2023 Legislative Summit Builds Shared Vision and Leadership for Oregon Children

Over eighty Oregon policymakers, community leaders, and advocates gathered for a day of learning, visioning, and dialogue.

Rep. Ricki Ruiz at the 2023 Foundations for a Better Oregon Legislative Summit.
Rep. Ricki Ruiz at the 2023 Foundations for a Better Oregon Legislative Summit.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Photography by Yvanna Ramos.

Louis Wheatley is Strategic Communications Director at Foundations for a Better Oregon.

Photography by Yvanna Ramos.

Oregon’s 2023 legislative session is now underway, kicking off with a flurry of activity and excitement. Just ask Sen. Michael Dembrow: “I'm exhausted,” he shared with a chuckle last month at Foundations for a Better Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Summit.

Even so, more than 80 leaders from across Oregon packed into a historic hall in Southeast Portland for FBO’s Legislative Summit, coming together during the first week of session to build shared vision for children, public education, and care. The Summit included a town hall dialogue with state legislators and insights from community leaders and advocates advancing education justice for Oregon children.

“This is an opportunity to build new connections for more meaningful and authentic collaboration and partnership going forward, both during the legislative process and beyond,” said former State Representative and House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, who emceed the Summit as a new member of FBO’s board of directors. “The more and better connections we build among ourselves and around our shared values, the better success we will have.”

FBO’s Legislative Summit gathered state policymakers, community and education leaders, and philanthropy at a pivotal moment. Oregon is grappling with longstanding injustices and shortcomings in its public education system, as well as profound new challenges facing children and families in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's easy to get overwhelmed by the gravity, the urgency, and the reality of what's facing our children,” said Whitney Grubbs, FBO’s Executive Director. “A bold, inclusive, and forward- looking vision gives us a blueprint—a North Star—to guide us. And we know a shared vision for our children is only as good as our collective commitment to make that vision a reality.”

Higher Education Coordinating Commission Executive Director Ben Cannon at FBO's 2023 Legislative Summit.
Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, author of

The Summit began with a keynote address from Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, the Chief Program Officer at Grantmakers for Education and an internationally recognized expert on public education system design and transformation.

“How do we start answering questions about the purpose of education?” asked Dr. Joshi Hansen, author of the new book The Future of Smart, as she addressed Summit participants. “What are we trying to do for young people between zero and 25?”

Most are familiar with the conventional “factory model” of public education that is fundamentally focused on core academics and workforce preparation, and has often served to oppress and assimilate marginalized communities. This model is built on one-size-fits-all educational standards and pedagogies that cannot keep pace at a time when the world’s volume of knowledge is doubling every 12 hours, and skills like communication, collaboration, empathy, and adaptability are essential.

Instead, Dr. Joshi Hansen urged Summit participants to chart a path toward “human-centered liberatory” education systems. These systems—which have existed at least as long as conventional models, but remain largely counter-cultural in the United States—are geared toward developing young people who know how to learn, and how to access what they need to thrive. From classroom design to educator training, human-centered systems are structured to value neurodiversity and integrate every child’s unique lived experience. Rather than fragmenting support across disparate programs, this approach cohesively nurtures children’s academic learning; cognitive, social, and emotional development; and sense of identity, purpose, and belonging.

Beyond policy change, building a human-centered public education system where all children thrive will demand new ways of working together. “It's emergent and community-derived,” said Dr. Joshi Hansen. “It requires longer-term outlooks and collective accountability.” She closed with a call for pluralistic leadership, encouraging policymakers, system leaders, and communities to prioritize relationships, embrace difference, engage in healthy debate, and come together around shared vision and values.

“What does it look like, as a state, if we put children in the center?”

Kali Thorne Ladd

Calls for shared leadership re-emerged at the Summit during a panel about the exponential power of community engagement. Kali Thorne Ladd, CEO of Children’s Institute, recounted how the Italian city of Reggio Emilia made a deliberate choice after World War II to not only build schools around children, but build their entire community around children.

“What does it look like, as a state, if we put children in the center? What would it mean for the choices we make on housing, on economic development, on transportation, on childcare and education?” asked Thorne Ladd. “What they knew in Reggio is that if our children thrive, our society thrives. It's a matter of us prioritizing that and making choices that are not based on the politics of our party, but truly on what's best for children.”

Centering children will also require stronger and trusting relationships between the public education system itself and the communities they serve. “I have the experience of living on both sides,” said Dr. Wei-Wei Lou, a former school district administrator in Portland and Beaverton who has also served as a 501(c)4 board member for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. “We need open, meaningful dialogue about what our community really needs and how to work together creatively.” 

Through the Student Success Act, Oregon is increasingly investing in community engagement as a core strategy to improve public education outcomes, especially for historically underserved children. But even with mandates in place, culture change must follow. “You can't make someone want to talk,” said Christy Reese, Executive Director of FACT Oregon. “If you really want to make a change or learn, then you have to step back and think about how you authentically listen to the folks you want to hear from.”

FBO Deputy Director Janet Soto Rodriguez, who moderated the panel discussion, asked Rep. Ricki Ruiz why community engagement is not only the right thing to do, but also the most effective approach to good policymaking.

Rep. Ruiz, the Vice Chair of the House Higher Education Committee, said education legislation makes a positive and lasting impact when community partners are involved in both policy design and implementation. “Delving into the specifics of how a policy will take effect is just as important as passing the law,” he explained. “It's imperative to long-term success and ensuring institutional change.”

“I want to encourage myself and encourage us all to lean into centering those who are most directly impacted. And that's students.”

Rep. Andrea Valderrama

After sparking new connections and conversations over lunch, Summit participants engaged with state leaders during a legislative town hall exploring collaborative leadership across the education continuum. 

The 2023 legislative session will require “all of us coming together to have honest conversations,” said Rep. Courtney Neron, the new chair of the House Education Committee. “That will take partnership and conversations with all of you who are serving students, whether it’s early childhood advocates, higher education advocates, or everybody in between.”

Reflecting on the morning’s powerful calls for community partnership, Rep. Smith Warner asked legislators how state and local leaders can heed that call.

“We as a Legislature can work—and do work—with local school districts to ultimately center student voices,” said Rep. Andrea Valderrama, a member of the House Education Committee. She encouraged policymakers to “lean into centering those who are most directly impacted,” especially historically underserved students who bear the brunt of educational inequities.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate Education Committee, strongly agreed. “My head is most easily turned when I'm getting perspective from students,” he said, reflecting on the importance of public testimony at legislative hearings to elevate community voices and stories.

Rep. Valderrama also urged state policymakers to “be intentional with community engagement and transparency.” She spotlighted House Bill 2710, which she is chief sponsoring alongside Rep. Ruiz, as an opportunity for both state policymakers and communities to better understand how Oregon’s State School Fund dollars are spent to support students. Improving how the Oregon Department of Education aggregates education spending data, she explained, will help the state be “transparent about what resources we have, what policy ideas we're thinking through, and what vision we have in collaboration with community.”

Rep. Neron also emphasized that state legislators must address “unfinished business” and follow through on educational equity initiatives championed by community advocates. She pointed to the need to prepare K-12 educators to teach Oregon’s ethnic studies standards with culturally responsive teaching practices and curriculum. “We’ve got to make sure that our educators have the training that they want and need to do that work well,” she said. 

As a rich day of learning and visioning came to an end, Summit participants turned their sights toward work ahead. With the 2023 legislative session already underway, Amanda Manjarrez, FBO’s Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, took the stage to deliver a closing call to action.

Manjarrez urged state legislators and advocates to support four critical legislative priorities championed by the Oregon Partners for Education Justice in 2023, which were profiled in The Oregonian after the Legislative Summit. From ethnic studies and summer learning to data justice and school spending transparency, these policies and investments can advance a more community-centered and racially just public education system. Successfully delivering on these priorities, however, will require authentic collaboration.

“As a state—as community advocates, education leaders, policymakers, philanthropy, teachers, parents, and students—we can’t solve problems that we don’t understand,” said Manjarrez. “To rebuild trust in our systems, we need to build trust with each other. That requires transparency, honesty, listening, respect, and a recognition that none of us can do this work alone.”

The call for stronger relationships and partnerships echoed one of the Summit’s most hopeful moments, heard earlier in the day from Sen. Suzanne Weber, Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee. 

“It doesn't make any difference if you are a Republican or a Democrat if you care about kids, because ultimately they’re our future,” said Sen. Weber, who spent 30 years in the classroom and sees her former students giving back to their community in Tillamook every day. “All of those people that you touch are going to make our futures better. We have to not be afraid to step over that line of party or beliefs to be able to find out what the other person can add to your experience in life.”

Foundations for a Better Oregon’s 2023 Legislative Summit was made possible with generous support from the Oregon State Capitol Foundation.