2007 Prize Winner
The Center for Intercultural Organizing in Northeast Portland looks like the scene of a party. Amid bright walls painted in orange and yellow, chairs are covered in boxes of fresh pizza and bags overflowing with candy.
But Kayse Jama, the centers 33-year-old executive director, wears a pressed gray suit and a serious expression. Jama, a Somali-born Muslim, founded the center four years ago to counter the Islamophobia he felt mounting around him after Sept. 11.
All that pizza is left over from a party to kick off a letter-writing campaign encouraging grassroots organizations throughout Oregon to fight two proposed statewide ballot initiatives. One initiative would cut funding for English-as-a second-language classes; the other would require local government to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
The center has 105 members, half of whom are immigrants or refugees. It encourages participation in community organizing and local government because, Jama says, We believe that the people who are affected by the issues should take a leadership role to solve those issues. We facilitate and provide the trainings for them to organize cross-culturally, allowing the community members to take charge.
The issues Jama refers toimmigration reform, xenophobia and access to educationare familiar to him.
Jama left war-torn Somalia in 1998 and came to the United States, where he worked 12-hour days in San Diego without wages in exchange for room and board.
I suddenly found myself a Black Muslim immigrant refugee in the U.S., recalls Jama, who moved to Portland in 1999 because it was smaller and cheaper than San Diego and because he had a Somali friend here. That didnt give me a lot of space to feel empowered or respected. My goal is to prevent other immigrant-refugees from experiencing what I have seen and experienced.
Jama encourages immigrants to become organizers and take free classes at the center to learn about civil engagement. The center is working with Oregon Action and Latino Network to create the Diversity and Civic Leadership Academy, where refugees, immigrants and people of color can learn leadership advocacy techniques plus the ins and outs of local government. The centers yearlong academy will be an expansion of a six-week workshop already offered by the center.
Portland is one of the whitest cities in the U.S., Jama says. Immigrants and refugees cannot survive alone, in our own ethnic groups. We provide a space where they can come together to organize and strategize to impact the issues that they are facing.