capacity and people to solve their own life issues, and ej, you know, normal justice committees that speak for themselves, best protect themselves? How are we doing that work? And I think that’s just a beautiful example of, you know, a concept that we took at the beginning of this, let’s apply the equity and empowerment lens to this work. And then to see this, you know, really powerful outcome of a Afrocentric transitional housing that’s ran by black women, that’s serving black women, that’s using models and cultural norms of black women to improve people’s lives is really a remarkable success. You know, the program of course is relatively new, but just its design and existence in and of itself seems radical, which is really powerful.

Ben Kittelson

That’s so cool. Oh, yeah. Yeah. So we’ll have a link to that and all your resources. That that’s really inspiring. That’s, that’s cool. I feel like we have so much, we could have kept talking and, and you’ll have to come back on the podcast or something.

Ben Duncan

Like…….. I’ve never been accused of not being able to talk that’s for sure.

Ben Kittelson

Alright, so my last question for you. We have another tradition on GovLove where we ask our guests to pick our exit music. So if you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick for the exit music of this episode?

Ben Duncan

You know, one of my favorite songs in the world is Cissy Strut by The Meters. That would be my outgoing song, instrumental, New Orleans, just the New Orleans. Good old funk. Love it.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Awesome. We’ll get that queued up. Perfect. Well, Ben, thank you, thank you so much for coming on and talk with me. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your expertise.

Ben Duncan

My pleasure.

Ben Kittelson

For our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by ELGL. You can reach us online at elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcast. You can support GovLove by joining ELGL. Membership is just $40 for an individual, 20 bucks for students. Subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app and spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories by telling a friend or colleague about this podcast. With that, thanks for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.


Close window