Momentum builds for new Ashland diversity commission
ASHLAND — The first reading of a proposed ordinance to create a Social Equity and Racial Justice Commission is tentatively scheduled for the April 20 Ashland City Council meeting.
The proposed new commission was last discussed at the March 2 meeting, when City Attorney David Lohman asked councilors to clarify the commission’s scope and authority before drafting ordinance language.
Councilor Gina DuQuenne, who intends to serve as council liaison to the new commission, said its formation is long overdue. The commission would operate as the living, working version of the Social Equity and Racial Justice resolution passed by the previous council, she said.
In council meetings, DuQuenne has pushed to create the commission swiftly, building on a preliminary framework supplied by Mayor Julie Akins — momentum somewhat counterbalanced by packed council meeting agendas and a cautious legal eye.
Akins’ outline defines a vision to “adopt anti-racist measures and draft a concrete plan to accomplish equity,” identify “systemic and systematic practices of racism, homophobia, sexism and classism,” assess historic marginalization of people of color and advocate for changes to “protect and promote racial and social opportunity, diversity, equity and unity.”
Akins proposed a seven-member commission of residents with backgrounds in relevant work, to be appointed by the mayor, according to council documents.
DuQuenne said through council and public discussions, some have brought forward concerns about whether white people would be welcomed onto a commission focused on social equity and racial justice.
“The answer is, ‘of course’ — diversity does include people who are white,” DuQuenne said.
For the new commission, DuQuenne said she envisions a similar relationship between the City Council, the commission and the public as she witnessed as a Housing and Human Services commissioner for the past seven years — a dedicated space for questions, presentations and thoughts on subjects of race and social equity.
“This is a no-brainer and it needs to be put in place,” DuQuenne said. “If we are going to be this city that is all welcoming and accepting and this diverse community, then we need to walk the walk and talk the talk.”
Diversity, equity and inclusion values continue to gain momentum in the Rogue Valley, as the city of Medford’s Multicultural Commission recently announced a new name and renewed set of goals.
According to commission Chair Marta Tarantsey, the group voted and approved a name change to the Commission for Access, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (CADEI) at its regular meeting Tuesday. The name change will go through Medford City Council for final approval.
“The primary focus of CADEI is engagement, outreach, best practice sharing and working as a channel for the community to communicate questions, issues, concerns and ideas to their respective government,” Tarantsey said.
Medford City Councilor Kevin Stine served as liaison to the Multicultural Commission in 2015. Stine said recently the council has endeavored to better utilize the commission as a guiding force in the city’s long-term goals to incorporate diversity of age, background and race, and help bridge socioeconomic tensions embedded in the city’s geography.
The commission’s input will inform decisions on budget, planning, public safety and generally how the city spends its money, he said, by helping the City Council to better understand issues facing residents with drastically different circumstances than nine elected councilors represent.
“In my opinion, we haven’t seen enough voices to help best inform us on how the city should grow going forward,” Stine said. “If we don’t know, we can’t do anything about it.”
Looking internally, applicants for annual board and commission appointments are nearly all white and male, Stine said.
“Not that these people aren’t well qualified, and it’s not like they don’t do a good job, but when we don’t have people from all sorts of different backgrounds providing input to the council, we’re really missing out,” Stine said.
Focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion in both Ashland and Medford exposes residents to diverse opinions within their government structure and positively impacts Jackson County as a whole, which includes residents who work in one town and live in another, he said.
Stine said through Medford’s CADEI, he sees potential for more representative boards and commissions throughout the city, improved city policy and better neighborhoods, but direction rests in the hands of seven trusted and well respected commissioners.
“We’re not going into this with a result in mind,” Stine said. “I really hope that what comes back to us are maybe the types of things that we never thought about, because that would mean that we’re doing a great job doing that reaching out to our community.”
Tarantsey said Medford City Council has shown genuine drive, enthusiasm and support for the commission’s goals, including openness to a proposed action plan with a set of strategies CADEI will encourage the council to support.
The plan, which may incorporate feedback from a larger working group, will guide the city on applying a diversity, equity and inclusion lens to internal and external endeavors, such that diversity, equity and inclusion are at the center of the work and not an afterthought, Tarantsey said.
CADEI is a volunteer commission that does not have strictly defined socioeconomic or background requirements for application, she said, though the annual recruitment process aims to incorporate all groups that live within the city and access Medford amenities.
Outcomes of the commission's work include co-sponsorship from the cities of Ashland and Medford on the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event and a Latino community and police relations project in 2014 — an “example of the city leaning in and listening to the feedback and recommendations,” Tarantsey said.
Armed with a name more attuned to the times and no vacancies, Tarantsey said she hopes the commission will liaise more closely with the city’s internal operations to suggest training opportunities and identify where the city could improve — applying individual commissioner strengths where appropriate.
Each CADEI member is charged with identifying a city body, commission or board to work with. Commissioners will attend meetings, share their scope of work, listen and identify opportunities to support each group as need arises, she said.
The former commission name and charter did not include issues facing the LGBTQ+ community or many of the other facets that have grown over the decades since the Multicultural Commission was formed, Tarantsey said.
For her, seeing Ashland attempt to create a similar organization is part of a positive and encouraging trend. A neighboring city is transforming attention into tangible action on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion that affect people across the Rogue Valley, she said.
Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.