Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Oct. 21, 2020

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Vancouver’s diversity task force feels new urgency

Board aims to improve representation on city council, beyond

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

The last meeting of Vancouver’s Community Task Force on Council Representation — a group aimed at increasing diversity among the city’s leaders — was in March.

By the time the task force finally reconvened remotely on Thursday, marking the end of the long hiatus linked to COVID-19, there was a lot to talk about.

Calls across the nation for increased accountability among city leaders and police, especially from the Black community, have added a renewed sense of urgency to the task force’s mission, some members said. And the novel coronavirus outbreak has highlighted holes in the safety net during times of crisis, especially among vulnerable populations.

“Recent events, has that changed our perspective on what the task force should be doing?” Tanisha Harris, one of the members of the group, asked on Wednesday. “Me, personally, I think it’s a yes.”

“When we’re looking at all these things, we have to look at it through an equity lens — not just a racial lens, but also a socioeconomic and poverty lens, too,” Harris continued.

Harris, a Black Vancouver resident who’s also running for the state’s House of Representatives, said the task force’s mission intersects with both COVID-19 and with protests for racial justice. The unique circumstances of this moment in time will need to be taken into consideration as the group resumes, she said.

“I think all of it is very relevant to the work that the task force is doing,” Harris said.

Diana Perez, another member of the task force, said there’s widespread awareness for racial justice among the general public, and new momentum among those pushing for change.

“I think there’s been a huge impact on how people are seeing the issues,” Perez said. “It’s going to be prudent for us to take that moment, and use it to really make a difference. That’s my hope.”

The task force

The city council formed the Community Task Force on Council Representation late last year. The seven-person advisory board was instructed to come up with ways for Vancouver to diversify its government so it better reflects the people it serves.

As it stands, all six members of the city council and the mayor are white. They’re also all homeowners, though half of the city’s population rents. Most councilors live in or near the downtown area, while about half of Vancouver’s population lives in the eastern portion of the city.

The task force was, in part, an outcome of the city’s charter review process, when councilors were strongly urged to consider adopting electoral districts. Districts, the thought process went, would mean that candidates for city council could launch smaller-scale campaigns, potentially eliminating some of the hurdles in running for office. Removing those barriers could let people from a wider variety of backgrounds run — citywide campaigns require a bounty of time and money. Districtwide campaigns, less so.

Instead of adopting the charter review recommendation for districts, the city council formed the diversity-boosting task force in October. Its current members include Perez, Harris, Mary Elkin, Pat Jollota, Glen Yung, Michael Martin and Aemri Marks.

Originally, the group had planned to meet monthly, deliver its recommendations to the city council in July, and then potentially get a districting measure on the November ballot. That timeline was derailed by COVID-19.

Now, the task force may have to wait until 2021 to advocate for a ballot measure, Harris said.

“We’re all anxious to get back to work. So much has happened in the last three months,” she added.

Momentum of the moment

Electoral districts are just one tool of many that could help improve representation among city councilors, Perez said.

The issue of diversity impacts more than just the city’s top governing body, she continued. All across Vancouver, different boards, commissions, panels and advisory groups could benefit from a wider array of voices.

Now, with a renewed sense of urgency about the importance of diversity in leadership among the broader public, the task force may have the clout to push for more, Perez said — she wants to advocate for programs like a youth council, a multicultural leadership center and a sweeping barrier audit to look for factors that might be blocking people of color from taking on government roles.

“I think it’s important for us to be clear on what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not going to solve all of the issues, but we need to not come up with the same thing that has come up before, with the same discussion over and over again,” Perez said.

She also emphasized that the task force meetings, which are taking place over the phone, will be open to public comment. If residents want to speak or provide written testimony in future meetings, they should contact Shannon Ripp in the city manager’s office at 360-487-8607 or shannon.ripp@cityofvancouver.us.

“Whatever we come up with will have to be beyond the norm,” Perez said. “It’s a start. We could do more. We could be radical.”

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