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Racial Equity in Multnomah County: Ben Duncan (Part Two)


This is the second post in our two-part series about the session led by Dr. Flojaune Cofer and Ben Duncan, each from a public health background with a focus on health disparities. They addressed ACEs in the context of health equity at their panel entitled ACEs, Race, and Health Equity: Understanding and Addressing the Role of Race and Racism in ACEs Exposure and Healing. The panel occurred at the 2018 ACEs Conference:  Action to Access co-hosted by ACEs Connection and the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, CA. The first post focused on Cofer’s presentation can be found here, while this one highlights content presented by Ben Duncan.

Dr FloDuncan (pictured, above right), is the chief diversity and equity officer for the Multnomah County Office of Diversity and Equity in Portland, Oregon. One question underlies all of his work:

“How can we create a world, starting with their own organizations and communities, that will reduce or eliminate racism as a source of toxic stress?”

He joked, "Everyone wants change but no one wants to change," before he detailed the four-part focus of his work which is "what I mean when talking about racial equity work."

  1. The distribution of resources - Income, as well as who has access to information and power.
  2. Systems - Are they sustainable and do they sustain all people?
  3. Meaningful community engagement - In general, but particularly in communities of color. This means, “more than just a seat at the table or being present, but having the ability to impact decisions that affect one’s life,” he said.
  4. Embodying equity and empowerment in daily life. This, he said is the daily and day-to-day work we all must do. It includes specific practices, how we operate, manage and also how we show up and do this work both in and as institutions, organizers, and individuals at work, at home and in the community.

Three words center the work of Multnomah County and are in their workforce equity strategic plan, he said. They are: Safety. Trust. Belonging.

“Safety, trust, and belonging are the core fundamental elements of what it is to feel human, be whole, and have a sense of value,” Duncan said. They serve as the "north star framework" that connects all work done in Multnomah County in libraries, criminal justice, health and human services, IT, and facilities departments.

He joked that not all government strategic plans would include a heart (see image) but Multnomah County does. “This is heart-based work,” he said, done by people with a “love of community,” and “a radical imagination of what this world could look like.”

While he shared tools, reflections, and stories gathered from his role as chief equity officer, work he began in in 2012, he stressed that there are no cookie-cutter solutions or shortcuts. The process matters, as does engagement.


“The value that we held is if we don’t center voices of those most negatively impacted, then we weren’t doing our work,” he said. “When we talk about belonging,” he said, “we must remember… the opposite of belonging is 'othering'.” And so asking, “Who do we other? How do we other through our narratives, structures, neighborhood designs?” is critical.

Duncan shared the Equity and Empowerment Lens (racial justice focus) (see image below and strategic plan for more details).  

He shared other key questions and consideration central to the work of the Multnomah County Office of Diversity and Equity that may be helpful to other organizers and organizations.


  • Who is impacted and how?
  • How are people situated in relation to a particular issue?
  • Are people most impacted fully included?
  • Are the voices of those most impacted heard, lifted up, and centered?
  • Do people have a place to check in, weigh in, and dissent?
  • Do people feel valued?
  • Are people going to be traumatized or retraumatized by an  issue or decision, which, in order to answer, he said meaning “we have to be able to answer that is to know the impact of trauma.”


  • Consider resources: How are resources distributed now and in the past? “We have entire communities that have felt years and years of disinvestment, like a separate place that no one cares about," he said. Seeing investments going to the same neighborhoods is retraumatizing. "What does it say to communities and individuals in communities that feel they don’t matter?” 
  • Examine power: Talk about power. Not just structural barriers, benefits and burdens. How are decisions made and who is accountable and what does it look like to authentically share power? This question, he said, must be asked by anyone with positional authority.
  • Measure success and incremental progress: He said that every department in Multnomah County has an equity officer, and that was something that took years to happen.
  • Measure effectiveness: Doing this work means you have better policies and less disparate outcomes particularly for communities of color. Ultimately you see population outcome levels shift.
  • Have patience: “We’ve had pervasive disparities that existed for eons,” he said, and so the work is ongoing. It takes years to “shift norms and expectations about what we should be.” 
  • Build on success: “As much as this is about changing what’s wrong, it’s also about realizing and lifting up what’s working. Part of the work is to say what are the models that are working? Who is doing it well — not just as window dressing and using right language,” he said.

Despite all the good work done and being in done in and by Multnomah County, he said, “We have 6,000 employees,” where “racism and disparities still exist. What was done as part of the strategic plan and workforce equity improvement process were public board meetings where employees showed up and told their stories about racism, discrimination and harassment to board of county commissioners. They talked about safety, trust and belonging.” 

“I don’t think we’re unique in this regard,” he said, about employees' experiences of disparity. “What is unique is that Multnomah County is a place invested in an infrastructure and in building community,” he said, and that’s hopeful.

“What was unique,” about the process, he said, “is that we did not just have employee trends data, but that we had their stories right there in room. We had to feel their pain, it wasn’t a bar graph we were showing. Employees spoke about the racism, homophobia, ableism — things people experience every day. These things impact lives, work and health.” 


Employees showed up for one another, he said. Being part of one of the many Employee Resource Groups (ERGs, see image above) was meaningful, and for some, the one thing that kept them doing their jobs and work on behalf of the county.

The value of listening and honoring experiences is to build community, trust, and to “translate our stories into solutions,” to better “design spaces, to facilitate and analyze own data and develop strategies," he said. 

One thing he learned while “cutting teeth” as an environmental justice community organizer was that “communities that speak for themselves best protect themselves,” he said. Open meetings, listening meetings, and ERGs are important and also provide spaces for people to share, challenge, and challenge policies and leaders. That's healthy and necessary.

Duncan shared some specific approaches and concepts most meaningful for Multnomah County, such as “targeted universalism,” which he also called “equity 2.0,” a concept based on the work of John Powell from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Equal Society, at UC Berkeley.  


Targeted universalism sets a goal, such as having 100% of kids graduate high school with a focus on understanding the barriers that have prevented that from happening. Understanding how “investments and pathways for different children need to be deeply understood as relates to how people are differently situated in relation to social fabric,” shapes future policy and action, he noted.

Some other key components of the racial equity leadership work in Multnomah County are:  

  • Empowerment: “I don’t believe there’s another jurisdiction in the country that includes empowerment as part of framing,” he said, but Multnomah County does, because they realize, as a government, “we caused a lot of the harm.” He said that policies around criminalization of drugs, for example, is just “one of hundreds of examples of us being responsible for creating policies that have created harm in communities.”
  • Impact: “We have to understand who is impacted and who benefits in the planning of making policy,” said Duncan. We have to get in and really understand that because, many of what we deem “unintended consequences are also preventable if considered in the beginning.”
  • Intersectionality: “Our intersectional identities are incredibly important,” Cofer had said earlier in the same session. "My sisters who are Muslim and also black don't walk through the world same way as black women who are Christian. People of color who are LBGTQ don’t walk through the world the same way people of color who are straight do.”


Duncan stressed how important understanding intersectionality has been and is to all of his work, including as a father and husband. Despite having a partner who also does equity work as a profession, he and his wife found themselves falling into gender stereotypes and patterns around who cooks, cleans, does yard work and takes out the trash. Even when they made weekly lists dividing up chores and responsibilities, “she was always the one making the list,” he said.

“I spent my whole life confronting my racial identity. I spent my whole life thinking about what it means to be a biracial man with a Jewish mother, black father, navigating that,” he said, “I did not do that work my whole life to understand what it meant to be a man. I’m complicit in maintaining patriarchy in my own life.”

This is work “we have to do this work every single day,” he said and we can all “challenge ourselves every day to dismantle these systems.”

“How we do our work matters," Duncan emphasized. "How we operate and engage human beings who are feeling consequences (negative or positive)” is important. “This is about shifting the way we operate as government. This is not transactional work — it’s transformational work if we’re doing it right.”

Special thanks to Donielle Prince and Dana Brown. Donielle organized this amazing panel, helped keep racial equity top priority at the national conference, and wrote the introductions to both blog posts about this session. Dana Brown, who is always kind, generous, and brilliant, helped monitor this very full room and session, along with CYW staff, which enabled me to attend the full session.


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