Who represents Centennial School District's ESL and refugee students?

“We all want our friends, families and the next generation to have a secure future.” – Sumitra Chhetri

Sumitra stands in a park smiling.

Northwest Health Foundation knows when elected officials look like their constituents, the policies they create work better for all of us. So, when a community leader connected to one of our funded partners is running, we want to spotlight them. This does not constitute an endorsement.  

In the last decade, Centennial School District in east Portland went from 16% students of color to 54%. That’s a huge demographic shift in a short amount of time. It’s a safe bet the schools, particularly the students of color, are feeling those growing pains.  

Sumitra Chhetri, a leader in our Healthy Beginnings+Healthy Communities Cohort, is running for Centennial School Board, Position 3, because she believes these students deserve representation. As a Bhutanese refugee who moved to Portland with her family in 2008, graduated from David Douglas High School as an ESL student, and now works for Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, she hopes to bring first-hand experience to the position. 

Sumitra’s brother, a current Centennial High School student, is enthusiastic about his sister’s campaign. He and his friends have been eager to share their input. At Sumitra’s Campaign Kickoff, her brother and two other students stated their support for Sumitra, because she will represent their voices as students of color.

Sumitra graduated from Portland State University with a degree in political science, and she’s actively participated in the political process since high school. As a college student, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for tuition equity. She also interned with a group lobbying in Washington, D.C. for paper bags instead of plastic in stores. She’s since spent lots of time in Salem advocating with the immigrant and refugee community, is currently vice president of the Oregon Bhutanese Community Organization and a community engagement liaison with the City of Portland, and was recently appointed to the Metro Citizenship Review Committee.

“I understand what students of families of color face,” wrote Sumitra on her campaign website. “Over the years, I have worked with immigrant and refugees families and communities advocating for issues such as access to education, health care, transportation, language, and affordable housing. Lack of health care, transportation, and affordable housing all impacts the learning ability of students in school.”

We wish you luck, Sumitra!

Learn more about Sumitra at her website and on Facebook.

Erika Lopez and Felicita Monteblanco: Do you see your values reflected?

This blog is the fifth in a series of posts celebrating community leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

Felicita Monteblanco and Erika Lopez with their mentor Maria Cabellero Rubio, the executive director of Centro Cultural de Washington County.

Felicita Monteblanco and Erika Lopez with their mentor Maria Cabellero Rubio, the executive director of Centro Cultural de Washington County.

Good friends and proud Latina women devoted to their families and careers, Erika Lopez and Felicita Monteblanco both ran for office in 2017. Neither had campaigned for an elected office before. Felicita had only tried canvassing once – in 2016. They both won their elections.

After the 2016 presidential election, when anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric increased across the country, Erika’s ten-year-old son came home one day afraid. He was concerned his mother, an American citizen and immigrant from Mexico, would be deported. Erika was hurt and concerned that this was something he worried about when he should be able to focus on his education. Of course, she could explain to him why she wouldn’t be deported, but he still didn’t quite understand why so much negativity was hurled at his Mexican heritage and community. And while she could comfort him, she worried about all the other students in her community who faced the reality of being separated from their families. She looked at the Hillsboro School District board and saw no representation of the diverse community she lives in. The Hillsboro School District has a majority minority student body, but the board did not reflect that. There were no board members from an immigrant, bicultural, bilingual community. She did not see herself or her community reflected. They didn’t have a voice in the governance of a system that impacts families and students in a monumental way.

Felicita also recognized the lack of diversity among local elected officials. In 2013, she joined Vision Action Network. As the coordinator for the Washington County Nonprofit Network, Felicita met many leaders and became more aware of the issues facing her community. In particular, she noticed the Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation Department’s board was made up entirely of men, most over 40 years old. She didn’t see herself or her values reflected by them. She wondered what it would mean to have the lens of a 32-year-old mixed woman in that space.

Felicita and Erika at Erika's swearing-in and first meeting as a Hillsboro School District board member.

Felicita and Erika at Erika's swearing-in and first meeting as a Hillsboro School District board member.

Erika and Felicita both participated in Emerge Oregon’s Class of 2017. While they were encouraged, and ultimately decided, to run independently of one another, they were thrilled when they found out the other had plans to run for office. Too busy with their own events and door-knocking to campaign for each other, they supported one another in a different, equally important way: empathizing through texts and phone calls. Felicita says their friendship was “life-saving for my mental and emotional health.” Erika described her campaign as “a whirlwind.” She doesn’t think she would’ve been able to get through it without her network of friends, family and coworkers.

It’s only been seven months since Erika and Felicita started serving in their respective elected offices. They’re still learning the ropes, getting to know their fellow board members and figuring out policies and logistics. Felicita said: You have 100 ideas when you campaign, but once you’re elected you have to celebrate the small wins. Change takes time. She’s most curious about expanding ideas around what Parks and Recreation can do and exploring how parks can be used to build community and connect people in the unincorporated neighborhoods surrounding Beaverton.

Felicita and Erika still support each other. They attend events together. They share their networks, as well as lessons learned in their respective roles. Recently, Felicita went to one of the Hillsboro School District board meetings. Parents from Hillsboro’s Latino Parent Advisory Committee presented at the meeting. Felicita described a moment when Erika, who is bilingual, asked them a question in Spanish. Seeing someone on the board who looks like them, who speaks their native language, was so impactful. Now they know there’s a leader on the school board who understands their needs and can communicate with them in their native language. Hopefully this will empower them to become elected leaders themselves and encourage their children to become elected leaders.

More than anything, Erika and Felicita want to use their new positions to lift up more women of color. They want folks to be civically engaged, to see that becoming an elected official is not only attainable, but incredibly important. Their voices are needed. You don’t have to be a certain age or have certain degrees. What’s important is lived experience and representation. If you look at a decision-making table and no one sitting at it shares your values, you should do what you can to sit at that table.

Sita Symonette: Your Voice Matters. Speak Out.

This blog is the fourth in a series of posts celebrating community leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

Sita Symonette laughs.

When Sita Symonette joined the Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette board of directors in 2012, only three out of 19 board members, including Sita, were women of color. Five years later, a lot has changed. Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette’s board includes Black, Latinx, Native, Asian and significantly more LGBTQ members, and Sita has been elected PPCW’s first  African-American woman chair.

As an acupuncturist and small business owner who prioritizes inclusivity and women’s health, Sita brings an alternative healthcare perspective to Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette. She also brings a history of community service and social justice work.

Growing up, Sita’s brother was close friends with the son of Billy Frank Jr., Native American environmental leader and treaty rights activist. Frank and his wife were like second parents to Sita. Seeing them center service in their own lives motivated Sita to center it in her own. She started volunteering when she was a preteen and never stopped. In graduate school, she became the first student ever to sit on Oregon College of Oriental Medicine’s board. And after graduate school, she worked with a group that brought Martin Luther King, Jr’s teachings of nonviolence into high schools through slam poetry.

When Sita joined Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette’s board, she had the background and willingness to quickly jump in on equity and inclusion. Considering 40 percent of the people PPCW serves are people of color, she knew the organization needed to do more to represent that community. She took part in hiring a Director of Equity and Inclusion, helped develop an equity lens and equity mission statement, and participated in equity trainings with board and staff.

In her new role as chair, Sita wants to keep PPCW rolling in the right direction, integrating equity into every aspect of their work. Recently, the organization began implementing telemedicine in Oregon’s rural communities. She’d like to see that expand over the next couple years, ensuring everyone has access to their services even if they can’t get to a brick and mortar location. She also wants to recruit younger voices to the PPCW board. Of course, priority number one is keeping the doors open, no matter what happens at the federal level.

For those who would like to take on leadership roles in the future, Sita has several words of advice: If there are people you look up to in the community, reach out to them. Become involved in your community. Show up at different events. Follow through with what you say you’re going to do. Youth, know that your voice matters; speak out. Lastly, seek out culturally specific leadership programs and take advantage of them.

Speaking of leadership programs, here are a few to get you started:

All Born (In) - Social Justice Youth Program

American Leadership Forum of Oregon - Fellows Program

Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon - API Community Leadership Institute; Climate, Health and Housing Institute; & Community Organizing for Advocacy and Leadership

CAPACES Leadership Institute - TURNO, Leadership Forum & more

City of Portland - Disability Power PDX

Disability Art and Culture Project - Reject Economic Ableist Limits

Emerge Oregon - The Emerge Program

Latino Network - Unid@s for Oregon

Lower Columbia Hispanic Council - Adult Leadership Program, La Voz de la Comunidad & La Cima

Momentum Alliance - Student Alliance Project & Leveraging Momentum

Oregon Health Authority - Developing Equity Leadership through Training and Action

OPAL Environmental Justice - Bus Riders Unite!, Youth Environmental Justice Alliance & Organizers-in-Training

Western States Center - Western Institute for Leadership Development & We Are BRAVE


Announcing the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative

A woman pauses her conversation with two other people to smile at the camera.

Northwest Health Foundation is excited to announce the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative.

The Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative will convene leaders from across our region to discuss how to ensure the voices and experiences of people with disabilities, particularly people of color with disabilities, are represented by decision-makers. They'll also discuss how disabled people can build collective power in Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Over 100 people applied to be a part of the Collaborative, demonstrating the need for investment in this area. We invited 16 of them to meet four times over the course of the next six months.

We sought leaders who expressed an interest in exploring and learning more about Disability Justice, who are already involved in efforts to build power in their communities, and who bring lived experience around intersectional identities and want to be part of a larger conversation about intersectionality. All the Collaborative participants identify as disabled people of color, representing Asian-Pacific Islander, Black, Latino, Muslim and Native communities. Our participants also identify in other ways, including queer, transgendered, gender non-conforming, youth, houseless, multi-racial, immigrant, refugee and rural.

The work of this Collaborative will center around Disability Justice, a movement-building liberatory framework created in 2005 by Sins Invalid. Disability Justice centers Black and brown, majority queer disabled people to address the whiteness and single-issue focus of the mainstream disability rights movement. Disability Justice acknowledges that ableism works hand-in-hand with other forms of oppression and stresses that multiply marginalized disabled people get to create movements and organize out of their strengths, vulnerabilities, body/minds and genius. We’ve engaged two established Disability Justice movement leaders, Stacey Milbern and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, to facilitate the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative.

Stacey Milbern

Stacey Milbern

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

The Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative will:

  • Discuss visions and strategies for ensuring the needs of disabled people are centered in decision-making;
  • Deepen and collectively build their understanding of disability justice; and
  • Discuss how disability-led organizations can work together in new ways with:
    • Organizations led by communities of color;
    • Existing and new disabled, Deaf, sick and neurodivergent communities and organizations;
    • Leadership programs and funders.

Over the long-term, we hope this effort will influence organizations led by people of color to learn about the Disability Justice framework and apply it to their work. We also hope these leaders will contribute to ensuring our region’s leadership includes disabled people and people who understand, and are committed to, Disability Justice.

This Collaborative is a joint effort supported by Northwest Health Foundation and the Collins Foundation. We are eager to learn from these leaders and share our experiences with other funders and community leaders.

Read more about Northwest Health Foundation's journey to understand and incorporate a disability equity lens in our work on Medium. Stay tuned for updates over the next few months!

Why We Endorse Measure 101

Measure 101 protects healthcare for 350,000 Oregonians.

Everyone deserves the chance to lead a healthy life. That includes affordable healthcare, and that's why we’re proud to join over 60 groups in endorsing Measure 101.

We know that:

  • Mothers with access to affordable healthcare have healthier babies.
  • Students with health insurance miss fewer days of school.
  • Employees with access to affordable healthcare for themselves and their families are more productive and happier.
  • All Oregonians benefit when friends, family, coworkers and neighbors can see a doctor or nurse, and don't have to visit the ER for routine care.

Voting yes means that, for the first time, every child in Oregon will have healthcare.

350,000 Oregonians rely on the funding that Measure 101 secures in order to keep their healthcare. I hope you’ll join us in voting YES on Measure 101 for healthcare this January. If you agree that every Oregonian deserves healthcare, no matter who they are or where they work, pledge to vote YES

James Manning: I'm Not a Politician; I'm a Public Servant.

This blog is the third in a series of posts celebrating community leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

Photo portrait of Senator James Manning.

Senator James Manning doesn’t think of himself as a politician. He’s a public servant, and he’s been a public servant for a long time.

Before becoming involved in Oregon government, Senator Manning worked as a state corrections officer, police officer, railroad special agent and private investigator. In 1983, he enlisted in the United States Army. After 24 years of active duty, during which he filled many roles, including everything from Military Diplomat to the Australian and New Zealand Special Forces to Postal Supervisor to U.S. Army Assistant Inspector General, Senator Manning retired in 2007 and moved to Eugene.

In retirement, Senator Manning felt the urge to give back to his community. He quickly got involved with nonprofits like United Way for Lane County. He also served on the City of Eugene’s Police Commission and was appointed by two Oregon governors to the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs. Then, in 2016, he campaigned to represent District 14 in Oregon’s House of Representatives.

Senator James Manning lost in the primaries to Representative Julie Fahey. However, he didn’t consider his campaign a waste of time; he enjoyed it. He liked going door to door, taking the time to hear from community members. In particular, he appreciated the opportunity to talk with elderly community members. He recalled one woman who took a while to get to the door, who he soon realized hadn’t been eating and set her up with Meals on Wheels, as well as a man who he spent 20 minutes with, although he was only supposed to take three minutes with each voter.

After his loss in the primaries, Senator Manning assumed he’d go back to doing what he’d been doing: serving on commissions and committees and working towards a doctor of education in organizational leadership. That’s what he did, for a while. At least until the Lane County Board of Commissioners unexpectedly appointed him to replace outgoing Senator Chris Edwards in December 2016.

What are Senator James Manning’s priorities as an elected official? Listening and responding to people’s needs. Living wages. Good jobs. Quality, affordable healthcare. Refusing to leave senior citizens and children behind. Senator Manning has pledged not to make a vote that will hurt people.

As a child, Senator Manning sometimes went to bed hungry. At times, he was homeless. Now, he wants to be an inspiration to people who feel like there is no hope. He wants to inspire people to seize opportunities and give back to others.

His advice to others who are think about running for office: It has to be about helping people, not about personal gain. Visit places that don’t feel familiar to you. Visit schools. Pay attention to the kids huddled outside, waiting for their first meal of the day. Build up name recognition, and then just do it.

Denise Piza: We're All Just People

This blog is the second in a series of posts celebrating community leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

Close-up of Denise smiling.

"It sounds scary," said Madras City Councilor Denise Piza, "It's not that scary."

Denise ran a write-in campaign for Madras City Council in November 2016 and won. All it took was a Facebook post. She'd decided to run too late to be included on the ballot, but thanks to social media and a supportive community, it wasn't too late to get elected. It also didn't hurt that she's been representing her community as a leader for years.

At age 25, while acting as an advisor to the Jefferson County Education Service District board, Denise was asked to fill the seat of a board member who had passed away (after waiting a period of time in respect of the member). Later, she ran for the position — successfully. She served on the ESD board for six years. In addition, Denise has served on the Kids Club of Jefferson County board and the City of Madras Planning Commission.

Denise stands with her five children, baby evalyn on her hip. Everyone smiles.

Denise stands with her five children, baby evalyn on her hip. Everyone smiles.

Denise wants to emphasize that elected leaders are all just people, like anyone else. There are no special requirements or trainings anyone has to go through to serve their community. She herself went into City Council not knowing exactly what to expect. She understood budgeting, reviewing ordinances and examining policies would be a part of it, but otherwise figured she'd learn as she went. And she has.

So far, she's participated in establishing an annual budget and allocating grants to community programs. She and the other councilors heard presentations from 24 local organizations and decided which ones to fund and how much to give them. During the experience, folks raised questions about the process. Since then, she, another board member, the City's finance director and a community member have been working to streamline it.

Denise and her husband smile for a selfie. Baby Evalyn is sleeping in a sling, her face pressed against her mother's neck.

Denise's top priority as a city councilor is to pass equitable and inclusive policies, as well as to call out policies that aren't. First and foremost, she wants Madras to pass an inclusivity resolution to protect undocumented community members, as well as establish an advisory group to the mayor made up of community members that represent the city's full diversity.

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, Denise moved to Madras, Oregon with her family when she was seven-years-old. She became a U.S. citizen at 18. As an immigrant and woman of color, she appreciates the opportunity to represent her community in a position that has historically been held by white men. She wants to encourage other women and people of color to run for office, too. The more people who get involved, and the more reflective our democracy becomes, the more change will happen. For the better.

Denise is happy to talk with anyone who is considering running for office, especially in rural communities. You can contact her at denise.piza@gmail.com or through Facebook.



Helen Ying: Connecting the Dots for a Better World

This blog is the first in a series of posts celebrating elected leaders who reflect our equity priorities. At Northwest Health Foundation, we know communities need the power and resources to sit at decision-making tables, to help dispel beliefs and practices that do not promote their health, and to help shape those that do. From local school boards to the state legislature, parents and families should have a voice.

Helen Ying stands in front of a crowd of her supporters, arms outstretched.

Helen Ying stands in front of a crowd of her supporters, arms outstretched.

Helen Ying's personal mission is to engage and empower people to improve their communities, something she's been doing her whole life. As a young teen and recent immigrant, Helen served on Marshall High School's student senate. It didn't matter to her that she was still learning English. She wanted to improve her community, and she'd found a way to do it — becoming a leader. This desire continued through adulthood, bringing Helen to where she is now: a member of Multnomah Education Service District's elected board of directors, National Vice President of Membership for the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and a force for change in our region.

Of course, Helen's journey wasn't a straight path from student senate to county-level elected official. First, she became a leader in her church, volunteering to coordinate the choir at age sixteen and superintending Sunday school at eighteen. For thirty years, she worked as a math teacher, school counselor and vice principal. During this time, she realized how few laws and policies truly support health, particularly the health of children and youth. When Helen retired, she knew she wanted to do one of two things: become a missionary or run for office. Lucky for all of us, she chose the latter.

Helen marches in the St. Johns Parade, waving with one hand and holding a campaign sign in the other.

Helen marches in the St. Johns Parade, waving with one hand and holding a campaign sign in the other.

Helen didn't win her first campaign for office. In 2011, then Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder approached her and suggested she run for his soon-to-be-vacant seat. Helen campaigned for six months and came in second. But she doesn't consider her campaign a failure. She ran against four white men and received more votes than three of them combined. Furthermore, the connections she made and visibility she gained during that campaign led to dozens of other opportunities.

After her loss, several community leaders approached Helen and invited her to serve on boards and committees. These included the Creation Committee for the Office of Equity for Portland and the Oregon Health Policy Board Coordinated Care Organization Criteria Work Group, among others. She also chairs the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference and serves as a board member for We Can Do Better. So, when Northwest Health Foundation President & CEO Nichole June Maher suggested Helen run for Multnomah Education Service District, Position 2 in 2017, Helen was ready. And this time, she won.

As a Multnomah Education Service District board member, Helen is committed to taking MESD to the next level. She strongly believes she and her fellow board members have the skills they need to succeed, to promote policies that will support health for children and youth.

In Helen's opinion, it is incredibly important for elected officials to reflect the communities they serve. As a young person, she couldn't understand why there weren't any leaders who looked like her. This year, at the Oregon School Board Association Conference, she and the other school board members of color (the most ever in Oregon's history) met to start a caucus to support one another and ensure their voices are heard. Helen wants today's students of color to be able to envision themselves in leadership roles, and seeing school board members who come from their communities making a real difference is part of that.

More than anything else, Helen Ying wants to inspire others, especially young people, to become involved in their communities and strive to make the changes they want to see in the world. Her advice? Start small. Consider your skills, where you can have influence, what needs to change. Make a commitment to yourself. It could be as simple as encouraging family members to vote. Continue taking tiny steps, working your way up to bigger actions. Participate in an issue campaign. Meet with your legislator. Join a committee or board. One day, you might even decide to run for office.

If Helen's story motivated you to get engaged, check out the partnership and learning opportunities on our Open Opportunities page. Maybe you'll find your next small step toward improving your community.


Jefferson County School District 509-J's Board Should Reflect Its Students

In Oregon, we value everyone’s voice; we believe democracy only works when everyone’s point of view is represented. That means decision makers, from school board members to city councilors to state legislators, need to reflect the communities they serve. We know our communities are healthier when elected leaders can truly speak to their neighbors’ experiences and needs.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens. For example, fewer than 30% of Jefferson County School District 509-J's 3000 students are white. The majority are American Indian (34%) and Hispanic (34%). Nearly all of 509-J's American Indian students live on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. And yet, 509-J's five-member school board has generally only had one board member from Warm Springs at a time. Most have come from Madras, which is 66% white.

509-J's school board hasn't reflected its students, and that shows in the school district's graduation rates. In Oregon, which ranks 49th of 50 U.S. states for its high school graduation rate, 509J is in the bottom 15% of school districts. Only 57% of its students graduate in four years.

Why is this, and what can be done to change it? According to KWSO Station Manager Sue Matters, who is running for position 2 on 509-J’s school board this May, the district has focused too much on test scores and not enough on communicating with, listening to and considering input from teachers, students, families and the community. The people who don't show up at family nights, who aren't represented by the school board, are the ones the school district needs to reach out to the most and try their hardest to engage.

Warm Springs Chief Operations Officer Alyssa Macy, who is campaigning for position 3, agrees communications between the board and community could improve. She also believes education is strongly linked to communities’ wellbeing.

Sue Matters, whose two children went through 509-J schools, served on a number of school site councils, so she is familiar with the schools’ strengths and challenges. As Warm Springs Radio's station manager, she's also grown comfortable interacting with community leaders and communicating what they say and do to her fellow Warm Springs residents.

In Sue's opinion, Jefferson County 509-J schools, the school district's board members and administrators, worry about the wrong things. They punish students for trivialities like wearing hats to school, when they should foreground students’ academic achievement; be aware of students’ family life, mental health and other individual needs; and ensure their schools are a place youth feel welcome. They think conventionally, attempting to apply methods that have worked to boost other schools' test scores and graduation rates, when they should realize that their community and schools are unique and one size does not fit all.

Alyssa Macy grew up in Warm Springs, and she now has two foster children who are students in the Jefferson County School District 509-J. Alyssa has plenty of experience advocating for indigenous peoples nationally and internationally. She wants to improve graduation rates for students in her community and expose them to as many opportunities as possible.

With the May 2017 election, Jefferson County School District 509-J faces a pivotal moment. Three of five school board seats are up for grabs, and a Warm Springs resident is running to fill each of those seats. This year, 509-J's school board could reflect its student body. Hopefully voters will make that happen.