Native American leaders: It's time for action on poverty in the region
The region's Native American community is struggling and needs more support and engagement, Metro leaders were told Thursday in a lunchtime presentation.
Representatives from the Native American Youth Family Center and the Coalition of Communities of Color gave an hour-long presentation to about 30 Metro staff members, as well as councilors Rex Burkholder and Shirley Craddick and Metro Council President Tom Hughes.
Most of the presentation focused on data, showing that many of the Portland region's 40,000-plus Native Americans are struggling with poverty, equity and education.
"The information that's contained in this report is unsettling," said Donita Fry, an organizer at the Native American center, "but we ask that you see the resiliency and strength of our native community."
It was the rare time that Metro leaders were urged not to try to debate numbers, the unusual challenge that wasn't faced with well-meaning solutions from planners and politicians. Most of the hour was devoted to listening.
The numbers, presented by Nichole Maher, the center's executive director, don't just show that Native Americans in Portland are facing challenges. Maher's presentation showed that support for children is particularly lacking.
Nearly half of Native American children in Multnomah County live in poverty, Maher said, compared to 14 percent of white children. Native American couples with children in Multnomah County average $50,540 in income; the same white couple averages $80,420. Native Americans are 23 percent less likely than whites to graduate from high school in Multnomah County, and their unemployment rate was 70 percent higher.
Rey España, the center's community development director and a policy advisor to the Community Investment Initiative's equity group, said solutions involve more than just talking about equity. He urged Metro to measure progress, so there's accountability to back up the regional government's talk about equity as a goal.
"If we can't measure this, it's not going to matter," he said.
And, España said, the conversation goes astray when people talk about being colorblind. While Metro's goals for a successful region say the benefits and burdens of growth and change will be distributed fairly and equally, support for communities of color has historically been lacking.
"They've suffered where they live," España said. "The lack of access. The lack of accountability in public structures. That's the kind of environment we live in."
Maher pointed out that the underrepresentation of Native Americans in social service programs, like affordable housing and Head Start, means that those programs and others will need to re-think their priorities if they want to be equitable.
"With diminishing resources, I don't think the answer is going to be 'Can we get more resources?'" she said. "There will have to be some redistribution of resources, and that's hard for people."
The group had some praise for the regional government, particularly its long-term planning work. But the key is thinking about that work on a human scale, España said.
"The 2040 Plan begins to address the Seventh Generation Concept, the long-term vision," España said. "In that positive spirit, I think the challenge today is… in an equitable way, how do we move forward while recognizing the disparities?"
Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rey España's role in the Community Investment Initiative. España is a policy advisor for the initiative's equity group. This version has been corrected.