As we all know, it is important, if not imperative, that the chamber of commerce reflects the community we serve in all aspects. Understanding and implementing are two vastly different things. Historically, chambers of commerce were known as institutions where white men met to determine policies of communities based on traditions and systems, often embedded with racist policies, rules and laws.
How do you go about creating an organization that is welcoming, safe and truly open for all members of our community? Without having the same lived experiences as others, I found we were going to be able to be intentional about our diversity efforts only if we brought diverse members of our community into our organization to listen, learn and understand barriers, restrictive policies and economic opportunities. Washington County is the most diverse county in the state of Oregon, so we have a tremendous opportunity if we get it right.
Advisory Group Beginnings
For many years we have had a Latino Business Advisory Council (LBAC), which ebbed and flowed in its participation and activities. Latinos make up nearly 28% of the population in Washington County.
The LBAC is responsible for developing workshops, bilingual networking programs such as ¡Conectate! and other supports and resources. Our Latino business community was hit especially hard by COVID, as many small businesses were not able to apply for federal grants due to citizenship restrictions. The chamber with LBAC redoubled its efforts to support and assist as well as to advocate for funding without restriction.
In 2020, at the request of several Black business owners in Washington County, the Black Advisory Business Council was established. With a chair motivated to “get things done,” the Black Advisory Business Council is very active and over the last two years has grown to include more than 20 Black business leaders.
The Black Advisory Business Council was responsible for holding the first Juneteenth event in Washington County providing opportunities for Black-owned businesses to come together to celebrate this most important holiday as well as to showcase the diversity of businesses with Black owners in the county.
Shortly thereafter, a member of the LGBTQ+ community also requested the chamber establish a council. One of their first endeavors was to create “Everyone is Welcome” window clings. The Business Council is responsible for distributing the window clings to local business owners wanting to celebrate their support of members of our LGBTQ+ community.
Momentum continues to build within our membership, and we were again approached by a member to create a Veterans Business Advisory Council. The focus and work of the council is to partner with other organizations already having veteran-related events and showcase the work of the council and the chamber, providing an opportunity for involvement and connection.
In all we have created and launched five diversity councils. The most recent council to be established was the Asian/Pacific Islander Business Advisory Council.
Each council is approved by our Board of Directors and all members of the council must be chamber members. We modified our bylaws to provide board representation from each council. They are voting members of our board and provide monthly reports at board meetings.
It is important that our councils have a voice and seat at the table where policy is set so that none of the positions we take or policies we implement have any inherent biases or unintended barriers.
The diversity councils come together every quarter to share ideas, challenges and opportunities. They encourage their members to attend other chamber events and our events are truly beginning to look like the face of our whole community.
Of all the programs, initiatives and activities we have implemented over my nearly 21 years in this role, our diversity council work has been by far the most rewarding.
It’s one thing to express your dedication and intention to diversity, equity and inclusion, but with the right words must also come true action that results in seeing your chamber transform into an organization where it’s known for providing an environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone.
Deanna Palm, ACE, is president/CEO of the Washington County (OR) Chamber.