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By Olivia Salazar de Breaux, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator
It has been quite a journey for the Founding Members Work Group and I as we have embarked on the extremely daunting, high profile and emotionally taxing work of building a new equity commission that will ultimately help the City of Olympia become the anti-racist, affirming organization and City we want it to be.
The truth is this: racial justice work is unlike anything we have ever done as a City organization. This isn’t just a typical advisory commission we are putting together. It is about human rights and livelihood. This work is deeply personal for all of us and it isn’t just work. It is about our lives and those of our families, our friends and our beloved community members.
We took on this task understanding and feeling an incredible weight of responsibility to make lasting positive change. We understood it would be messy, it would feel impossible at times because we are working within oppressive structures, and we are doing this under a microscope of distrust. We don’t take this mission lightly. We have committed wholeheartedly while understanding it would also take a personal toll on us. We linked arms and said YES.
After coming together as a team in December 2020, we chose consultants (Fernell Miller and Dr. Jen Self) in February to help with meeting design and facilitation. We initially envisioned doing four community conversations to gather stories, solutions, and concerns from marginalized folx in our City. Soon we realized we needed to expand those sessions and create more opportunities for smaller discussions with vulnerable populations.
In between February and April, we determined which groups to reach out to and our schedule and strategies for each session. We launched our public engagement phase in April.
What we have heard and learned
We have hosted four focus group sessions, centering the voices and experiences of different groups:
- April 24 – Black, Indigenous, People of Color
- April 29 – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQ+
- May 1 – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Immigrants
- May 8 – Black, Indigenous, People of Color, People with Disabilities and Neurodivergent
At each session we’ve heard concerns and stories unique to people’s lived experiences. It has been an honor and privilege to share space in which these community members can be vulnerable and speak authentically. It has been a testament to why it is important to continue providing these types of spaces that center the voices of people who are marginalized.
Here are some themes we have heard in multiple sessions:
Making a stand and being accountable: Community members feel that the City should make a strong public stance against racism and White supremacy. We need to own up to past and current actions by taking responsibility for and recognizing our own racism/biases and their impacts to marginalized people.
Hiring more people of color: Community members want to see more cultural diversity represented within City government: City elected officials, leadership and staff and service providers.
Relationships and engagement: Community members ask that City staff actively build relationships across jurisdictions and with community organizations to increase reach, represent community needs and leverage resources.
Policing and criminal justice: At least a third of the input from our focus groups have been about police/criminal justice reform. This data will be incorporated into the City’s Reimagine Public Safety community process, which will critically analyze and re-think the City’s public safety systems including policing, corrections, prosecution, public defense and courts.
Throughout this process, we have been sharing notes with session participants and City staff, including City leadership. While the future Commission will not directly advise City staff, leadership has welcomed the Focus Groups’ and Founding Members Work Group’s input on operations. They are responding to what has been heard at the Focus Group Sessions by identifying short and longer-term tasks, such as anti-bias training/coaching for all City staff, incorporating equity/racism questions into hiring practices, improving website accessibility, and establishing a more efficient and effective way for community members to submit complaints. When we solidify the list of likely responses, we will share it out on our Engage Olympia webpage.
What comes next
With completion of the all-community conversation on May 22, we will transition to our formal data-analysis and recommendation-drafting phase. Over the next several weeks, we will dive into the stories, the concerns and the solutions shared with us from our community and put together a recommendation on what this new commission will look like: its focus, its first-year work plan and even the name.
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Our original plan was to hold a fifth focus group session centering members of Olympia's unstably housed community. The Work Group sought out guidance from community advocates and subject matter experts to ensure that we structure the conversation thoughtfully and in a trauma-informed way. We learned that - before asking for their input - we need to invest in long-term relationship building with this community and have resources available to respond to immediate support requests. Realizing that this was beyond the scope of work for the Founding Members Work Group, because of the limited time and resources available, we decided to cancel the fifth focus group.
Does this mean that the unstably housed population does not get to provide input to the formation of the Commission? No. We will draw from stories, concerns and solutions gathered from them during 2019’s One Community Plan to help us craft our equity commission recommendations for the City. We are also discussing how the permanent Commission can continue engagement and partnerships to support the unstably housed community.