Equity steering group: many residents living ‘different version of Camas’

Camas officials recommend several measures to help city feel safer, more welcoming for increasingly diverse population

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A social justice activist holds an "All Black Lives Matter" sign in downtown Camas during a counterprotest of a "Back the Blue" rally on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

The push to “keep Camas, Camas” and retain the city’s vaunted “small-town feel” may be alienating many Camasonians who do not identify with the city’s white, cisgendered, heterosexual or Christian communities.

“Some families and individuals are experiencing a different version of Camas,” Camas Mayor Ellen Burton told Camas City Council members this week. “These are our friends and neighbors who live in similar houses to ours, drive similar cars, work similar jobs and whose kids attend the same schools. However, they don’t necessarily feel safe and represented. The ‘small-town feel’ that we continuously strive to create becomes one of alienation and anxiety. Opportunities available to some, are limited for others.”

This was the gist of a report Burton and other members of the city’s Equity Steering Committee — city councilmembers Greg Anderson and Bonnie Carter — presented to the council during its workshop on Monday, Nov. 1.

When it comes to issues of equity in Camas, Burton said, “there is a strong cry for the city and local businesses to take a stand.”

“The city not coming out with a statement (during the height of the Black Lives Matter marches following the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020) made us look like we stood with extremists,” Burton added.

The city established an equity advisory committee in December 2020 to address real and perceived inequities in how the city serves its community

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are priorities for the city,” then-city administrator Jamal Fox said on Dec. 7, 2020, calling the city’s formation of an equity committee “a step forward for our community.”

The three city officials appointed to the equity steering committee held held listening sessions with diverse members of the Camas community — including many residents who identify as members of the BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) communities — earlier this year.

“It was an honor to listen to our citizens … and we pulled common themes from those listening sessions,” Carter said.

Burton said the committee reached out to other partners in the area, including the Camas School District, to better understand how other jurisdictions and government agencies were approaching equity, diversity and inclusion.

“We wanted to understand what worked, what to expect,” Burton said.

The equity steering committee members held seven 90-minute, virtual, small-group listening sessions from April through August of this year.

“It was very eye-opening to hear what community members were experiencing,” Burton said.

Many of the people who took part in the anonymous equity listening posts said they did not have the same feeling of safety and representation many of their white, cisgender, heterosexual Camas neighbors might take for granted.

“Overall, it doesn’t feel welcoming or safe,” one participant noted.

“I can’t hide what I look like. I don’t feel safe putting up a sign,” said another.

“(When I hear) ‘Keep Camas, Camas’ … I laugh,” said another resident. “What’s the hidden message there? Let’s not ‘keep Camas, Camas.'”

One said if Black leaders left Camas, they would not feel comfortable in the city. Others said seeing Pride flags made them feel safer.

“Representation is huge,” said one participant.

“Representation is critical,” said another. “The more the city can do to bring in different groups/entities … It’s not organic.”

One participant said: “It’s very simple … (seeing) similar looking people around them increases confidence.”

And while many participants said the city “needs to be braver” when it comes to equity and inclusion, and “move into the 21st century … (because Camas) is not a small mill town,” they also said some things in Camas were moving in the right direction.

“The city needs to be very intentional (in) what they do,” said one participant. “The library is very intentional … the library is for everybody.”

In fact, members of the equity steering committee said they heard a lot of praise for the Camas Public Library and its diverse programs and inclusive events.

“We heard the Camas library really stepped it up and went above and beyond to have a welcoming environment,” Carter told other city council members on Monday. “Almost every listening session brought up the library.”

Many residents said they especially appreciated the Camas library’s public chalk art project, which allowed residents to write messages in chalk on the public sidewalks surrounding the library during the height of the 2020 BLM marches and national outcry against systemic racism.

“That came up favorably … the ability of the library to use chalk art as a way of personal expression,” Burton said Monday. “A high school student said public art is really important in terms of creating a (more welcoming) culture and environment, that it helps relieve some of the tension.”

When groups associated with far-right ideologies and white supremacism came to downtown Camas — and when unknown members of the community defaced many of the chalk artwork that favored the Black Lives Matter movement — it surprised many of the Camas residents interviewed by the equity steering committee.

“Some were absolutely shocked and scared and devastated by the actions and words of some residents,” Burton said. “This drove them to be much more cautious and change their behavior.”

Many BIPOC community members said they had conversations with their children about “always being polite and respectful so nothing would be misinterpreted,” Burton said. Some no longer allow their children to walk by themselves, and one woman in a bi-racial marriage said she no longer feels safe walking in her Camas neighborhood.

On Monday, the equity steering committee recommended several strategies to move the city forward in its equity, diversity and inclusion work, including:

o Increasing awareness of all in the community;

o Supporting diversity using visual cues like flags and stickers supporting equity and diversity

o Hosting staff training on issues involving diversity, equity and inclusion

o Updating the city’s value statements to be more inclusive

o Recruiting and training diverse staff, board and commission members

o Creating more opportunities for personal connection

o Partnering with community and cultural organizations and hosting community events to further support efforts of equity, diversity and inclusion

o Expanding partnerships

o Building community awareness

The city officials also recommended creating, recruiting and supporting an Equity Advisory Committee — as an ad hoc group in 2022, with the possibility of creating a standing committee in the future — that would consist of seven to nine members diverse in their socio-economic levels, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, life stages, nationalities and races; be supported by city staff; and be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by city council members in 2022.

The steering committee members said they would like the Ad Hoc Equity Advisory Committee to focus on four themes: safety, representation, small-town feel and opportunities.

“A ‘small-town feel’ is where people look out for each other and develop deep, personal connections,” Burton said. “How can we do more to create a welcoming environment for each and every one of us?”