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'Unite Oregon is All of Us'

Co-founder Kayse Jama steps down as Executive Director, says he’s confident in UO’s ongoing capacity to build leaders, protect human rights

PORTLAND — Unite Oregon’s first executive director, Kayse Jama, resigned this week to focus on his new role as State Senator in District 24 leaving behind an organizational infrastructure that sustains, fosters and grows collaboration for the benefit of all Oregonians. Looking back at 2020, UO staff and leaders responded to adversity and disaster, whether man-made or natural, with grit and determination, he said.

“Unite Oregon is all of us, and I’m grateful to pass the torch knowing our members and communities will receive the same commitments and levels of support that I received from our allies and partners,” Jama said. “We’re at the forefront of ideas and strategies that create an equitable society. We focus around, not building coalitions, not building alliances, but bringing together communities as a whole and saying, ‘We’re a multiracial, a multi-ethnic community with common sets of basic needs and expectations of our leaders.’ That’s the nature of where Oregon, and our country, should be going.”

Jama emailed the staff of Unite Oregon last week to formally announce the news. Jama and Unite Oregon have published the organization's first annual report highlighting the statewide response to COVID-19, police injustice, fundraising and distributing thousands of dollars to for Unite members, families and other community members in need, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and decades of systemic police violence and bias.

Jama remembered a particular evening during the early months and the sound of the loose change, mostly quarters, in his hands after finding it in the cracks of his car cushions. The treasure barely covered the cost of a cheeseburger to feed himself and his wife, Stephanie Stephens. Split down the middle, that burger was one of the first meals they shared not long after quitting their jobs to create the Center for Intercultural Organizing. 

With a bit of renewed energy that night, the couple finished what turned out to be a very important grant application, which later provided funding allowing the CIO to speak out against hate and racism experienced by Muslims in Oregon after Sept. 11, 2001. Later that first year, Jama and Stephens began selling clothes, books and more items from their home to keep their organization afloat.

“I remember thinking we might become homeless because there’s nothing left in our house to sell,” Jama said. 

The CIO would merge in 2015 with Oregon Action, which brought more than 40 years of experience in organizing for social justice. The new organization would grow in membership and begin a chapter system of volunteers ready to act for the benefit of their communities. 

The financial strain and hunger pains of those early years were worth the emotional payday he feels today in thinking about UO’s impact during 2020, Jama said. UO staff, for example, trained seven managers to lead 34 organizers, speaking eight languages, for U.S. Census participation, and reached 10,000 people across Oregon. The success of Measure 110, a first-in-the-nation ballot initiative, could not have happened without the tireless work of all Unite Oregon volunteers, organizers and staff.

In 2020, Unite Oregon distributed to 177 families about $88,500 through cash assistance and food gift cards, with an additional $13,600 raised to help 64 families after devastating wildfires in the Rogue Valley and Clackamas County. When police choked to death and killed members of our community, 

“From the start, we had known that Kayse dreamed of, and worked hard to prepare Unite Oregon for his departure into public service,” Unite Oregon Board Co-Chair Manijeh Mehrnoosh said. “Given the difficulties that 2020 threw at Oregon, the volunteers-to-leaders that we have trained all over the state, plus the programs we established to serve members and families, and the agility to respond to numerous crises, all prove that today's growing staff and Board are ready for whatever we face next in our journey.” 

The Unite Oregon Board of Directors selected Sushma Raghavan to serve as interim director. A board subcommittee has begun the process of gathering feedback from staff before their nationwide search for Unite’s next executive director. Raghavan said everyone who has worked with Kayse has their own unique and kind memory of him. Unite Oregon today employs more than 30 people throughout the state with a budget of more than $2 million made possible by private donations and grant funding. 

Looking ahead to 2021, Unite staff, leaders and organizers continue with a shared mission of equal human rights and justice through environmental, criminal, housing, economic issues. Of note, Unite organizers are providing a watchdog role during contract negotiations between the Portland Police Bureau officers and the city government. Thanks to the strong organizing efforts of 2020, Unite starts this year ready to keep more than 38,000 Oregonians, who have signed up for calls to action on issues of Black Lives and police injustice, Raghavan said.

“There’s a sense of urgency and confidence to take on Unite’s work without Kayse during what’s already a busy new year,” Raghavan said, “We’re proud to see Kayse follow his dreams and represent a bigger, and very lucky, constituency.”