Three weeks ago, Markisha Smith gave a speech that struck many observers as extraordinary, even by the dizzying standards of the past month.

Smith, 44, directs the city of Portland's Office of Equity and Human Rights. On June 3, she stood alongside Mayor Ted Wheeler in City Council chambers, four days after protests of the police killing of George Floyd erupted into rioting. She described the moment bluntly: 400 years of oppression had reached its breaking point.

"While we anxiously await a vaccination to protect against the coronavirus, we are not looking for a vaccination for racism," she said, "because that would mean removing power and privilege, acknowledging the hate that people carry in the very fabric of their souls for Black folks."

Smith now faces a similarly daunting task. She runs an office, with a $2.24 million annual budget, that is intended to create a more just world inside the bureaus of city government. That includes the Portland Police Bureau. Her work, often ignored or misunderstood, is now in the civic spotlight.

Smith joined City Hall in February 2019. Before that, she directed the equity office at the Oregon Department of Education for six years. Smith says she will always be an educator at heart.

In this interview, she gives her assessment of the current racial climate and the plans her office has to mend it.

Markisha Smith
Markisha Smith

WW: What is the biggest misconception about what your office does?

Markisha Smith: When you have an office situated like ours is, there is this tendency to just say, "Well, they'll do it, they can fix it." It's very easy to deflect to our office if there's anything that comes up about race or disability. We can't do that without support and collaboration across the city.

Did anything you saw in the past several weeks make you reconsider whether your work is effective?

Actually, the opposite. This is the first time our work has been front and center. It feels good. Now the city employees will have Juneteenth as a paid holiday. I'm seeing our work being called out in a way it hasn't before. It makes me feel hopeful. I think that it is setting us up so that we can help hold people accountable. This is, for me, the first time I'm seeing that this can work.

Where can the city shift its spending to create more equitable outcomes?

My office does training and professional development for the employees. We have our Equity 101, which is a mandatory training employees are supposed to take that gives them an introduction to the ways in which we center race. That's great, although we have some folks who have worked in the city for 10 or 15 years who have never taken it.

We really have to think about how we are intentionally and strategically educating people, giving them information that is going to be useful in the work that they do every day with the community and with themselves. Even with all of that, folks still have got to do their own work, white folks in particular. We've been trying to do that for them, but that's emotionally heavy.

Has your office's work with the Portland Police Bureau changed in the past three weeks?

It always requires more of a stronger connection, more frequent. [The 2020-21 budget reform] is going to change who the [police] equity manager reports to. That will really have a tremendous impact on the way the work is filtered throughout the bureau. It's always been like two or three people removed from the chief. That doesn't work. The equity manager really does need to be part of the leadership team.

I'm hopeful that the way training happens for police officers fundamentally shifts, that is nonnegotiable for current officers and for anybody who's coming in. It needs to be tied to performance evaluations. Like, if we're having a training around anti-black racism and you've gone through a series and your actions in your role don't match up with the knowledge you should've gained, that's problematic.

You've lived in Texas and Michigan. Is Oregon more racist than those places? Less?

Oregon is politely racist. Living in the South, you just know. People are very clear about how they feel. It's the other stuff, the invisible. There are some things that happen that are fundamentally steeped in white supremacy, but it takes you a minute sometimes. Here, it's polite. Like, we're not going to tell you that we don't like you, but we're going to give hints that we don't. For me, that feels a little bit more dangerous, because you don't always see it coming. You don't see that until you're trying to get a promotion or navigate a space, and all of a sudden there are these barriers that start coming up. It happens in that way.

Correction: Due to an editor's error, the print version of this story misstates the annual budget of the Office of Equity and Human Rights. It is $2.24 million, not $1.3 million.