Data are clear that big inequities exist in our system. People of color fare worse than whites on nearly every metric.
Even if you and I are not bigots, we live and work in a system that is racist. Rather than accept the status quo, all of us who set policy and procedures in our work or civic life must improve our systems where they negatively impact people of color. While I am a middle-aged white woman in the system, I see problems. Here are some examples of how systemic racism occurs locally.
“Last hired, first fired”: When an organization has labor agreements mandating the most recently hired employees are let go first, this disproportionally impacts people of color, particularly in a community like Clark County. Residents who are Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, and other people of color generally are younger, have moved here more recently and therefore are more likely to be the “last hired.”
Internships: Does your company have internships that are not publicly advertised or only open to employees’ children? Today, internships are important first steps for young people, especially those aspiring to professional positions. Unfortunately, too many internships are only available to those “in the know.” Because traditionally people of color are less likely to have these types of jobs, their children are less likely to have internship opportunities. When you are looking to fill an internship, reach out to Clark College, Washington State University Vancouver, NAACP, LULAC and similar organizations for assistance.
Boards and commissions: Are criteria for citizen committees set to ensure a broad spectrum of viewpoints or are the qualifications so narrowly set that only people with extensive resumes and important job titles are selected? Are meeting times set when working people can participate? Is training and information provided to help members be successful? Facts can be learned; diversity must be experienced. We will never move forward as a community if our citizen groups do not reflect the diversity of our citizens.
Public place names: Do our streets, parks and schools have names representing the diversity of our community? Naming policies have a role in ensuring we celebrate the contributions of our diverse community and provide role models for all of our young people to live up to.
Inclusion: As a manager do you actively go out of your way to make people of color feel comfortable in your workplace or do you just hire them and let them fend for themselves? In a traditionally white community like Clark County, white leaders have an even greater responsibility to make sure employees of color feel valued and included.
It is fair to say many of these policies and practices can impact anyone, particularly other systemically nondominant groups such as people who are low-income, disabled, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Most leaders have good intentions and do not purposefully create racist practices, but people of color still struggle disproportionally because of policies or practices that we fail to dismantle decade after decade. This is how systemic racism feeds itself even without ill-meaning leaders — it requires only that we do nothing to correct racial inequities.
We all benefit from intentionally engaging a more diverse perspective that better reflects our community, allowing us to lead better. I encourage you to take a deep look at your organization to begin to make change. We can do better, Clark County, and we will!
Holly Williams is a 40-year resident of Vancouver, former HP engineer and Evergreen Public Schools director. She is chair of the City of Vancouver Parks & Recreation Advisory Commission.