Kayse Jama, co-founder and executive director of a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants, people of color and low-income families and children, won appointment to the Oregon Senate Wednesday.
He will represent a long, narrow district spanning east Portland and northern Clackamas County along Interstate 205.
Nine of 10 commissioners from Multnomah and Clackamas counties indicated they viewed Jama as the strongest of three nominees for the position put forward by the Democratic party, who included nurse and former nurses union head Adrienne Enghouse and Democratic Party of Oregon operations director Candy Emmons.
They cited his widespread and fervent support in the community, his track record of inclusive leadership that lifts up the voices of the powerless, his personal history as refugee from Somalia who learned English as a second language and his success building partnerships that have yielded policy gains and on-the-ground progress.
Newly elected Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull was the lone commissioner who favored a different choice, Enghouse, saying she was best equipped for the issues of 2021, apparently alluding to her knowledge as a front-line health worker in the age of COVID-19.
Tootie Smith, one of his fellow Republicans on the Clackamas commission, favored Jama, despite her strong desire to see more women in office, and heartily seconded his appointment to the seat.
Ultimately, all 10 unanimously voted to appoint Jama to the Senate seat vacated Dec. 31 by Oregon’s new secretary of state, Shemia Fagan. All 10 said they were greatly impressed by all three nominees and thought each had the policy chops, lived experience and other credentials to serve as a state senator.
Jama will be the third Black member of the 2021 Oregon Senate, along with Lew Frederick of Portland and James Manning Jr. of Eugene, and the chamber’s lone immigrant and naturalized citizen.
-- Betsy Hammond; [email protected]; @OregonianPol
This month, Oregon’s Legislature swore in its most diverse set of lawmakers to date. Among them is Kayse Jama. He’s been a prominent community organizer in the Portland metro area, and across the state, for about 20 years. In that time, he’s worked to lift up the voices of immigrant, low-income and historically marginalized Oregonians.
Jama is an immigrant himself, having fled a war-torn Somalia two decades ago.
OPB’s “All Things Considered” Host Tiffany Camhi spoke with the senator about some of his priorities in his first legislative session.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tiffany Camhi: You were selected by the commissioners of both Multnomah and Clackamas counties to fill outgoing state Sen. Shamia Fagan’s seat, and your district covers parts of both counties. You’ve said that you want to empower communities whose voices are not often heard in Salem. How do you plan on doing that?
Sen. Kayse Jama: Senate District 24 is one of the most diverse districts in our state. It’s home to many, many linguistically diverse communities, immigrant refugees and low-income Oregonians. This district really has a lot of needs, but it also has a lot of opportunity to address some of the issues that we’re facing.
At heart, I’m a community organizer. I spent 20 years working with a diverse population. As an organizer, my hope is always to bring the community that I represent to Salem. And one way to do that of course, is being there. I have deep relationships with the community organizations. My hope is that my extensive experience working with the community will actually allow me to bring those diverse voices to the table.
Camhi: You were a co-founder and the executive director of Unite Oregon, which is a coalition aimed at improving racial and economic justice for people of color, immigrants, refugees and people from low-income backgrounds. How do you think your time with that nonprofit will inform your decisions as a lawmaker?
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Jama: I think just working with the community and really meeting [them] where they are and also listening. If you give them the opportunity, they will come up with solutions that really reflect their daily life experience.
We worked with multiple issues: racial justice, economic justice and immigrant issues for the last 20 years as an organization. And that really taught me one thing: You have to really allow the community to get involved in the issues that they care [about] most. And I’m hoping to continue that path, of bringing people to the table and having the opportunity for them to discuss issues that they care about. That definitely will help us to come up with better, more inclusive policies. And it will help the state to be more inclusive for all Oregonians.
Camhi: You’re a member of Oregon’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color Caucus and it released its agenda last week. Are there certain bills from this that you’ll be especially focused on?
Jama: The housing crisis is going to be one of my issues that I want to address. As I was campaigning or talking to the community members, it was very clear in my district that the community is suffering, they’re struggling. They don’t know where their next paycheck will be coming from. So the goal is going to be really addressing some of those [short-term housing] issues around COVID-19, but also making sure that we have a long-term strategy, whether it is through creating the opportunity for home ownership or creating more affordable housing stocks in our state.
But also I have a long history of working in police accountability and criminal justice reform. We are reckoning with the racial justice issues in this state...and we need to deal with [those]. There’s some amazing work happening already. My colleague in the House, Rep. Janelle Bynum and Sen. Lew Frederick and other leaders in the state have been really working to address some of those issues.
Measure 110 is something that I really was passionate about.
Camhi: That’s the measure that decriminalizes small amounts of illicit drugs.
Jama: Yes, it does. It will create more funding for drug treatment programs. It will create more drug treatment opportunities for the Oregonians who are struggling with addiction. So my hope is to implement Measure 110 the way that the voters intend it to work.
Of course, there are so many other issues that we are dealing with as a state. And I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to address them. And of course, we all know that people of color, immigrant refugees, and low-income Oregonians are disproportionately impacted by those issues that I highlight.
Camhi: You’re now the Oregon Legislature’s first refugee senator and first Muslim senator. Considering the recent occupation of the state house in Salem by far-right extremists and the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, do you feel safe as a lawmaker? And how do you square these recent attacks with the work that you want to do?
Jama: I think we’re all devastated by what happened in Washington, D.C. My safety of course concerns me and, of course, all of us who are serving. If we don’t think that we have safety issues, I think we’ll all be naive. But I think what I’m really more concerned about are the women and men who are either immigrant refugees, people of color, who are being harassed or attacked in our city and our state on a daily basis. So their safety and freedom for me is what I’ve been more concerned about more than anything else.
We all know that this country really has a lot of history around race and racism. My focus is more about data with systematic and structural racism that we have as a state, so we can really address some of the inequities that we are facing as a community.
To hear the full conversation with Oregon State Sen. Kayse Jama, click play on the audio player at the top of this article.
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Kayse Jama, a Somali immigrant who fled his war-torn country to become a prominent community organizer and executive director of Unite Oregon, was selected as the newest member of the Oregon Senate.
Commissioners with Multnomah and Clackamas counties selected Jama on Wednesday to replace Democrat Sen. Shemia Fagan, who is leaving her post to serve as the Oregon secretary of state.
Jama said he promised to empower people whose voices are often not heard in Salem. He plans to focus on housing affordability and equity, in particular as the state struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Jama will serve as the chair of the Senate Housing Committee.
“My 20 plus years working in the community has been making sure people who are on the downside of power have a seat at the table,” Jama said.
The commissioners agreed, noting how much community support Jama had received. Jama also received several high-profile endorsements, including from Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, who was initially seeking the seat but stepped aside to support Jama.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran lavished praise on Jama. Meieran said Jama is the type of leader who builds coalitions and brings people up beside him. Jama’s commitment to housing stability, economic opportunities and environmental justice have been clear and evident throughout his life’s work, Meieran said in her public remarks.
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“You are one of the most thoughtful, dedicated, inclusive organizers and leaders and just people I have come across,” Meieran said.
The commissioners chose among three Democratic candidates, including Jama. The other two were Adrienne Enghouse, a nurse and former president of her nurses’ union, and Democratic Party of Oregon operations director Candy Emmons, who told commissioners she felt they should support Jama. All the candidates live in East Portland.
All 10 county commissioners voted for Jama. Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull was the only commissioner who said he favored Enghouse, but ultimately he voted for Jama.
Jama arrived in Portland about two decades ago with $20 in his pocket. He was fleeing war in Somalia. He co-founded and serves as executive director of Unite Oregon, which is a coalition of people aimed at improving racial and economic justice for people of color, immigrants, refugees and people from low-income backgrounds.
In 2018, Jama also ran for the Senate District 24 Democratic primary against Fagan.
In a previous interview with OPB, Jama said his own experiences will greatly shape the type of lawmaker he is.
“We are facing really urgent issues, from housing issues to COVID-19. All of these issues have highlighted the importance of bringing my own personal experience as a refugee, an immigrant, as a person of color, a Black man in Oregon to make sure we are at the table and … our state reflects the diversity of community in terms of leadership,” Jama said.
Republicans will also need to fill a vacated Senate seat within the next 30 days. Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, announced earlier this week he was stepping down on Jan. 10. In a letter to colleagues, he said it was due to family issues.
Olsen, who has represented the area since 2011, has purchased a property in Indiana and his departure from the Capitol has been rumored for some time. Clackamas County commissioners will be charged with appointing someone to fill the remainder of Olsen’s term, until 2022.
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When Kayse Jama assumed his seat in the state legislature last month, he became the first Muslim to ever serve in the Oregon Senate -- and currently, the only refugee doing so.
“I think I'm going to be bringing to the table, of course, a racial justice lens, as someone who's not only been a Black man in Oregon for 20-plus years, but also an African, a refugee, and also an immigrant myself -- those four identities really intersect,” Jama told The Skanner. “So I am going to be bringing that kind of deep understanding and a lens around racial justice and immigration rights and inclusion and equity.”
Long known as an effective community organizer, Jama’s recent appointment to District 24 means he will be representing East Portland, the community where he was finally able to purchase a home years after fleeing his native Somalia -- an especially meaningful accomplishment for the long-time advocate for accessible housing.
“I had never thought I would be owning my own home, until six years ago,” Jama said, when he and his wife, Stephanie D. Stephens, bought the house they share with their 10-year-old twins Sahan and Saharla. “It was really community members and folks who were providing down payment assistance and other opportunities that helped me to understand that I actually can own my own home.”
Jama is co-founder and executive director of Unite Oregon, a multifaceted nonprofit that has been prominent in recent drug decriminalization efforts and police reform efforts, pushing for an overhaul that would center the community. Unite Oregon has been a stalwart force in racial justice and equity in the state. Inevitably, the organization’s work often concerns one of the most basic of human needs.
“I see housing issues as not stand-alone issues -- I always see the intersections with livable wage, economic justice and environmental justice,” Jama told The Skanner.
As senator, Jama will be taking over predecessor Shemia Fagan’s leadership position on the Senate Committee on Housing and Development. He says he plans to take a “holistic approach” to the issue, weighing factors like social determinants of health as the group tackles Oregon’s growing lack of affordable housing stock.
“But in the meantime, also as the housing chair, it’s definitely ‘How do we address the crisis that's been created and been exacerbated by COVID-19?’” Jama said.
“There is a moratorium eviction policy that will expire in June, and in the meantime, people owe thousands of dollars. What do we do with that?
"I think that's the lasting conversation we're going to be having as a part of the housing committee, and working with both the house side and the senate side and creating understanding that people are still in a lot of pain and suffering, and how do we elevate those in crisis?”
East Portland Representation
Jama’s campaign for the seat was ultimately successful, if circuitous: He lost the 2018 primary to Fagan, who vacated the position this year when she was elected Oregon Secretary of State.
Because District 24 extends over county lines, commissioners from both Multnomah and Clackamas counties jointly selected Jama as Fagan’s replacement.
Notably, two contenders stepped aside in favor of Jama: Rep. Jeff Reardon (D-Portland) withdrew early on in order to support Jama, and Candy Emmons, the operations director of the Democratic Party of Oregon -- who, with Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals president Adrienne Enghouse, was competing for the appointment -- urged commissioners to instead choose Jama.
When Jama ran in the primary, he received endorsements from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Oregon State Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland). In making his case to serve the remainder of Fagan’s term, he picked up the support of Gov. Kate Brown, among many others.
Jama, a member of Brown’s Racial Justice council reflected on taking office after years of advocating for criminal justice reform at a time “the national conversation was not where we're at today.”
“That's kind of an example of why people like me need to consider running for office,” Jama said.
Now, with a pandemic that has disproportionately devastated the Black community, and with a growing recognition of systemic racism spurred by outrage at police brutality, the state has introduced more focused response to racial inequities. The Oregon Cares Fund aimed to provide $62 million in relief to Black families, businesses, and nonprofits at a time when federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program has been shown to favor White recipients.
“If we want to make a dent on closing disparities that we have in this state, then we must really focus around particular programs that really allow us to close the gap,” Jama said.
He recently joined the legislature’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus, which he praised for pushing the agenda forward.
Still, Jama reports to Salem at a time of increased security risk, with other elected leaders sometimes posing a threat: Shortly after taking office Jama joined more than 100 other elected leaders in calling for Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull's resignation in response to incendiary statements about Muslim Americans he had made on social media. (Shull remains on the commission.)
Meanwhile, video footage from Dec. 21 shows Oregon State Rep. Mike Nearman (R-Independence) opening the door to right-wing protestors who breached security to (invade) the Oregon State Capitol, leading to a confrontation with police, and the subsequent pepper-spraying of police officers by some protesters. For many in Salem, it provided a jarring preview of the deadly insurrection that would unfold in the U.S. Capitol two weeks later.
“I think we need to lower the temperature,” Jama said. “And I think there's space for that.
"But having said that, my safety concern is more about the communities that I work with. I've seen Muslim women who are wearing hijabs in their cars, on the street, are harassed daily. Or people of color, Black and Brown community members, who are being attacked and harassed daily. Those are the people who I am more worried about their safety than mine, and I'm making sure that we pay attention to it.”
Kayse Jama is an American politician currently serving as a Democratic member of the Oregon State Senate, representing Oregon's 24th Senate district, which includes parts of Clackamas and Multnomah Counties. Jama was appointed unanimously by the Clackamas and Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to replace Shemia Fagan who was elected Oregon Secretary of State in 2021.
Early life and education
Kayse Jama was born into a nomad family in Somalia. At eight years old, he moved to the capital, Mogadishu, to begin his education. Jama graduated from high school just as the civil war erupted, and he lived as a refugee for many years before finally arriving in San Diego in the United States in 1998. He settled in Portland, Oregon shortly thereafter. He staffed the front desk at the Portland DoubleTree Hotel and helped other newly arrived refugees adapt to life in the United States as a case manager at Lutheran Community Services Northwest, eventually working his way to a degree at Marylhurst University (BA, Sociology).
In 2021, Jama stepped down as Executive Director of Unite Oregon after being appointed to the Oregon State Senate. He replaced State Senator Shemia Fagan who was appointed to serve as Oregon Secretary of State. Jama represents Senate District 24 which comprises East Portland and North Clackamas. He is the first Muslim to serve in the Oregon State Legislature and the first former refugee to serve in the Oregon State Senate.
From 2005 to 2007, he trained immigrant and refugee community leaders in five Western states — Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Idaho — under a prestigious New Voices Fellowship at the Western States Center.
In 2002, Kayse Jama co-founded the Center for Intercultural Organizing, now Unite Oregon, after witnessing racial incidents in Portland following the September 11 Attacks in 2001. Jama served as the director of the statewide nonprofit organization until 2021. Unite Oregon is "led by people of color, immigrants and refugees, rural communities, and people experiencing poverty" who are working "across Oregon to build a unified intercultural movement for justice."
While at Unite Oregon, Jama led community organizing and ballot measure campaigns to reduce the influence of money in politics, end police profiling, reform Oregon's hate crimes laws, and expand drug treatment. Jama has also been a founding member of several large coalitions in Oregon, including Fair Shot for All and the Oregon Health Equity Alliance.
Oregon State Senate
State Senator Jama is the Chair of the Senate Committee On Housing and Development, and he serves on the Senate Committee On Labor and Business, and the Joint Committee On Ways and Means Subcommittee On Transportation and Economic Development.
Upon taking his oath of office, in January 2021, Senator Jama discussed the housing crisis and criminal justice reform:
- “I am honored to represent Senate District 24 and serve in this vital role. We must think holistically as we address the housing crisis and the immediate needs of those who are struggling now, while also acknowledging the urgent systemic shifts needed to support those who are houseless or at risk of houselessness.”
- "Oppression is woven into the roots of many of our state’s systems and it is incumbent on all of us to address these embedded inequities. That is why police accountability and criminal justice reform are top priorities for me. We need to build on the work of my colleagues in past Special Sessions and further our work on criminal justice reform.”
Jama believes in "co-integration," meaning immigrants should integrate into their new communities at the same time as pre-existing communities integrate with other cultures. "It's a two-way street."
Kayse Jama has been awarded the Skidmore Prize for outstanding young nonprofit professionals (2007), the Oregon Immigrant Achievement Award from Oregon chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (2008), the Lowenstein Trust Award, presented yearly to “that person who demonstrated the greatest contribution to assisting the poor and underprivileged in Portland" (2009), the Portland Peace Prize (2012), the Rankin Award in recognition of "lifelong activism and extraordinary service" (2016), the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project's Tribune of Worker Justice Award "celebrating his dedication to uplifting the lives of Oregon immigrant and low-wage workers" (2017), and a Rockwood Leadership Institute's Strengthening Democracy Fellowship (2019).
In 2004, Kayse Jama married Stephanie D. Stephens, who serves on the David Douglas School Board in Portland, Oregon. Their twins, Sahan and Saharla, were born in 2010.
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- ^"Campaign Web Site". Jama for Oregon.
- ^"Ballotpedia Page". Ballotpedia. Ballotpedia. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Drake, Lauren (January 6, 2021). "Kayse Jama, community organizer and Somali immigrant, nominated to Oregon Senate". Oregon Public Broadcasting. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^ abcd"Kayse Jama for Oregon Senate". Kayse Jama for Oregon Senate. Retrieved 2021-02-03.
- ^"Senator Jama Kayse Home Page". www.oregonlegislature.gov. Retrieved 2021-02-03.
- ^Ackerman, Ken (September 12, 2013). "Comcast Newsmakers: Kayse Jama". Comcast. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Dake, Lauren. "Kayse Jama, community organizer and Somali immigrant, nominated to Oregon Senate". Oregon Public Broadcasting. Oregon Public Broadcasting. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
- ^Jensen, Latisha (January 6, 2021). "Kayse Jama Appointed to District 24 Seat, Becoming First Muslim in the Oregon State Senate". Willamette Week. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^"Meet Kayse". Kayse Jama for Oregon Senate. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
- ^ ab"Kayse Jama, Executive Director, Center for Intercultural Organizing". YouTube. Comcast Newsmakers of Oregon and Southwest Washington. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
- ^"Mission". Unite Oregon. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
- ^"OPINION M107: Connections, money shouldn't limit election choices". Portland Tribune. October 15, 2020. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Sevcenko, Melanie (February 16, 2017). "New Law Aims to Curb Profiling". The Skanner. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Morrison, Erica. "Hate Crime Victims, Family Members Pressure Oregon Legislators For Change". Oregon Public Broadcasting (June 5, 2019). Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Eschner, Kat (February 1, 2021). "The war on drugs didn't work. Oregon's plan might". Popular Science. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^"Committees". Oregon State Legislature. Retrieved 24 July 2021.
- ^"Senator Kayse Jama on Taking His Oath of Office to Serve in the Oregon State Senate"(PDF). Senator Kayse Jama. Oregon State Legislature. Retrieved 24 July 2021.
- ^"What Is The Skidmore Prize?". Willamette Week. Retrieved 25 July 2021.
- ^Martin, Cristina (November 7, 2007). "Skidmore Prize Winner Kayse Jama". Willamette Week. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^"Kayse Jama awarded 18th Annual Steve Lowenstein Trust Award in Council". City of Portland. December 16, 2009. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^Ford, Nate (May 31, 2012). "Refugee Activist Wins Portland Peace Prize". Portland Tribune. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
- ^"Strengthening Democracy Fellows". Rockwood Leadership Institute. Retrieved 11 March 2021.
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Kayse Jama Appointed to District 24 Seat, Becoming First Muslim in the Oregon Senate
Multnomah and Clackamas county commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to appoint Kayse Jama to the seat representing Oregon Senate District 24. The vote made history: Jama becomes the first Muslim to hold an Oregon Senate seat.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan vacated the District 24 seat, which represents East Portland and parts of Clackamas County, after her victory in November.
Jama is the co-founder and executive director of the racial justice organization Unite Oregon.
"My journey from a nomadic community in Somalia to the Oregon Senate is a testament to where I come from, the people of our district, and our shared values," Jama said in a press release. "I'd like to thank everyone who helped make today possible and express my appreciation to the other leaders who sought this position."
Jama received overwhelming support from the community, and received dozens of endorsements from nonprofits and local officials, including Gov. Kate Brown and state Rep. Jeff Reardon, who removed his name from consideration to give Jama a better chance at winning.
Jama ran against Candy Emmons and Adrienne Enghouse. But during the commissioners' meeting today, Emmons asked commissioners to vote for Jama.
"While today I am willing to serve in this position, I am asking you to choose Kayse Jama, whom the precinct committee people chose as their first choice in this seat," Emmons says.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meiran and the other commissioners expressed their support for Jama and his work in the community over the years.
"[Jama is] one of the most thoughtful, dedicated, inclusive organizers, leaders and just people that I have come across," Meiran says. "[His] commitment to racial equity, to community safety environmental justice housing stability, economic opportunity and quality education are clear and evidenced in your life's work."
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As a former refugee, I believe in the promise of America, land of equal opportunity. Yet, the wealth gap continues to widen. Parents work three jobs and still can't make ends meet. Student debt is skyrocketing. Medical bills bankrupt hardworking families and the housing crisis is leaving more of them homeless. Neighbors suffer the livability impacts of drug addiction, a public health epidemic.
These issues are man-made. They are not permanent, and they can be solved with effective leadership and collective action.
Through co-founding Unite Oregon, Fair Shot for All, and the Oregon Health Equity Alliance, I have worked with others to develop and push for solutions, including:- Health care for all children - Paid sick days - Tuition equity - Increasing the minimum wage - Banning law enforcement profiling
Often the leadership for these initiatives has come from the community, not from Salem, and the Senate has repeatedly blocked progressive legislation. The reality is that lobbyists and corporate donors have more influence over our elected leaders than constituents. I will never take corporate PAC money.
I'LL WORK WITH YOU TO:- Invest in education - Ensure health care as a human right - Solve the housing crisis - Champion economic justice policies that benefit all - Win paid family leave and affordable child care - Reform our criminal justice system - Address climate change - End corporate welfare
It’s time for us to make our voices heard in Salem and fight for the future we deserve. Not me, WE.