5 Questions with Lori Stegmann, First Asian American Multnomah County Commissioner
This past November, Commissioner Lori Stegmann made news for the being the first Asian American elected to the Multnomah County Commission. The Commission itself made news for other reasons: for the first time in its 162 year history, this year’s Commission is all women and is made up of mostly people of color.
APANO interviewed her in January to ask her about her her historic win, how Portland can combat homelessness, and how women’s reproductive rights can be safeguarded.
- Congrats on being a part of this city’s historic all women, majority minority Multnomah County board. What does this moment mean for you?
Being a newly elected minority woman to the Commission means a great deal to me. For me, it is proof of the American dream - that an immigrant like me can come to this great country, rise above poverty, and be given the opportunity to live up to their potential. But as John F Kennedy said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required". That is why I have always chosen to serve my community and I look forward to continuing to do that as the first Asian American ever to serve on the Multnomah County Commission.
In my capacity as Commissioner I hope to serve as a role model for women and especially communities of color. When I was growing up I never saw anyone who looked like me who was in a leadership role. And certainly there were very few women role models. Seeing is believing. And if I can inspire these future leaders to a higher calling then I will know that I played my part in passing the torch.
- In an October interview with Street Roots, you said, “While the socio-economic status has improved for many in Multnomah County, it has had an inverse relationship in East County. High poverty, high crime, lack of available housing, an insufficient transportation system and low graduation rates have come home to roost here.” As Commissioner, what specific policies approaches do you plan to pursue to see that residents of East Portland are not left out?
I want to see us building thriving communities by integrating services like, transportation, housing and access to jobs in one location. Next month, I will be taking a tour of The Villages of East Lake, in the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. They are experiencing a remarkable turnaround, and are having success escaping inter-generational poverty using what they call a “Purpose Built Community” model.
In 1995 East Lake was known for its drug activity and violence within 650 dilapidated, dangerous public housing apartment units. The crime rate was 18 times higher than the national average. The employment rate was only 13.5%, 59% of adults relied on welfare, and only 4% of residents earned incomes over the federal poverty line.
Today, The Villages of East Lake is a beautiful and thriving, mixed-income community. Violent crime has been reduced by 95%. All adults receiving government housing assistance are working or in job training. And only 5% of adults rely on welfare.
This is a phenomenal success story and one that perhaps we can replicate. I am excited to research best practices like this and see how we can apply those lessons here in East County.
- According to the Guardian, four homeless people have already died in Portland this year, largely due to the cold weather. As Commissioner, what will you do to help combat homelessness?
Homelessness is such a complex issue. I believe it is a symptom of poverty. What drives poverty is the larger question - drug and alcohol addiction, poor physical and mental health, trauma, low educational attainment, institutional racism, housing instability, segregated communities, lack of investment or some combination of these and other factors?
We need to take a holistic approach that equips our kids at an early age to have access to resources that prevent them from drowning in poverty. Unfortunately there is no one single solution. It is going to take hundreds if not thousands of steps in the right direction. I am passionate about providing the kind of leadership needed to pull people and organizations together to row in the same direction.
The recent snow and ice storm challenged our community’s capacity to provide emergency shelter. My heart is heavy that we lost those four people. We simply have to do better.
While it is horrendous that we lost anyone, I believe that we saved hundreds as well. Our network mobilized quickly to open community-based warming shelters throughout Multnomah County. More than 700 additional people were provided shelter over a six day period. Advocates and staff pulled double and triple shifts. Residents dropped off food, coats and blankets and volunteered to staff shelters. Churches and community centers opened their doors. I am grateful to all of those folks who rose to the occasion to serve our community members in need.
- Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a spike in the number of incidents of bigotry, particularly against communities of color. What policies does Multnomah county plan to pursue to safeguard communities who are feeling especially vulnerable right now?
I am so proud to work alongside a Commission that will fight for the rights of communities of color. We recently adopted our “Sanctuary County” resolution to show solidarity for the rights of all of our residents. It is imperative that our community knows that Multnomah County and our Sheriff’s Office will continue to protect our community regardless of citizenship status.
Multnomah County provides services and resources to all residents. Our libraries, public health clinics, and SUN schools are examples of places our neighbors can go to receive information, services and support. We also employ a number of Community Health Workers who represent many communities of color. Those boots on the ground can help make sure everyone’s voice is heard.
- With the new Trump administration dismantling the Affordable Care Act, many of our members are worried about a possible loss of coverage. What do you plan to do as Commissioner to ensure that all Oregonians have access to full reproductive health coverage?
Accessible, affordable healthcare is foundational to the success and well being of not only Multnomah County, but our entire Nation. The emotional and economic benefits of keeping someone healthy far outweighs the cost of treating someone sick. I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
It should be noted that the County is the designated Board of Health and that we will continue to provide healthcare for our most vulnerable residents. And while there is uncertainty with the new administration, our mission to provide quality healthcare will continue.
I will continue to stand up for accessible reproductive healthcare by fighting any attempts to limit women’s access to the full range of reproductive health care options.