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Q&A with Dianne Riley, Coalition for a Livable Future

What is your primary charge as Equity Agenda Coordinator for the Coalition for a Livable Future?

I came on in April 2009 to this newly created position, designed to take on the third phase of the Equity Atlas Project. The first phase was the research that produced the Equity Atlas, and followed by education and outreach conducted by the CLF team with a lot of community partners. Through conversations with local groups, 16 action items were identified to become part of the equity agenda. My job is to shepherd those 16 initiatives along.

Why is it important for the region to examine equity?

Equity is an issue that challenges just about every group, population and region in the world. We undermine our prosperity when we aren’t making sure that people have equitable access to equity – when they don’t have the education and the economic supports to develop themselves and ultimately give back to society. If there are certain groups of people that are underserved, they never get that opportunity to participate as fully as they might.

What was your career path leading up to your current post?

I started out being interested in business, and wanted to open a restaurant of some sort. After working in restaurants for a number of years, I began to come in touch with what’s at the core of business, which is about building community. I went back to school in the early ‘90s to study human ecology, exploring ideas and philosophies about community building, democracy, and how people relate to each other.

Toward the end of my studies, I got a fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. That allowed me to travel for a year – nationally and internationally – looking at questions around economics and urban development. Returning home, I spent a lot of time in community organizing, union organizing, and becoming immersed in some of the politics around what it takes to create and sustain a community. I ultimately ended up going to grad school at the University of Wisconsin, getting my graduate degree in Urban Planning. Then I came to Portland to join up with CLF.

How did the work on the Equity Atlas come about?

It was 2002 when the Coalition began to take up the atlas. The process was influenced by earlier conversations with groups that were grappling with issues such as affordable housing and the environmental benefits of planning. In 2007, after five years of information gathering and research, we produced the first equity atlas of its kind in the nation. A lot of community partners and government entities have really appreciated having it as a resource for data, as well as the questions in raises.

Access is always an important question related to equity and that was at the crux of a lot of issues that surfaced. Access to affordable housing, access to transportation options, access to education – all of these things were really examined deeply.

How does your work impact communities of color?

Unfortunately, communities of color typically have histories of inequity. Histories where they haven’t been served as fully as the white population, in terms of having access to resources. Communities of color are served whenever equity questions are raised. There’s a way in which bringing those issues to light can really help the larger population get a handle on what we need to do in order to address equity.

There are so many different groups that have legitimate powerful concerns around equity. At CLF, we have focused on the concerns of people of color and low-income communities. Whether they are majority groups like women and workers, or minority groups like people with disabilities and LGBTQ communities – these populations have equity concerns that need to be addressed. What we have done with our outreach is to ensure that we’re touching different kinds of people and ensure those folks are heard, even though we may not have their data incorporated into the current atlas. We’re looking at updating the atlas, and incorporating findings from groups that have not been represented in our work.

Since the atlas came out, jobs and health disparities have become important and critical issues in our equity work today. Green jobs are something that I think we – as a community – have some capacity to address in the near future. There’s a growing momentum around trying to move that forward.

The next iteration of the equity atlas will also look more deeply at health disparities. We know a lot about social determinants of health: how your work environment, the neighborhood where you live, contribute to your lifestyle. We have known for some time that health outcomes are different for different groups of people. We are really interested in seeing that health disparities among communities of color are addressed. That’s a very complex task, requiring a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted approach.

What is the foremost challenge in helping organizations develop an equity agenda?

There’s a real hunger from both individuals and organizations to see change. The question is, how do we facilitate real, concrete change? Trying to get our head around measures we could take to actually produce change is challenging.

One of the most challenging aspects of my work is helping people believe that positive change is possible. We’re so frequently bombarded by negative news, that we feel overwhelmed. We tend to forget that good things can, and do, happen all the time. For me, a first step is helping people to stay positive and feel that we can do something by working together.

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

I really enjoy meeting people. Being able to sit down with all types of people, and find out what’s important to them, and share what’s important to me, and engage in these types of conversations – it’s pretty exciting.

Too often, we don’t recognize that someone’s ethnicity, gender and other factors contribute to our worldview and lived experiences. How those pieces come together makes each of us unique. Everybody has a powerful mix that they bring in. Being racially mixed, being a lesbian, being a woman, being born in a particular era – all these things help me understand issues in a really critical way. I try to bring all those assets whenever I’m working on equity issues. Using the filter of my experience to understand the issues as deeply as possible.

We’re living in such an amazing time. There are great challenges, but there are also tremendous opportunities for transformation. As the housing crisis was starting to happen, and the economy starting to meltdown, there was a moment when it was apparent that we don’t have to have poverty. We can reconfigure things in a way that really pushes not just beyond the ups and downs of a chaotic economy, but we can go deeper to get to the core issues. We have an opportunity to push forward the cause of change.

Colors of Influence :: Summer 2010

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"We undermine our prosperity when we aren’t making sure that people have equitable access to equity."

"We are really interested in seeing that health disparities among communities of color are addressed. That’s a very complex task, requiring a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted approach."

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