Welcoming America begins by welcoming those here at home

September 18, 2017

Elected officials from across the region gathered alongside community leaders, nonprofit groups, performers and passersby Sunday to kick off Welcoming America week in honor of naturalized citizens and the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury stands with Koffi Dessou and Djimet Dogo

Multnomah County elected officials, mayors from Milwaukie to Portland, and Metro regional government elected leaders reiterated commitments to: hiring diverse staff, building a diverse community network, following a state law which prohibits law enforcement from assisting federal immigration authorities when a person’s only offense is being in the country without proper documentation, and fighting for a federal pathway to legal immigration.

“I work with business owners and they depend on people from all walks of life,” said Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden. “Call your member of Congress and tell them to take action on a pathway to citizenship. People who are here without documentation, it’s not their desire to be here illegally.”

On many minds was the unstable immigration status of more than 11,000 Oregonians who have temporary protection from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Others spoke of the rise in hate crimes, and an uptick in reports of hateful speech toward people of Muslim faith and immigrants.

[View a photo album of the event here]

Koffi “Jean-Pierre” Dessou, diversity training coordinator for the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, came to the United States eight years ago from Togo in West Africa. Since then he’s learned to expect very little support from strangers in Portland. Sure, someone would likely call  9-1-1 if he were physically harmed, but short of that, he said, people in the United States seems to shrug at communal responsibility, as if, he said, “Oh, I don’t have anything to do with that.”

But community — and knowing one isn’t alone —  is more important than food, he said. “Community is the foundation of our lives,” he said. “Here isolation is killing us.”

Dessou brought his 16-year-old daughter Kimberly to Sunday’s rally. He said she’s been a human rights activist since middle school. She smiled at her father, swiping at the shower of rain and browning leaves that fell around her. It’s only natural, as a woman of color and an immigrant, that she would find a passion in fights for equal rights, she said. “It draws me to it.”

Multnomah County Youth Commission member Sophia Wilson, 17, read a poem thick with frustration at the focus on white people who fight for equality, while people of color who battle it everyday are ignored, “like the dishes in the sink,” she said.

Multnomah Chair Deborah Kafoury acknowledged that too often people of color and newcomers don’t feel seen; they don’t feel welcome. And it’s no wonder, she said. “Not when thousands of young people are threatened with deportation to foreign lands they don’t even know, young people who are as American as my own kids,” she said. “Not when our own government says, ‘We don’t want you.’”

Even U.S. born citizens may feel powerless to slow the nation’s slide into nativism, but Chair Kafoury challenged people in positions of privilege and power to focus on the daily actions they can take.

“We can change the way we walk through the world. We can pay attention to all the seemingly small things we do, like offering a smile or holding open a door,” she said. “We have immense power to change — ourselves, our communities and our nation. Together.”

Many came out to be counted. Kathryn Sofich, a policy and communications manager for Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, stood in the crowd with her 12-year-old border collie mix, Anni. “I’m trying to be more present at actions that support diversity and equity,” she said.

Drummers with UNIT SOUZOU perform at Sunday's rally.

Michael Hanna, a data and analytics worker with Multnomah County Information Technology and a steward of a union representing county employees, also came out to be counted. “Supporting justice and equity in our community is one of the most important things we can work on,” he said. For Hanna, the work began by looking at his own life, and the privileges of being a white man in the United States. Then begins an effort to shift that power. At the county, he said, he often sees examples of how far there is to go. “I work to undo institutionalized racism in hiring and microaggressions faced by employees of color,” he said. “I’ve learned to be a better ally."

Workforce Equity ordinance, but that and a recent dismissal of a county Health Department manager of color spurred many to speak up about being treated differently because of the color of their skin. Onlookers choked up as staff testified. They stood to applaud and encircle speakers with hugs. It was a healthy conversation to begin, Hanna said.

“All I see are empowered people rising up,” he said. “Yes, there are deep problems in every institution. But we’re empowered to fight it. And we’re just getting started.”


Upcoming Events

Sept. 20: Join Campaign Nonviolence for a rally to welcome refugees and immigrants. Learn about faith-based and community organizations providing services to Newcomers in Washington County including food, transportation, tutoring, and resettlement assistance. Begins at 6 p.m., at the Beaverton City Library, Hall Blvd. at 5th St., in Beaverton.

Sept. 21: We Welcome Entrepreneurs Beaverton is a networking event hosted by Adelante Mujeres and BESThq. Network with state and local nonprofits, government agencies, and find resources for starting and growing a business. A fiesta with food and music will follow, 4-8 p.m., 12745 SW Beaverdam Rd., in Beaverton.

Sept. 23: Learn about Taiwan through the art of brewing tea, with the Formosa Association of Student Cultural Ambassadors. Discussion of Taiwanese tea history, display of tea ceremony etiquette and preparing mashed Hakka tea, sampling bubble tea.  From 1-3:30 p.m. at the Beaverton City Library, 12375 SW 5th St., in Beaverton.

Sept 23: The students of Wayfinding Academy are hosting a community potluck and storytime, noon to 2 p.m., at 8010 N Charleston St., in Portland.

Sept 28: Share the history and traditions of Tonga, as part of the Faces of IRCO series. 6:30 to 8 p.m., IRCO’s Sokhom Tauch Community Center,10301 NE Glisan St., in Portland. Free.