Popular education works with immigrant and refugee community leaders because it is something they can relate to based on cultural and historical background. It’s a style that we know as indigenous cultures, for example, myself as a Somali refugee. It’s based on people sharing knowledge and having open space to solve and create space where people work together. So it’s part of our culture even though we may not have the same words for it.
Everyone brings something to the table, to share, and everyone has a certain expertise, life experience, or different training, historical techniques or information. For me, a key principle is that we are all equally responsible to learn from one another.
Another key aspect of popular education lies in decentralizing information and knowledge. you can take it to the people—into their neighborhoods instead of assuming or insisting that they come to the organization.
The Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO) started 4 years ago when a Somalian Muslim leader, the head of a mosque, was arrested in the airport. The police could have picked him up any time, but they arrested him at the airport, shut down the entire airport just to create fear. So we started to organize.
For the first year and a half, we held public forums two times a month where local community members came, shared and discussed their issues. We wanted the center to be grounded in the immigrant and refugee community, to be led by immigrants and refugees. At the same time, We opened the gates for everyone. Quickly, we found that we were over-run by white allies—more and more white allies were coming, and less and less refugees and immigrants. Then we realized we had a big problem on our hands. So we spent 3 months restructuring and defining our constituency. Over that time, we defined the structure to a membership organization and defined who is our constituency and who is our allies and who is our supporting members.
Making Space for Refugee and Immigrant Community Leaders, Redefining Leadership
In our leadership development work, the work with immigrant and refugee community leaders is done in parallel with the work with white allies. To eliminate racism we have to engage folks on race issues. The white and Anglo community needs to be challenged to eliminate and understand racism itself. Our work is divided equally in engaging the white community and the work with immigrant and refugee communities.
In the popular education trainings we examine who has the power, how is it created, who makes the decisions, who is disadvantaged. So that we help people to understand power. For example, if you are first generation you’re are a "constituent" member. If you are second generation U.S. born then you are an ally. When someone joins, they learn the roles. It’s not perfect but it is part of the process of learning.
We do ongoing training with immigrant and refugee community leaders and members to build their analysis, organizing skills develop the tools they need to have an impact in their community.
We define the popular education style at the beginning of the process. We help folks move away from the “I thought you guys are experts” mode. As soon as I define it people love it and feel impressed and feel free. It creates a level of trust and relationship with everyone. In a lecture style class, 1 or 2 people speak, people don’t get to know each other. In a popular education, the dialogue is not directed at the facilitator, it is the interaction between the participants.
“You can’t just learn and walk away”
Generally after students graduate we ask them to an action. You can’t just learn and walk away. We ask them to do a small project to practice and have impact in the community. Eventually, in the last two years we see multiethnic immigrant and refugees groups are creating strategic campaigns to impact community issues and work cooperatively.
CIO, is still young, but I can see that we’ll be thinking about popular education as a model for decentralizing power to build the movement.
Last October in Portland, Oregon, we passed a resolution to protect rights of all immigrants. Portland is the first city to pull out of joint task force with FBI. The Mayor is now proposing to establish a day laborer center. There are some pretty severe political repercussions, including a series of raids in the last few weeks but we have made some progress.
We are now planning to get ready for the 2008 election and 2009 legislation and we are expecting to have to fight at least 3 anti-immigrant ballot initiatives.
We have also just started a community leadership development program, with a heavy emphasis on refugee, Arab and Muslim populations. In this program, we also work with other organizations in Portland that organize with progressive white, Latino and African American communities, as a way to build our internal analysis, and also build bridges between communities. Other trainers have worked with the Native American community, so we have modified the BRIDGE immigration timeline to reflect Oregon’s KKK history and add Native Americans’ experience of children being stolen to attend federal government boarding schools. That conversation showed us that refugees from Europe and refugees from the global South have some very different understandings of racism and colonialism, and still, that there are class differences in the refugee community, based on skin color and education.
At CIO, we are not talking about black and brown, we are talking about Somalis and Ethiopians, Congolese and Liberian, Mexican, Korean, Palestinian and Afghani community leaders working with other Latino leaders, African American leaders, and progressive white folks. And we are working on redefining leadership to honor the contributions of people who are leaders in the community but not recognized as formal leaders in the city. To open the space for their leadership, we have had to work with the progressive white allies to step back and support the work as appropriate, and also to challenge the version of leadership that is exercised by gatekeepers in the refugee and immigrant community. That’s our vision of new refugee and immigrant community leadership for Portland: vibrant, diverse by race, origin, age, and a leadership that opens space for future generations of leaders.
Based on an interview with Kayse Jama, by Diana Pei Wu.
Kayse Jama is the interim Executive Director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), based in Portland, Oregon. Before that, he was a New Voices Fellow at the Western States Center, working as a Trainer/Organizer. Born into a nomad family in Somalia, Kayse left when the civil war erupted, and finally found sanctuary in Portland. An original founder of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Kayse is also an adjunct instructor for University Studies at Portland State University.