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Monthly event supports diversity at work, in community

Madison Savary is used to being the lone black person in a crowd in Portland.

But it doesn’t bother her much, having spent four years at the University of Oregon before moving to Portland to work as a summer intern at Wieden + Kennedy.

“Obviously, I noticed that I’m one of just a handful” in Portland, says Savary, 21, a Los Angeles native. “But it’s not so much an issue, given that everyone is so welcoming and nice.”

Still, Savary was one of 128 interns who attended a networking event on the Portland Spirit called “Say Hey!” last month. The goal of the quarterly event is to welcome new professionals of color who’ve moved to Oregon or Southwest Washington within the past 18 months.

Now in its ninth year, the quarterly event is a project of the Portland Business Alliance’s nonprofit Partners in Diversity group. It happens at different locations, depending on that month’s sponsors. The Portland Spirit, Clackamas County and Kaiser Permanente hosted the June event on the Portland Spirit.

“Often, young people come for the summer and don’t connect, don’t learn about the community and consider careers, and go somewhere else,” says Vicki Nakashima, a Partners in Diversity board member.

Many companies also use it as a chance to recruit diverse talent from across the country.

Or to just show their interns that Portland is a great place to live and work, beyond just the summertime.

“In an internship situation, you’re still courting them,” says John Casey Mills, a partner at the downtown law firm Miller Nash LLP, one of 38 employers on the cruise in June.

“Most were really fresh from out of town. It was really nice to see them cross-connect with each other.”

Miller Nash sent its five summer associates to the June event. “Say Hey!” has been a quarterly event in Portland since 2006, picking up more interns, employers and Partners in Diversity members each year. It began with about 250 attendees in 2006; now attendance sometimes grows to 600.

Next, on Aug. 21, they’ll meet at the World Trade Center in downtown Portland, with sponsorship by PGE. In November, Miller Nash, Travel Portland and the Portland Art Museum will sponsor the event at the art museum.

Both public and private employers come from diverse sectors, including law, medicine, engineering, computer science, public health, business, research, and sports and recreation, among others.

This time around, some of the employers present included Portland Center Stage, Oregon Sports Authority, Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, and Portland Parks & Recreation.

Local business leaders admit Portland can be isolating for people of color who are new to town.

“I talk to people again and again who walk into the Portland airport and there’s nobody else of their color,” says Mills, of Miller Nash. “They have no support system, no family, and no one else like them around here. These events are really important to foster diversity.”

Mari Watanabe, executive director of Partners for Diversity, says the intern “honorees,” as they’re called, are surveyed after they participate each year. “The comments we get back reaffirm we’re doing the right thing,” she says.

Savary, the Wieden + Kennedy intern, says she hopes she’ll be hired on at the end of the summer, but if not, she’ll turn to her contacts — including those she met at Say Hey! — for employment.

“I’d love to live and work here,” she says. “Portland’s weird, but a good kind of weird.”

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