Olympia Equity and Justice Commission Begins Work

Quick. Answer this question: What can the city of Olympia start, stop and continue doing in order to be an inclusive, equitable place for all community members to live, work and thrive?

The answer is, there’s no quick answer. But there are dozens of opinions.

“Racial justice work is unlike anything we have ever done as a City organization,” Olivia de Breaux, the city’s equity and inclusion coordinator said in a recent blog post on the city’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion webpage. She did not respond to The Tribune’s request for an interview.

“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, she wrote.

De Breaux leads the city’s effort to form what is a new Equity and Justice Commission. She coordinates the Founding Members Work Group that later this year will make recommendations to the City Council on the final makeup of the commission, how it should operate and what it should focus on in its first year. It will base these recommendations on information gathered at focus groups this spring. Members are or have been Joslyn Nelson, Anthony Markland, Megan Matthews, Rusty Shekha, Tobi Hill-Meyer and Frances Beard. 

The idea for the commission, put in place to listen to marginalized community members affected by social and institutional injustice and to advise the city on how it should address institutional racism, surfaced in June 2020.

That’s when the city was experiencing multiple and sometime violent protests and accusations of racism and unequal treatment of Black, Indigenous and People of Color specifically leveled at the Olympia Police Department for its response, or lack of response, to those demonstrations, which arose in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and other Black individuals by police nationwide.

The city long has been called on to recognize the decades of institutional racism in Olympia and environs and to take seriously its role in breaking the cycle. Leaders of Black Leaders in Action and Solidarity Thurston, or BLAST, presented a list of demands to the city on June 23, and hearing nothing, held a news conference in July, lambasting the lack of action.

“We need you to support the work of Black leaders and organizers by showing up at events, redistributing your finances, taking action, holding our electeds and people in power accountable, and breaking white silence. Be accomplices as well as allies. Call out white supremacy and acts of racism every time. Continue to support the work of local justice struggles,” organizer Krystafer Brown said at the time. 

That’s what the city says it’s trying to do, although the effort has been a bit clumsy at times.

The general public was excluded from three focus groups, which were invitation-only and limited to 40 people to “create safe, affirming spaces for people who have fear around participating,” said the city’s call for participants.

The city stated the groups were not subject to state open public meetings laws and were not recorded due to the “sensitive nature of the conversations” and to protect participants’ confidentiality and safety. During the community-wide focus group, however, all participants’ identities could be seen by other participants, the consultants and city staff and council members. In keeping with its aim of confidentiality, the ideas raised in the focus groups were written down, but not who offered them. So other than those notes and memories of what occurred, there is no record of what occurred. 

Among the 64 pages of suggestions obtained by The Tribune:

  • Start: Being honest of who we are. Face the racism that exists here; making the city more accessible, include disabled people and insights into the process so they can get access; protecting the community, keeping fellow police officers accountable, structural changes to guarantee accountability when an accusation is made.
  • Stop: Stop making brown/black people the only ones doing racial justice work. We all need to do this work; making the platform for people to file a grievance as a “comment” on website; lack of diversity and insight.
  • Continue: Hiring people of color and lifting them up into important roles; enforce resolution by City of Olympia for trans/harassment/discrimination complaint;  units that are social service providers that can be dispatched; continue making efforts to connect community members, get to know and understand them.

City leadership and council members joined each focus group as observers. They have set aside two hours at their mid-year retreat Friday to discuss what’s being called “deep listening”. No other details are offered in the retreat agenda on what that entails.

The city says focus group participants value the presence of council and staff and that “knowing they are listening increases the sense that their inputs are important and will result in actions.” 

At least one participant does not feel that way. “They are half-assing accountability for the way that this town has been run for a very long time. They are not really addressing any of the issues. They are reacting to what happened last summer and trying to get (organizers) to admit to details … it didn’t seem like they really cared,” the participant said. The participant said focus group organizers seemed to think those invited to participate were speaking on behalf of everyone. “They didn’t do any work to establish a way of reaching out to BIPOC people,” said the participant, who said they were chosen due to involvement with a local organization. The participant is not hopeful that anything is going to come out of these efforts.

Participation limited

The final focus group in late May, advertised as a “city-wide community conversation,” was anything but. Registration was limited to 50 people, but just 30 were present, including this writer, and roughly half were council members, city staff and consultants. 

“There is no trust or little trust between the city and marginalized communities,” one of the consultants told that focus group. This is a test (to see if the city takes the process seriously and if more conversations are warranted). It doesn’t surprise me that the numbers are small,” the consultant said.

Other focus groups, for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and people with disabilities and neurodivergent individuals, were sparsely attended as well (the city was asked for, but did not provide the actual number of community participants), and one with the “unstably housed community” was cancelled altogether. Work group organizers said advocates and subject matter experts for that community advised the cancellation.

“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,” said information posted on the Diversity and Equity web page. Given that those resources were not available, the work group plans to draw from information gathered during 2019’s One Community Plan (homelessness response plan) to inform its recommendations.  

The city’s efforts to engage the community at large also have foundered. It asked people to comment using its very popular Engage Olympia portal that in the past has drawn hundreds of comments on subjects from housing zoning changes to plans for a public swimming pool (1,200 comments at last count). It received only 19 suggestions; two were removed by the site moderator.

Meeting with the mayor

The work group’s discussions have taken some interesting turns. One was a meeting in April that it specifically requested with Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby. 

Members wanted to know if she understood the effects of her use of the term “domestic terrorists” to describe protestors in Olympia. She has since apologized for the statements, attributing one of them to her reaction to seeing her home vandalized in mid-June 2020. She told the work group she was not referring to BLM (Black Lives Matter). “I was looking at garden-variety anarchists,” she said, adding that she thought her apology was sufficient and that she was “never referring to BLM as a domestic terrorism organization.” 

One of the work group members disagreed: “You used your platform to offer a statement of fear that seriously damaged the BLM movement in Olympia,” responded a work group member. “It was a tactic to silence their voices.”

The meeting continued in that vein for two hours, and then Selby offered this: “I appreciate you. I can guarantee you I will not run for re-election,” she said. Her term ends December 31, 2023.

One of the consultants offered this to Selby: “You need to use your bully pulpit to make a stronger statement of acknowledgement and apology on the impact of your statement on people’s lives and on Olympia. You would be showing leadership to other white people in government.” 

And while Selby isn’t running for office, five council seats are up for election this fall. Of the 14 candidates, only six, Yen Huynh, Lisa Parshley, Talauna Reed, Dontae Payne, Sarah DeStasio and Jim Cooper have mentioned the city’s equity and diversity work in their published platforms at least a passing way. The Tribune has asked the candidates for their thoughts on the issue; we will publish their answers prior to the Aug. 3. primary election.

Equity and justice work isn’t easy

In the blog post, “Adventures in Racial Justice and Equity Work at the City of Olympia,” de Breaux acknowledges that the work is tough. “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.

From the post, here’s de Breaux’s verbatim summary of what was said at the meetings:

  • 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 process, which will critically analyze and re-think the City’s public safety systems including policing, corrections, prosecution, public defense and courts.”

Re-imaging public safety is another “community-led public engagement process” with a goal to identify solutions for “reducing inequities, eliminating bias, and creating a public safety system that works for all.” At this time, it is focused only on law enforcement. It does not include issues some consider vital to any public safety discussion, such as wages and working conditions, housing stability, food security, public health, emergency preparedness and others. 

By Mindy Chambers

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