Q&A with Healthcare and Housing Advocate Nico Serra

In 2017 and 2018, Northwest Health Foundation convened the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative – a group of fourteen disabled people of color interested in deepening their understanding of disability justice and discussing visions and strategies for ensuring the needs of people with disabilities are centered in decision-making. Nico is one of the leaders participating in the Collaborative.

Nico sits in their GRIT Freedom Chair in the middle of a street and smiles. Behind them people wear rainbow flag capes and a unicorn hoodie.

Q. What communities do you consider yourself a part of?

A. The transgender community and the queer community. The disability justice community. The Black community. The healthcare advocacy community.

Q. What leadership roles have you played?

A. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of speaking at events and rallies, and to give testimony at hearings. I’m on the Board of Directors at Real Choice Initiative and Health Care for All Oregon, and I organize with several other groups focused on justice for vulnerable people.

I spend a lot of time advocating for myself and other folks with serious health concerns. Many have shared resources with me, and I enjoy passing that knowledge on to others. I’m mostly focused on housing and healthcare. I strongly believe that housing is healthcare, because no matter how good someone’s healthcare is or how good their nutrition is, if they don’t have housing it doesn’t matter.

The waitlist for accessible housing in the City of Portland is fifteen, eighteen years long. Folks are forced into nursing and group homes, where they control almost nothing about their lives. Recently, I heard a friend talking about how hard it is to be twenty years old and living in hospice care. They were trying to study for exams, but instead wound up hanging out with someone who was about to pass because that person’s family didn’t show up. People forced into these situations describe what sounds like imprisonment. They don’t get any privacy. They can’t choose what they want to eat or when to eat. They can’t come and go as they please. They don’t even get to choose when to bath or go to the bathroom. This and ending up on the street is everyone’s worst nightmare, and it's brought to you by your tax dollars. I’m doing my part and encouraging others to join in changing this problem.

Q. What leadership roles do you hope to take on in the future?

A. I want to organize with other People with Disabilities and serious health concerns, transgender people and people of color to find or create sustainable, accessible and affordable housing and healthcare.

I also want to focus on employment for the mentioned populations. Due to capitalism, eugenics and imperialism, I think people with health issues, transgender and non-binary people, and people of color have a harder time getting and keeping jobs. I want to organize folks struggling to find work to become personal care assistants. Then we’ll have someone who doesn’t just tolerate or respect our culture, but who are actual members of the same cultures and communities.

Q. What is most exciting to you about disability justice?

A. What’s most exciting to me is that it affects everybody. I agree with something a friend and fellow organizer said: “I’m less interested in breaking through the next glass ceiling and more interested in raising the floor.” With disability justice, everybody does better.

Q. What do you hope to get out of being a part of the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative?

A. I hope to have a more thorough understanding of where the disability justice movement came from and how I can continue the work. I’ve become disabled in my adult life, so I don’t have as deep of an understanding of it compared to folks that have had altered abilities since birth or childhood.

I’m excited about meeting more brown and Black people organizing around Disability Justice. These are all seriously resilient people who know how to survive almost impossible circumstances. These are people who get it and want to change the way things are, not just for us, but for elders and the people coming after us as well.

Q. What is your vision for the future of our region?

A. The system must undergo revolutionary reformation, because it’s not just a broken system, it’s a system that was built on the broken backs of brown and Black people and that continues to this day. 100 million indigenous people were killed when this land was colonized and 52 million people were killed in the TransAtlantic slave trade. Is it really any wonder why some people’s lives are more difficult than others? Being actively hunted in the streets and/or being thrown into institutions absolutely changes whether or not a person can reach self-actualization. I think We The People must throw capitalism out. In 2017, 82% of the wealth in the USA was in the hands of the top 1%. That means that the other 99% of us are expected to step on the throats of our loved ones and neighbors and fight over the leftover scraps. I, for one, am done with this dynamic, and I think many others are too.

I think unlearning the dangerous practice of consuming one thing or another to deal with big feelings is the place to start. Learning how to be in the center of our centers, in the eye of the storm, will help all of us emerge from our "trauma tunnels." From there, everyone learning how to think critically is a part of my vision. I think the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast are places where all this could actually change. I think there are enough people here who care and are actually doing real things to create these changes.

The way the Social Security Administration defines disability is all about functionality. If someone has an inability to hold down housing, that makes them functionally disabled, in my opinion. The folks stranded out on the street are on the front lines of a brutal class war, and We The People cannot wait for the State to solve this. We must create ways to meet our needs and the needs of those around us. If there is any place on this land where this could happen, it's Portland, the Pacific Northwest and the West Coast.

I envision everyone receiving holistic healthcare and being housed. Unfortunately, institutionalized oppression is real, and this crushes our bodies, minds and spirits. If we get locked out of healthcare and/or housing, it’s almost impossible to develop sustainable connections with those around you, get a job, and so many other things. When someone shows up and is deemed to have red flags – you’re a person of color, you don’t have insurance, you don’t have a place to live, you have depression, chronic pain, you’re trans, queer, you’ve been on opiates, you experience post-traumatic stress, etc. – unless you have a really good support network, advocates, and, in my case, help from my Congressional Representative, you get blown off and end up dead, on the streets or in prison. When I first sought treatment after being hit and dragged around a corner by a station wagon while riding my bicycle, I was blown off, yelled at, humiliated, among many other horrors. For example, it took three years to get a cast on my broken hand. So, it’s really important to me to pass Health Care for ALL Oregon and on the West Coast, while at the same time changing the way people think about healthcare. Many folks are taught to run to the doctor’s office for every piece of advice about how to take care of our bodies, but there’s so much people can do themselves just by changing what we put in our bodies and other daily habits.

Q. What is your favorite song, book or movie?

A. I’m really into this Beyonce song called “Freedom:” “Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move, freedom, cut me loose! Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? Cause I need freedom too! I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell. Hey! Ima gonna keep running cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.”

Q. Is there anything else you want people to know?

A. Please join me in this work at RealChoiceOregon.com and HCAO.org (Health Care for ALL Oregon). Let go of the next glass ceiling, raise the floor and build from the ground up.

BRAVE Leaders Build Power for Reproductive Justice

Story submitted by Western States Center

Emily Lai flashing the peace sign. Photo courtesy of Momentum Alliance.

Western States Center’s We are BRAVE project supports leaders of color to advance policy and create cultural change to improve communities of color’s access to reproductive healthcare.

The success of BRAVE is highlighted by the personal and professional development of Emily Lai. A BRAVE leader, Emily began her reproductive justice journey as part of We are Brave’s 2015 cohort.

“Honestly, the only reason I am able to do reproductive justice work in Oregon is because of BRAVE,” said Emily. “The dedicated staff at Western States Center has tirelessly and lovingly cultivated a sacred space for communities of color to come together to articulate our experiences with injustices and our visions for justice. BRAVE is a place for us to heal, to bond, and to build our individual and collective strength to advocate for ourselves and reproductive justice."

BRAVE provided the space for Emily to align her commitment to social justice and young people, and her own personal self-determination for reproductive autonomy as a young person. Currently, Emily works with Momentum Alliance as a Reproductive Justice Camp Coordinator where she lives and practices reproductive justice values and leadership with young people. Her professional development parallels BRAVE’s theory of change. Lai often expresses how her participation in BRAVE helped shape her intersection lens for how and whom she works with; the process for how to apply and integrate reproductive justice values; and strength to voice the importance of young people’s role in their own reproductive autonomy. 

"I work for a youth-led social justice nonprofit called Momentum Alliance. This year, at our fundraiser, one of our sponsors withdrew their sponsorship as soon as they found out that we were voicing our support for abortion access at our fundraiser. I was a little intimidated and discouraged from publicly and unequivocally supporting abortion access. But my organization rallied behind me, and I believe that BRAVE gave our organization the courage—the BRAVEry, if you will—to unapologetically stand up for abortion access."

The BRAVE project creates the conditions to leverage leadership through the introduction of reproductive justice core concepts. BRAVE leaders connect those concepts to policy and cultural change to achieve positive health outcomes for families. We realize that communities that respect the dignity and self-determination of all people, particularly young people, are integral to positive early life and childhood development.

Western States Center and Momentum Alliance are both Kaiser Permanente Community Fund funded partners. Momentum Alliance is also the lead organization of a Healthy Beginnings+Healthy Communities Collaborative.

Oregon's COFA Islanders are this close to winning health care coverage

"EMERGENCY" sign.

A bill passed during the 2015 Legislative Session may finally lead to health coverage for many of Oregon's Pacific Islanders.

Citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, subject to a U.S. diplomatic act known as the Compact of Free Association (COFA), are allowed to live and work in the U.S. and join the U.S. military. They also pay taxes, yet they have severely limited access to Medicaid. This is a particularly heavy burden for COFA Islanders, as many suffer from chronic health conditions due to U.S. use of the COFA Islands as a nuclear test site in the mid-nineties.

This summer, COFA Alliance National Network (CANN), with support from the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and other partners, organized to advocate for health coverage. They succeeded in raising awareness of the issue, convincing several Oregon legislators to champion their cause, and ushering House Bill 2522 through Congress. 

HB 2522, which was signed by Governor Kate Brown, directs the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services to begin designing a premium assistance program for COFA Islanders.

We're crossing our fingers for more definitive action during the short session in 2016!

Read more about this issue in the Portland Business Journal.

Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon is a Kaiser Permanente Community Fund funded partner. They are also a lead organizer of one of our Healthy Beginnings+Healthy Communities Collaboratives.

Moving the Health Care Constituency

A woman and a man in suits talking to each other.

OSPIRG is a 35-year old advocacy organization, with a full-time legislative presence at the capitol, tens of thousands of members across Oregon, and an online activist network of thousands of people.

In 2009, OSPIRG collaborated with Oregonians for Health Security (OHS), a leading voice in healthcare advocacy in Oregon, to split a one-year, $40,000 grant. The funding enabled the two groups to reach out to 30,000 Oregonians at community events, on the phone, online, and through media – all in an effort to mobilize support for a legislative bill to improve access to health care for all Oregonians.

Influenced by this, and fifteen other healthcare advocacy efforts funded by the Foundation, the Oregon Legislature passed two bills that are expected to cover 95% of Oregon’s uninsured children and extend coverage to an additional 35,000 low-income adults while instituting a reformed model of healthcare delivery for Oregonians.

“This may be the most important piece of legislation that we pass out of this building this session. This is a good deal for Oregon,” said Senator Alan Bates (D-Ashland).