Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

Message from the President: Black Lives Matter

By Mark Mitsui, PCC President.

Dear Friends,

The image on June 2nd of thousands of Portland residents populating the entire span of the Burnside Bridge in protest of injustice and in solidarity for the movement for Black Lives is a moment I won’t soon forget. It was sadly borne out of the image of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he died and has graphically underscored why a movement such as Black Lives Matter is needed. The death of George Floyd is a tragic manifestation of the historic, systemic racism and anti-blackness that runs long and deep in our nation. It is made manifest by inequitable access to so many areas of American life, elements that many of us would consider to be basic, from housing to family wealth to health care to education. And to life itself – the average life expectancy at birth for African American men is at least nine years fewer than the average life expectancy for white women.

Racial Battle Fatigue
  • Portland Community College’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice means everyone must engage and challenge systems of oppression. President Mitsui and Chief Diversity Officer Tricia Brand discuss how PCC is creating change.

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Here are just a few pieces of evidence of the systemic nature of racism in our society.

•Housing – Portland has a long history of exclusionary zoning, racial covenants and redlining practices that have systematically excluded and disadvantaged families of color when it comes to home ownership. According to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland has a history of racist planning. “ . . .  Meanwhile, people of color, particularly the African American community in Portland, have repeatedly been burdened, excluded, displaced, and otherwise harmed by explicit and implicit racial discrimination and segregation.” (p. 23) . . . “White households have experienced inequitable benefits from homeownership. White households in single-family neighborhoods have accumulated wealth through rising home values, further contributing to racial disparities in wealth. In addition, higher value mortgage interest deductions exist in these more expensive, historically exclusive areas (see Fig. 12), which results in a greater federal subsidy for those who retain wealth in their homes than those who do not (p. 24).

•Family Wealth – In turn, home ownership impacts family wealth. According to McKinsey (2019), the median white family has more than 10 times the wealth of the median African American family, making the transfer of wealth between generations of African American families more difficult.  Household income is another important factor in family wealth and data show that the most recent, and longest economic recovery on record bypassed the African American community in the Portland region (p.8).

•Racial disparities permeate multiple areas of life in this country. To name a few: Access to healthcareinfant mortality; disproportionate rates of incarceration; disparities in high school graduation rates , and disparities in college completion.

There are many more.

I do not offer these examples in support of a deficit theory–that there is something wrong with us people of color. On the contrary, I posit these and other conditions of life as an outcome of systemic racism, e.g. government policies and cultural practices that have intentionally or unintentionally impacted generations of communities of color.

The path to reversing history is and will be a long and difficult one. Former President of Spelman College, Beverly Daniel Tatum, likens anti-racist work to the moving walkways in airports. If the direction the conveyor belt is moving is the status quo (i.e. toward sustaining racism), then an active racist is a person running in the same direction as the belt. A passive racist is someone who is just standing still and letting the belt carry them in the same direction. To this person, they may not feel that they are doing anything “racist,”  but they are also not willing to go against the “flow.”  An anti-racist is faced in the opposite direction and is walking against the direction of the belt. Needless to say, it is hard work and is counter to the design of the entire (status quo) system. This anti-racist work, then, is and must continue to be, systemic and long term.  And it is difficult.

Imagine if you had to live, walking against the conveyor belt of life, against the “flow” of a system that was not built with you in mind. How tired would you be? How many flights of opportunity might you miss?

There are many fronts to address when it comes to systemic racism. Education is one of them and is certainly within our sphere of influence. We know that educational attainment has a lifelong impact on students. We know that education is fundamentally and materially life changing. We know that it is linked to earning a family wage, increasing access to health care, improving one’s health, participation in civic life, etc.  And we know that racial disparities exist in terms of access to and completion of, educational pathways. Those disparities begin early in life for students of color and they persist through higher education. This is a national, historic phenomenon.

I think you share with me a belief that it doesn’t have to be this way. I hope you share with me the commitment to change.

The community college movement was born in the 1947 Truman Commission report, a report that called for a nationwide network of community colleges in order to pursue greater equality by increasing access to higher education. Anti-racist work is continuing, not diminishing, the original intent of the community colleges. My request to reconvene the Preferred Future Task Force (PFTF) in 2019 emerged from the imperative to respond to the urgent challenges facing our nation as we work toward a just, more equitable society.  The task force is working collectively and even externally to scan and address the sociopolitical issues that could affect the well-being, safety, and belonging of our communities.

One of the many things that the Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us is the importance of a spirit of resistance to the status quo, the courage to face a racist history and to walk in the opposite direction of that history. For those of us in the education sector, there are many ways that we can “walk against the flow.” One example is the transformational change effort we asserted over three years ago – Yes to Equitable Student Success (YESS). YESS has the stated vision of “recognizing the unique value, perspectives, strengths and challenges of every person who comes to PCC for education, that all students will achieve their academic goals through equitable support, quality instruction, clear guidance to persist, and an unwavering commitment to completion shared by the entire college community.”

This commitment has come in the form of interrogating and dismantling the dominant systems that our students are forced to navigate. By placing our BIPOC students at the center, the following YESS reform efforts serve to pull in the experience of those that have existed for too long on the edges of our college:  multiple measures for course placement; redesigned developmental education; clearly defined academic & career pathways; holistic and intentional advising and guidance; access to basic needs support, and inclusive and high impact learning environments. We dismantle systemic racism by fully implementing these and other, unfolding, systemic changes.

There are many ways that we can do this work. Some are more visible, some less so. However, they all add up, and they all matter. I encourage our white colleagues to avail yourselves of educational and professional development resources around transforming white privilege. Look for ongoing learning opportunities through our Office of Equity and Inclusion. Visit Chief Diversity Officer, Tricia Brand’s blog, “Woke@Work” on Inside PCC.

Colleagues of color, especially our Black and African American colleagues, I see you, I hear you, I stand in solidarity with you.

Meanwhile, the moving walkway of history continues to roll on. It’s not too late to turn around and march, together, in a new direction.

Be Well.

Mark Mitsui, College President