May 17, 2017
From Peter Lawson, Member of the Malheur County Equity Team
In order to create a long lasting impact, Equity for Common Good in Eastern Oregon created a practical, yet transformational, plan to advance equity by meeting communities where they are and allowing them to set the pace. The very intent of this project is to allow local communities do their own their work in advancing equity. Often in rural, remote, and isolated communities, people feel pressured from outside organizations to take on initiatives that are not their own. After in-depth dialog, the Malheur Equity Team identified a common thread, lack of hope. If every person has equal access to hope, our communities would look much different. This notion was pared down to simply, “HOPE FOR ALL.”
The Past Informing the Future
My name is Peter Lawson. I am a member (associate, partner, joiner, fellow, supporter, sympathizer, empathizer, adherent, participant, representative), and, for the purposes of this message, delegate of the Malheur County Equity Team; an ongoing effort to build a Movement–a values based consensus between entities and Community–in a region traditionally known for its ultra conservative politics, chronic poverty, and sharing a name with a wildlife refuge now forever associated with an infamous “occupation” of its buildings and land, rather than the culture of its people.
I should add for context that I am a middle-aged white male of European heritage born in Manchester, England. I recognize that for me to write about issues of equity and diversity is, at the same time, to attempt to flag my privilege and own my own implicit biases. In this same breath, I must also own that I am not a counselor, an educator, or a mental health or allied professional.
I do, however, know a thing or two about a life informed by certain types of stigmas/minor trauma (from which I’m sure I have been shaped). When I was younger, my mother and I were in a circumstance that required we rely on governmental assistance (e.g., welfare and food stamps–which in those days were the actual “monopoly money” stamps rather than the attempts at more dignified mechanisms used today). Moreover, I had a health condition (childhood leukemia) that required I take medications resulting in significant weight gain, while severely limiting my ability to participate in the same activities as other children on the playground. I know–at least to some extent–what it is to have been bullied for being different.
Later, during my high school years, my mother suffered from mental health issues and I waded through the challenges and navigated the external judgement of others related to her situation. Finally, I reached a place where I was no longer able to manage my own care and began a cycle of “couch surfing” that lasted the majority of my senior year before finding the stability of a friend’s committed parent who offered me a place to stay, a structured environment, a focus (education), and assistance to provide my mother resources without being a “parent” myself.
I was so lucky. My deck had the right cards in it. My life, though chaotic, had much of the framework and infrastructure it needed. Even in the worst of times, I had the construct of friendships, family, and mentors that afforded me both the “gracious space” to grieve for myself with the vision to encourage my potential and the guidance to help me avoid repeated cycles and major pitfalls.
Not everyone (in fact some might say fewer now than ever) has that kind of access to those kinds of basic resources. Not everyone across our region has access to HOPE and that is something our cohort–a diverse group of people and backgrounds (education, non-profits, private sector, etc.)–are intent on creating and ultimately ensuring beyond our initial attempt at creating a Movement.
Let me share that it is a difficult road. We are learning that a movement is more than the finite “project” many of us who’ve taken varying degrees of leadership training or who’ve volunteered with a local civic club are used to (much to the frustration of some in our group who want to see the results RIGHT NOW). This isn’t a “paint the house” or “sell the paving stone” kind of thing. Even though there are “timelines,” it isn’t a “six months and done” effort.
A Place to Start
The place we started was with a Values Based Exercise in a framework provided by Bill Grace. In that exercise, we established the “gracious space” to acknowledge one another, to start with themes that unite us (family, love, and community rose to the top immediately), and to develop from there.
Of course, HOPE is and must be a thousand different things to a thousand different people. To pull at one thread is to unravel the fabric of it all. That said, we began to see where HOPE isn’t in the area (and where we have opportunity to shine our light). If we do a little reverse engineering based on our group’s input.
HOPE exists in the ABSENCE of societal structures that block it
HOPE is in the LACK of prejudice and ignorance (racial, socioeconomic, and otherwise)
HOPE lives in the place of self-confidence, not self-doubt (especially for “at risk” populations)
HOPE thrives in the place of high expectations for ourselves and community
HOPE is in the access to basic resources like child care that increase personal and family stability
HOPE is the light in enlightenment
HOPE is in the ERADICATION of fear and the elimination of discrimination
HOPE is in not being confronted by trauma or at least in the supportive structures that manage it when it happens
What’s already begun to happen as a result is that, much like my wife and I having recently purchased a Ford Escape, what once was something we’d notice only episodically is now (in the case of the vehicle), something we see EVERYWHERE.
What We’ve Achieved
For Ontario specifically (notable because it serves as a hub for the region on both sides of the Oregon/Idaho border), the Movement has begun to gain traction in associated activities and innovation of those involved.
- Within the personal relationships of the Cohort, we’ve already found forums to discuss how to better support a quiet but significant LGBTQ Community in the area.
- A recent event held at our Four Rivers Cultural Center offered critical information and an intentional safe space to individuals and families seeking critical resources related to an ever changing immigration landscape.
- In the same breath, we (the Team and Community) have become more aware of an increasing Somali refugee population and the need to provide wraparound services and support (to the extent that the aforementioned Cultural Center will be providing office and meeting space resources for representatives of this culture and others to provide a “one stop shop” including translation and other services as applicable).
- The group is working collectively on a “Compact” to be shared with and signed by key stakeholders in the Community (e.g., the community college, hospital, city councils, and school districts) demonstrating a commitment to equity, diversity, and ensuring access to HOPE with mechanisms to revisit the concepts and best practices regularly, establish common metrics and goals, etc.
- At the same time, a pilot “Cultural/Stakeholder Advisory Board” is being formed to inform the City of Ontario (with initial approval having already passed the council).
There’s more, of course, but there are still tremendous barriers to overcome in order to change hearts as well as minds–some of which remain firmly entrenched. Even so, we have HOPE and will continue to Share that HOPE as long and as often as anyone will listen. Some might call it activism or advocacy. I like to think of it as being pleasantly persistent for a Movement that, at the end of the day (or year, or ten years, or twenty that it may take), we hope will ultimately let us tell the story; NOT of our poverty, or bias, or struggle, but of how RESILIENT we are, have always been, when we are working on solutions together.