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Public leaders recommit to racial diversity.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Repeating a gesture of three years ago, the top executives of 11 public agencies will gather Friday to sign a pledge reaffirming their institutions' commitment to racial diversity.

Organizers said Monday they've planned the public ceremony for a year or more, but also acknowledge that recent controversies - from alleged racial profiling by police to a continued exodus of minority professionals to a stubborn gap between white and minority students' results in standardized tests - make the public reaffirmation all the more timely.

"There's been quite a lot going on in this community the last year or two" around racial issues, Eugene School District Superintendent George Russell said. "Quite honestly, this is to put a little more oomph behind the push (for some progress)."

Russell identified the renaming of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the naming of a new elementary school for labor union activist Cesar Chavez as two other examples of community disputes involving racial issues.

Minority advocates on Monday reacted with a range of emotions to the news of the executives' planned public reaffir- mation.

"I think it's a good thing, because it brings another level of accountability," said Carmen Urbina, development director at Centro LatinoAmericano, a Latino advocacy group. "Hopefully, it means they're willing to go a little bit faster to make some changes, because it ain't rocket science."

Marilyn Mays, the city of Eugene's former diversity coordinator, was less optimistic about what would come of Friday's gathering.

"My initial reaction is, I'm just tired of pledges," said Mays, speaking from a cell phone from Southern Oregon en route to San Diego, where she is moving. "Besides signing the document, what are some concrete changes that are about to happen and how are they going to happen? That's what people want to know."

Mays resigned her job, and her presidency of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, earlier this year. She cited a series of racial issues, including an allegation of racial profiling made by her nephew against city police.

Mays said local governments must do a lot more - including mandatory training for all employees on diversity issues - if they are serious about addressing what she called "a systemic problem."

"We all know how to get together and `celebrate' diversity," she said. "It's time to quit celebrating and really start working on the issues."

As was the case three years ago, the pledge to be signed Friday is a general statement of principles of cooperation. The so-called "memo of understanding" notes that each agency administrator, or "CEO," will appoint staff to monitor progress in promoting racial diversity, hiring and retention.

The CEOs are also to meet together at least once a year to discuss diversity issues. The memo "does not create enforceable legal obligations, nor financial commitments."

University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer, Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy and Springfield Mayor Sid Leiken announced plans for Friday's signing in an opinion essay published in Sunday's Register-Guard.

"We strongly believe in finding ways to hear where we are failing and commit ourselves to improvement," they wrote. "Fear of making a mistake can keep us from acting with sincere friendship and authenticity, and can be just as harmful as overt acts of racism."

None of the three could be reached for comment Monday.

Eugene schools chief Russell and then-Eugene City Manager Jim Johnson were credited in 2002 with pushing the pledge idea forward. They signed the document along with CEOs of the city of Springfield and Lane County, the UO and Lane Community College, the Bethel and Springfield school districts, the Eugene Water & Electric Board and Lane Transit District.

Those 10 agencies plus an 11th - the Lane Education Service District - will be represented at Friday's signing.

The pledge taken in 2002 called for the hiring of an interagency diversity coordinator and the underwriting of an annual Human Rights Summit - two ideas that haven't materialized. Budget constraints effectively killed those ideas, said Greg Rikhoff, diversity coordinator for the city of Eugene.

Jose Ortal, diversity director at LCC, said he's skeptical about how much progress can be made without such a position.

"Without somebody to coordinate us on a full-time basis, we're going to continue to push that boulder up the hill."

The 2002 pledge also established a Diversity and Human Rights Consortium - consisting of the CEOs and the staff assigned to diversity issues - with a 75-point "action plan."

But that list was pared down to eight and then four target projects, said Terry Leary, equity and diversity coordinator for Eugene schools and chairwoman of the CEO-appointed staff group.

Leary said the group has made considerable progress in advancing racial diversity, considering the budget and staffing limitations at play. The decision to hold Friday's public reaffirmation was made in part to educate people about the extent of that progress, she said.

The group has offered "institutional privilege" training workshops to CEOs and other employees, Leary said. The workshop, devised by two UO administrators, helps show how institutions support policies that are not inclusive, Leary said.

The workshop also has been presented to City Club of Eugene members involved in an ongoing series of "study circles" about racism, she said.

In addition, the staff group has introduced "workplace climate" studies and exit interviews intended to learn why people stay at or leave their jobs, and continued efforts to improve the recruitment, selection and retention of minority job candidates, Leary said.

Leary said she understands that the progress made to date can seem modest to people outside the agencies.

"Maybe a policy hasn't changed yet, but the practices are beginning to be questioned," she said. "I think there's a willingness to consider some things that have not been considered before.

`The problem is, it's not generally on the timeline that most of us would like."

Ultimately, any progress "starts and ends with the CEOs," she said. "This is their bag."

Russell, one of those local CEOs, said he believes real progress has been made, even if it consists of a number of baby steps.

"The reality is, this is a work in progress," he said. "We've taken some steps forward and some steps backward, but I don't think that lessens the need to continually reaffirm the commitment. We understand that things have happened along the way that lead to high frustration and, in some cases, skepticism on the part of many people.

"I don't see people taking a closed-eye approach," he said. "I think a lot of people are saying, `It's time to talk about these issues, and we need to keep them on the front burner.' '

PUBLIC PLEDGE

Government executives to sign memorandum reaffirming commitment to racial diversity

When and where: 9:30 a.m. Friday, Harris Hall, Lane County Public Service Building, 125 E. Eighth Ave.

Speakers: UO President Dave Frohnmayer, Springfield School District Superintendent Nancy Golden, Lane County Administrator Bill Van Vactor; question-and-answer period to follow

Other signatories: EWEB General Manager Randy Berggren, Lane Transit District General Manager Ken Hamm, Lane Education Service District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock, Bethel School District Superintendent Steve Hull, Springfield City Manager Michael Kelly, Eugene School District Superintendent George Russell, Lane Community College President Mary Spilde and Eugene City Manager Dennis Taylor

TIMELINE

Public agencies list activities designed to improve race relations

February 2002: Executives of 10 public agencies sign pledge vowing to improve efforts to promote racial diversity

July 2002: Agency staff members hold retreat, reduce 75-point diversity work plan to eight items

September 2002: Staff members formalize their name as Interagency Diversity and Equity Coalition

September 2003: Coalition reduces work plan to four items: create diversity review for new employees; measure diversity progress with exit interviews and "workplace climate" studies; strengthen minority employee recruitment; offer "institutionalized privilege" training

January 2004: Executives and staff coalition meet for first time since February 2002 signing

August 2004: Executives get "institutionalized privilege" training

October 2004: Several agencies - Lane County, Springfield, EWEB, Bethel School District, LCC - begin workplace climate studies

March 4, 2005: Eleven executives will reaffirm pledge with public signing
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Title Annotation:Government; Friday's ceremony also will allow 11 local agencies to report on the progress they have made over the past three years
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:1342
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