Civic diversity program adds to its ranks
They came from the same part of the world to the United States ages apart — one 40 years ago, the other just four years ago — but Shara Noori and Heidar Gohari are graduates of this year's Beaverton Organizing and Leadership Development (BOLD) program.
More than 100 people have completed the program, which is conducted in partnership with Unite Oregon, since its start in 2011. Mayor Denny Doyle has credited it with dramatically increasing the number of people of color to almost half the members of city advisory boards and commissions.
Doyle said the program offers them a different perspective on government, which many newcomers view with suspicion based on corruption, ineptitude and repression they encountered from government in their former homelands. He said when they complete the program, they are no longer hesitant to get involved — and they can offer something to U.S.-born residents in return.
"For Americans who have been here generations, we do not have all the answers," he said. "Somewhere out there, there are answers from them that we can apply and blend them."
Paolo Esteban, who works for the city's cultural inclusion program within the mayor's office, said several graduates have gone on to deeper civic involvement — and not just with city government.
"We have been lucky to have been part of their leadership development," Esteban said at a recent City Council presentation. "We continue to track leadership development outcomes for our alumni. We will wait to see what this group gets involved with."
Shara Noori and Heidar Gohari took different routes to get into the program, which produced 16 graduates this year.
Noori came to Beaverton four years ago from Kurdistan, which is not a nation but a distinctive homeland for Kurds that covers parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
She taught at a university for 10 years, and worked as a journalist and manager, before her family fled as refugees.
"My family and I have been grateful that Beaverton is so welcoming," she said. "People are friendly and kind. They are open to foreigners like us. But we know there is still work to do."
Noori said Beaverton offers a different civic culture from her homeland.
"Where I am from, the city council does not provide the opportunity for ordinary people to meet with members," she said. "If I compare here to my country, everything looks so different and exciting."
Now that she has gone through the program, Noori said, "I want to take what I have learned from this program and help other refugees," she said. "A little help may lead to a big change for somebody's life."
Gohari came to the United States 40 years ago as a student from Iran, which then was undergoing a revolution that ousted the last shah (monarch) and installed the current republic run by Islamic clerics. After he earned a master's degree in computer science, he stayed in the United States 15 years, then returned to Iran for 10 years to help his parents.
He returned to the United States 18 months ago and settled in Beaverton.
Although he has been involved in business and technology groups, he said, "I wanted to learn more about leadership from the city perspective, which involves all types of people in society.
"I learned how to be a good communicator, how to get involved with the city, how to understand people's needs and help people achieve their goals. I want to continue to help Beaverton be inclusive of people of all types of backgrounds."
A diversifying city
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in every three Beaverton residents is someone other than a non-Hispanic white — and one in five was born outside the United States. Oregon's largest concentration of Asians is in Beaverton and nearby unincorporated communities.
A decade ago, after Doyle was elected mayor — the chief executive of city government — he reached out to Kayse Jama, founder and executive director of Unite Oregon, about how the city could do better. Among the goals of Unite Oregon are goals are racial and social justice for immigrants, refugees and rural residents.
"When I won the election, we started talking about how we could reach out directly to the community in a way that benefits them in terms of learning how government works and not to be fearful of government," as was the case in many of their former homelands, Doyle said.
"So we came up with this program, and this is our seventh class. They are comfortable talking with us about what challenges they have and what they are facing."
He said the program isn't limited to government, but touches on practical aspects such as how to operate appliances they may be unfamiliar with.
Esteban said other participants in this year's BOLD program hail from Iraq, Mexico, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The program is run with assistance from Unite Oregon, which has offices in Beaverton, Portland and Medford.
"We believe communities thrive when people are equipped with the tools to solve whatever challenges confront them and take advantage of the opportunities presented to them," said Sushma Raghavan, field director for Unite Oregon.
Sh said 59 people applied for this year's program, 32 of them living outside city limits. Sixteen were ultimately accepted as participants.
Councilor Marc San Soucie said the program could be expanded if Washington County were willing to contribute. The new board chairwoman is Kathryn Harrington — who is married to San Soucie — and who has set expansion of diversity, equity and inclusion as a county goal.
"I think it would be worth it to take another run at the county and see if they would be willing to put some funding into this program," San Soucie said at the end of the June 25 presentation.
NOTE: Adds comments from Mayor Denny Doyle
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