Legislative Summit Builds on a Vision and Promise of Racial Justice in Education

Lawmakers and community gathered at the Summit to spark deeper collaboration during Oregon’s 2021 Legislative Session.

Community leaders and policymakers in dialogue at FBO's 2021 Legislative Summit.
Community leaders and policymakers in dialogue at FBO's 2021 Legislative Summit.

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

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

What should a racially just public education system look like in Oregon? And how will we get there? With a new legislative session around the corner, these questions brought Gov. Kate Brown, state legislators, and community-based leaders together at a virtual Legislative Summit to advance community vision for a more inclusive, equitable, and racially just education system in Oregon from early childhood to college and career.

More than a one-time listening session, the virtual Summit opened a dedicated space for policymakers and community advocates to meet, exchange stories and ideas, and build deeper relationships to drive collaboration during the 2021 Legislative Session and beyond. The Summit, hosted by Foundations for a Better Oregon (FBO), came as the country reeled from the white supremacist insurrection that stormed the nation’s Capitol just 24 hours earlier. 

“Supporting our children to feel seen and heard, to know they belong, to learn, to question, and to challenge—it’s not the only solution” said Whitney Grubbs, Executive Director of FBO, as Oregon reckons with systemic racism and the corrosion of democracy. “But it sure feels like a strong start.”

A sense of determination pulsed through the Summit, starting with the morning’s keynote address. “A principle of major systems change—particularly in public education—is to stay with it,” said Cyrus Driver, senior director of the Partnership for the Future of Learning. “The work is not easy, [and] will frequently be uncomfortable for many when it comes to race and difference. It will not be perfect, and will never really feel finished.”

Yet Driver pointed to the landmark Student Success Act (SSA), Oregon’s statewide equity plans, Tribal History/Shared History curriculum, the “All Students Belong” ban on hate symbols in schools, and the State Board of Education’s Black Lives Matter resolution—the only statewide statement of its kind in the U.S.—as evidence of structural and cultural change that ought to inspire policymakers across the country. “The work happening for education in Oregon is worth doing,” he cheered. “Powerful work that is just beginning.”

Oregon’s strides toward racial justice and equity in education are in no small part thanks to community-based and culturally specific organizations who are advocating for policies and investments informed by their on-the-ground experience and expertise in supporting historically underserved children and families. To shape the way forward, community-based leaders introduced the Oregon Partners for Education Justice 2021 Legislative Agenda at the Summit, explaining why building on the promise of the SSA and investing in community-driven solutions is so critical to ensuring Oregon’s education system supports all children to learn, grow, and thrive, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.  

To bring the impact of community-centered policies and investments to life, more than thirty community advocates joined over a dozen state legislators, another dozen legislative staffers, as well as state agency and philanthropic leaders for in-depth breakout sessions. These conversations, which were co-facilitated by Sen. Lew Frederick, Sen. Michael Dembrow, and Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, elevated stories and solutions from advocates representing the Coalition of Communities of Color, EUVALCREE, FACT Oregon, Adelante Mujeres, KairosPDX, and Latino Network, among many others.

“I felt like the black sheep in the room as an AP student of color. I was usually the only one that wasn’t white in my classroom,” said Roberto Gamboa, the operations director at EUVALCREE, in one breakout session as he reflected on his high school experience in Ontario, Oregon. “And it wasn’t necessarily because other students didn’t have the abilities I had—there just wasn’t the opportunity, and there wasn’t enough engagement with our parents.” He went on to spotlight why partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations like his are critical to ensuring equity investments actually reach underserved children in rural Oregon’s rapidly diversifying student population.

Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, the chair of the House Education Committee, expressed her gratitude to Gamboa and many more community leaders in the virtual room for their collective advocacy on behalf of Oregon’s children. “I hear you. And I see you. And I hurt, just like you,” she said, recounting the exceptional pain the past year brought upon families of color. Calling on her colleagues in the statehouse to lean into deeper collaboration with community, she asked: “How can the legislators who are at the Capitol partner with you, the organizations who are serving our communities, in ways that we haven’t before?”

In her address to the Summit, Gov. Kate Brown doubled down on the call to invest in historically underserved students in partnership with community—investments that promise to create a stronger education system for all. “[I]t is long past time that we take decisive anti-racist action here in the state of Oregon,” said the Governor. “Everyone knows actions matter. We have to create racially affirming learning environments.”

Looking ahead, Gov. Brown highlighted the strong alignment between the Oregon Partners for Education Justice legislative agenda and her Recommended Budget for 2021-23, both of which urge the Legislature to fully fund the SSA and increase investment in Oregon’s statewide equity plans, including the African American/Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Latino/a/x Student Success Plans, at a time when communities of color are disproportionately impacted by last year’s historic wildfires and the ongoing pandemic. 

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, the Oregon House Majority Leader and one of the legislative architects of the SSA, reminded Summit participants how the new Student Investment Account (SIA) fundamentally shifted the way Oregon’s 197 school districts spend state funds to support historically underserved students. The SIA requires districts to engage students, families, and communities in a collaborative way as they design equity-centered investments to address unacceptable disparities and improve outcomes.

“For too long, the Legislature has talked about accountability as, ‘Hey, give us a report!’” said Rep. Smith Warner with a grin. Through the SIA, Oregon introduced a “new kind of accountability: an ongoing conversation between schools and community. Accountability is not punishment—it’s support for schools, students, and communities so they can be successful.”

Indeed, new research examining SIA community engagement processes shows that when policymakers and school districts design policies in true collaboration with—and not for—the communities they serve, they find answers with more texture and relevance. This in turn leads to greater chances of success, said Megan Irwin, one of researchers commissioned by FBO to study SIA community engagement, because both districts and communities are invested in staying the course and forging new partnerships. 

“The Student Investment Account has shown us that community engagement is not just something ‘nice to do,’ nor is it a one-time or some-time activity.” said Irwin at the Summit. “It’s a core strategy ... to improve outcomes for students. We can’t do it without families and communities leading this work with us.”

Even as community-based organizations work day and night to support children on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, they are deeply engaged in advocacy and stand ready as partners in policymaking. Heading into the 2021 Legislative Session, community-led movements like the Oregon Partners for Education Justice, the Reimagine Oregon Project, and Oregon’s Early Childhood Coalition are “all indications of ignited hopes and visions for what is possible,” said Janet Soto Rodriguez, Deputy Director at FBO, who served as the Summit’s MC.

“We know that major shifts in public education are not only possible, but they have happened.” said Soto Rodriguez, closing the Legislative Summit with a call to action. “And they are happening. We are fighting for them.”