DHS Director's Message
Message from DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht and Deputy Director Liesl Wendt,
June 19, 2020
Please take the time to read this entire message.
We are experiencing a widespread movement against the violence, oppression, and subjugation of Black Americans. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dominique Fells, Oluwatoyin Salau and too many other individuals are a painful reminder that as an agency, we must be clear: We believe Black Lives Matter, and we are committed to building an antiracist and equitable agency. It is foundational to our role as a human services agency.
Service Equity is a core value at DHS. Our fourth RiSE element is Equitable Treatment and Belonging. And just earlier this week Governor Brown reaffirmed the State's commitment to racial justice and proclaimed June 19 as Juneteenth in Oregon.
We acknowledge our past mistakes with internal and external partners, and we commit to a true desire to continue to learn, change and grow. This process starts by acknowledging and owning the history of systemic racism in the United States, Oregon and at DHS.
In 1619, the first 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the Jamestown British colony, marking the start of the controlling of black bodies within the systems of Jamestown.
From 1619 through 1865, enslaved Africans fueled the American economic engine of cotton production, and in 1793 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made it a federal crime to assist any enslaved person attempting to escape bondage.
In 1865, with the adoption of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War, many believed this would be the path to freedom. This Friday marks the Juneteenth Celebration. Also known as Freedom Day, it commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free.
However, systems were put in place to restrict the movement of Black people in the south, thereby ensuring their servitude to economic powers and stopping the reconstruction effort altogether.
There were Black codes instituted, including vagrancy laws, and other practices that prohibited Blacks from holding any other occupation other than a farmer or servant. Laws were in place that required blacks to have written evidence of employment to ensure cheap labor. Instead of slave patrols, the movement of Black bodies were controlled by legal systems.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s – and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – again demonstrated the movement of many to change the landscape of America. From the Edmund Pettus bridge where marchers were violently met during a peaceful march, to lunch counter sit-ins where intimidation and violence were ever-present, a movement was forming to interrupt racism and oppression.
Yet, the history of enslavement still looms large.
Decades of segregation and later gentrification (policies and actions that displace communities of color and lower income people with the goal of attracting mostly affluent, white individuals to the area) have kept and continue to keep Black families away from areas that have better access to education, health care, food and other necessities.
Meanwhile institutionalized discrimination has hindered Black Americans' economic development. Mass imprisonment, predatory lending, red lining that devalued or made homeownership impossible. Housing is the primary vehicle for wealth creation in the United States and these unjust laws have directly led to wealth barriers for Black people. Additionally, unequal punishment of Black students, disparities in our own services and more have led us to a place today where we have much work to do to achieve racial equity.
Oregon has its own history of Black oppression and exclusion that is critical to understand as employees of the state. The very first government in Oregon established “Lash Laws" to drive free and enslaved people out of the state. When Oregon was admitted into the Union, it was the only state that had a law banning Black people from entering. The law was repealed in 1926 but the language remained in the constitution until 2001. The explicit idea was that White people would come to Oregon to form a “white utopia." These exclusionary laws did their job, which is why Portland is still the whitest big city in America and as of 2019 the state's Black population was only 2 percent. Oregon's history of oppression extends to red lining that kept Black people from owning homes to the Klu Klux Klan's power in the state to the destruction of Vanport to the leveling of Albina (two historic Black Portland neighborhoods) and more. But, as historian Walidah Imarisha points out “The only reason a Black community exists in Oregon is because of determination, creativity, and community-building."
Hearing from Black Colleagues
Transitioning back to the present, we've heard from our Black staff and community partners how difficult it is to be Black in America right now. To our Black colleagues, we hear you. You are being asked to serve Oregon while you co-exist in a world that still debates whether you matter. As an agency and as your colleagues, we will not stand for hate and we will stand with you and support you in your cause to achieve racial equity.
As leaders of Oregon Department of Human Services, we must do better in supporting and empowering Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). We must do better in creating an inclusive workplace composed of diverse voices. We must do better in acknowledging the impact of our policies that could and have had a negative impact on marginalized communities. And we must do better in understanding our role in Oregon's history of systemic oppression. We should have done much more, earlier, and moving forward, we will do better.
Today, we will start by creating a space for dialogue, learning and unlearning to begin. We want to invite allies across the agency to engage and join us as we show up for each other and the people we serve. As we move forward, we must ensure that racial equity and anti-racism are the cornerstones for our agency and that involves all of us working together.
DHS Action Steps
Individual learning and unlearning coupled with a commitment to be anti-racist is important. Yet, individual action will only get us so far. We can and must dismantle systemic racism and oppression within our work. It will take collective action and department policy changes, led by a vision developed with input from BIPOC. Words don't mean as much as action. That's why next week we will follow this statement up with a plan: “A Commitment to Action for anti-racism and racial equity at DHS."
The OEMS Service Equity Team is finalizing a draft of this plan along with agency leadership. You will have an opportunity to comment and submit feedback as we move forward.
We felt it was important to make a statement of our intent today, even though we were not yet ready to publicize the action plan. We ask that you hold us accountable, so our words and actions are in alignment. As an agency we are going to be much more active in acknowledging harm that has happened and continues to happen to Black communities and following up with specific actions.
Our commitment is to build an agency free from racism, bigotry and oppressive practices. This starts by understanding and acknowledging the history and context of systemic racism in the United States and Oregon.
Lastly, today is Juneteenth and OEMS is hosting virtual learning opportunities which we encourage you to participate in. You can find those Juneteenth opportunities on the OEMS Owl page.
We will continue to provide information and resources to all of you as we seek to educate, inform and act.