top of page

Rethinking Government

Interview with Mary Li

logo for Multnomah Idea Lab

Mary Li is the director of the Multnomah Idea Lab (MIL), a learning lab within the Multnomah County government that explores and tests innovative ideas to help people and communities thrive. I met Mary at the 2018 Elevating Impact Summit, where she participated in a panel focused on collaborative governance. It was so illuminating to meet someone in government who is actively seeking out new ideas and finding ways to implement them and bring them to scale.


I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we were young, my family moved to the San Francisco Bay area, first in Daly City and then out in the suburbs. I came here to Portland to go to college and became really politicized. My family was always very clear that you give to your community. That was a practice of my father, who emigrated here from China, as well as a result of my Catholic upbringing. After college, I started working in the domestic and sexual violence movement.

A lot of the government service models don’t trust and rely upon people living on a low income to know what they want and need. It can be a very paternalistic, service orientation: “You’re broken; we must fix you.” But what I learned at the feet of the women of the domestic and sexual violence movements is how things are and how the world might be. I learned what it means to be engaged in transforming ourselves, our lives, our community and the world.

After that, I did some work in HIV/AIDS in minority communities. Then I came to work at Multnomah County and I’ve been here for 28 years. So when I say I’m a proud bureaucrat, I am. I came to this work, after doing a lot of work in nonprofits, because I began to think about scale of impact. We could be doing the very best work possible in our individual nonprofit organization and we could be doing things that were absolutely life-saving to individual women and tens of hundreds of women. But it wasn’t changing the structures that were creating the need. That’s what ultimately brought me to the County.

Multnomah Idea Lab

Several years ago, the previous director of the Department of County Human Services (DCHS) took a group of us to, of all things, a conference at the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, D.C. It was this very odd thing to be in a room full of bankers, economists and researchers and the whole thrust of the conversation to be equity. Not equity from a moral standpoint, but completely transactional: that capitalism was starting to be hurt because the size of the inequity was growing so large. It wasn’t even that inequity is bad (capitalism requires some inequity), but that it’s getting so bad, it’s actually hamstringing capitalism…. What?!

However, we were just mesmerized by the conversation and we came across research by Raj Chetty, who had unprecedented access to 40 years of IRS data. His whole question is: Can the American Dream work? Is it really possible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”? Is it possible for children born into the bottom 20th percentile to make it out to the top or even to the next 20th percentile? We were struck by the import of the data.

On the way home, the director told me, “I have this really good idea. We’re going to do it and you’re going to run it.” So she created the Multnomah Idea Lab (MIL).

I have come to understand that government policy, practice, and investments have significantly contributed to the inequity experienced by our communities – the data is absolutely clear. Knowing this, I believe that government has both the responsibility to take action to address and end inequity, and has the ability to be successful in doing so.

The County is not an organization that has a history of rapid change. We’re trying to get people into a future orientation; trying to get people to think upstream; trying to get people to think about prevention. How do we change our relationship with, not just the community at large, but particularly communities of color?

Golden Intake

I was just in a presentation this morning of the County’s emergency management response and its new data mart. This is data, right? I mean like, who cares? But what it’s going to allow us to do is actually go in and find our clients in an emergency-affected area and evacuate them. I was so jazzed and so excited because now this also opens up the possibility of creating a “Golden Intake.”

Let’s say you’re living on a low income and you’re income-eligible for Medicaid. No one asks you, “Are you getting energy bill payment assistance? Are you getting supplemental nutrition? Are you getting your Earned Income Tax Credit?”

You’re income-eligible for all those benefits and more. But no one checks to make sure that you’ve actually gotten them or applied for them or know about them. And you have to apply separately: you have to go in and fill out a form that is lengthy and difficult, answering the same 10 questions about who is in your household, where you work, etc. It’s the same information each time. Of course, people don’t have enough time to do that! You’re living on a low income, you’re working two jobs. You don’t have time to go sit in an office and wait for somebody to help you.

What if we were able to take the data that’s in one intake form and populate all the rest of the other intake forms that we presume you’re eligible for, because we’ve verified your income and we know you’re eligible. Golden Intake and presumptive eligibility are now possible because the emergency management people figured out the data piece of it.

So we’re talking right now about finding a cohort of clients in the department where we can do a test with IT and the emergency management people. If we figure it out for our little cohort, we’ve figured it out for everybody.

Family Independence Initiative

The Family Independence Initiative (FII) is a national community organization, founded by Mauricio Lim Miller. It invests directly in low-income families to help them build assets and escape poverty. Each family selects a cohort of other families and together they set goals and encourage each other. FII provides direct capital investments to match these initiatives. Multnomah County is the first government site to implement FII. In just a few months, these families were already earning more, saving more and using fewer subsidies.

I first saw Mauricio Lim Miller speak 10 years ago, when he was first forming FII. I came back so convinced of the power of the model. And I’ve been working since then to get the model here. You wait and then you come back through the door again and you work and you wait for the right opportunity. Now we are the first government site in the nation doing FII, using state welfare reinvestment dollars, which nobody thought was possible. And we’ve got 100 families enrolled.

Two years ago, the MIL applied for funding from the state, through their welfare reinvestment efforts. We also got funds from Meyer Memorial Trust. And that, again, was an amazing thing, because Meyer doesn’t regularly fund government. We wrote the grant saying, don’t fund us for service to 100 families. Fund us because you want to be an innovation partner with us and you want to see if this model works here, learn from it, and use it to impact policy and systems. That’s why they funded us. They were willing to take a risk on an untested, untried approach. Frankly, it sounded crazy to some people: No case management. No services. Families enter their own data into the system. They set their own goals and then we give them cash. Unquestioned. To support them in meeting their own goals. That sounds crazy to many people.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) refers clients who have just left benefits for employment, which is a really dangerous time in a family’s trajectory, and who were on benefits for longer than 36 months. So they were coming close to the lifetime ban on assistance (after 5 years you can never get assistance, ever again). Our goal was to enroll 100 families by December 2017. And we hit that goal. The early results from these families are promising.

Accessory Dwelling Units

A Place for You is a pilot project that delivers accessory dwelling units (ADUs) or “tiny houses” to select homeowners who are willing to host families experiencing homelessness.

Two weeks ago, I went to see the first house that is almost complete and I cried when I went into it. It’s tiny, it’s smaller than 400 hundred square feet. It has a full-size refrigerator, a cooktop, a shower and a bathtub, a flushing toilet, a sink in the bathroom and a place for people to sleep. Moreover, it’s a safe and complete home. The thought of a mom and her children walking into that dwelling and knowing that they could be there for up to 5 years, out of the shelter and the motels and whatever. I cried. It’s amazing! It’s gorgeous!

We picked the sites based on just the physical characteristics (access to transportation, size and configuration of the lot, etc.), and we ended up with these four amazing homeowners who are so values-based and driven in their own lives. These homeowners are committing to host people in their backyards. They don’t choose who is in the dwelling and they get no rent for five years.

The pilot project is for four dwellings. We’re right in the permitting process now. Again, here’s a situation where people are saying it’s going to take 6 months to get the permits through, etc. And this is why government has to be in this conversation. It often does take a really long time for a private developer to get permits through the process. We were able to go to the City of Portland and talk to Commissioner Chloe Eudaly who is in charge of the bureau and her office said, “You need help to walk you through the process and expedite it.”

So they brought in representatives from all of the reviewers involved in approving permits. When we sat down with them, we were prepared to hear “This can’t happen.” But instead, they told us, “We don’t often get to do anything interesting, creative or fun, or innovative. We are so excited about this. We want to work with you and figure out how to get the permitting process expedited.”

Does it take time? Of course it takes time. But the next time this happens, it’ll go much quicker. Once it happens once, the next time it’s the practice. It’s going to be amazing!

We didn’t realize… again, this is why you test these things… we didn’t realize there could be a tremendous federal tax liability, even when we deeded it over to the homeowners after 5 years. An attorney at a local law firm called, because she saw the press, and asked us about it. She said, “This is tax law 405; you are at a very sophisticated level of trying to work this out.” Once we figure it out, we’ll publish it so everyone can have this solution; take it and replicate it, or decide it was a bad approach and do something different. We have resources here at the County that nonprofits don’t have, that the community doesn’t have, and that activists don’t have. And when we can move those resources and leverage them in a way that benefits everybody, isn’t that the actual goal of government?

The response to this project from the community, both locally and internationally, has been amazing. We talked with a French architecture firm that wants to use the concept to house refugees. Is that not why you get up in the morning? To help in any way with the refugee crisis in Europe? Come on!

And the response from the community… over a thousand homeowners contacted us about participating in the project. We did no solicitation. We’re very conscious of the fact that we could be exacerbating inequity. Because these are people who already own their houses. It’s a much different thing for someone who’s on a fixed income but owns their house and wants to do it, than someone who’s making six figures. So those are all things that have to be addressed if this goes to scale.

The applications of this idea are far-reaching. You could use it as an anti-displacement, anti-gentrification strategy. You could use it with an elders population so that someone is there on site and maybe trading back and forth, developing the relationship to check in on them. We had many people call and say, “Look, I’m a vet. I got my house through the VA and FHA. I want to build a one of these and host a vet, because I know what they’re going through….”. So many permutations. So many opportunities.

What is prosperity?

Prosperity is like code language to me. It’s prosperous families, wishing people a prosperous new year (Lunar New Year is happening right now), the prosperity of your children. It’s tightest meaning is financial and economic. As you begin to loosen it up, it becomes around family and community. When I see something that talks about a prosperous future or a prosperous new year, someone’s talking to me in language that I know and understand.

The other piece of it is around racial and economic justice. And I say justice, not equity. I’m not interested in equity. I’m interested in justice—which might talk about reparations, which might talk about remediation. The pendulum doesn’t just come to the middle of the swing. It comes over here before we come back to the middle. And in that context, I don’t know that I would use the word prosperity. I say racial and economic justice. The word “justice” feels very important to me, because it describes what I value. But I believe a just world would be a prosperous world.

What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned?

I absolutely have the best job in the world. And that’s not because it’s been easy or pleasant. That’s because it’s been hard and amazing. Both at the same time. I have learned things. I have grown. I am a different person than I was three years ago.

I think what I’ve learned… maybe it’s the power of love. And the fiercest expression of it:

Like, “I’m so mad at you, I could bite you” love.

And “This is so wrong and it requires a response immediately” love.

And “You’ve been unkind and we’re all flawed human beings, can I offer you some grace and compassion?” love.

And humility and the power of the relationships.

In the end, I think, particularly for me, but in social services as well, it’s about love of your fellow human beings. Seeing yourself in the other. Understanding that with all their flaws, they are reflecting your flaws. Can we have compassion for that? For ourselves? For being flawed and making mistakes and being stupid? So maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s love.

If we can do it here, in the belly of the beast, there is no excuse for people saying it can’t be done in other places. And again, it’s not like we’ve succeeded or won or done any of that. But can we wake up every day and show up here and just stand for another example of principle? Of justice? It does make a difference.

And we’re not the only ones doing it. People are doing it everywhere in this organization and in the world. What’s critical mass? What’s the tipping point? I have no idea. But it’s going to happen. I’m ultimately, absolutely resting in hope.

What is your hope for the world?

That we find justice for ourselves, for others, and for the world.

5 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page