On October 2, 2010, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) held the “Shaping Our Future: Community Needs Assessment and Development (CNAD) Conference” for the refugee and immigrant communities of Oregon. The goals of the Conference were (1) to assess and prioritize the community development needs of each of the newly-arrived as well as the more established immigrant and refugee communities and (2) to collaboratively set goals to address those needs through cohesive programming, community advocacy, and policy change that promote self-sufficiency and integration. The conference, which was held at the Monarch Hotel, included a) plenary sessions with guest policymakers who spoke about current policies and programs and successful strategies for integration and b) participant breakout sessions devoted to the following topical areas: 1) K-12 and Adult Education, 2) Physical and Mental Health, 3) Employment and Job Training, 4) Housing, 5) Public Safety and Crime Prevention, 6) Economic Development, 7) Transportation, 8) Civic Engagement, 9) Equity, 10) Immigration, 11) Family Resources, 12) Arts and Culture, and 13) Other. The breakout sessions were divided into four broad community groups based upon ethnicity and length of time in the United States: Asian Pacific Islander (API), African Refugees and Immigrants, Slavic Refugees and Immigrants and New Arrivals.
In total, 206 community members from 34 ethnic groups took part in the day’s activities. Connie Nguyen-Truong, who served as the Master of Ceremonies, opened the conference and introduced Sokhom Tauch, IRCO’s executive director, who gave a Welcoming Address and review of IRCO’s work in carrying out the last CNAD conference recommendations from 2005.
The first plenary session, moderated by IRCO Board member, Nhu To-Haynes, began with the following four speakers who examined the “Existing Framework and Vision for Integration:” Rhonda Prodzinski, Manager of the Oregon State Refugee Program, Tricia Tillman, Director of the Oregon State Office of Multicultural Health and Services, Andrew McGough, Executive Director of Worksystems, Inc., and Lee Girard, Community Services Program Manager for Multnomah County Aging and Disability Services. During the luncheon, Jeff Cogen, Chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners spoke about Multnomah County’s commitment to continuing culturally specific services to achieve its equity goals for refugees, immigrants and other minorities.
The afternoon plenary session, moderated by David Rebanal of the Northwest Health Foundation, focused on “Struggles and Successes: Lessons Learned.” Speakers included Professor Ann Curry-Stevens of the Portland State University School of Social Work, Ronault (Polo) Catalani, IRCO Board member and Program Coordinator for New Portlanders with the City of Portland’s Office of Human Relations, Donita Fry, the Portland Youth and Elders Council Organizer with the Native American Youth and Family Center, Johnell Bell, Field Representative of U.S. Senator Merkley, and Gloria Wiggins of El Programa Hispano.
The community breakout sessions identified the following critical issues and solutions:
Asian Pacific Islander:
The API community’s top priority was immigration issues particularly concerning the lack of services after refugee status ends, the loss of benefits for seniors who do not become citizens, and acculturation barriers and sponsorship requirements. Participants identified community education as the best means of addressing these issues.
Issues under the second priority, physical and mental health, centered on a) health care barriers and accessibility issues for seniors and disabled, insurance for sponsored family members, and availability of interpreters, b) barriers for mental health services for newcomers, and c) environmental health concerns. API participants suggested developing a directory of mental health services and community health workers to assist with access and provide community education. Participants would like more government assistance to make insurance affordable and violence intervention services.
The third priority, employment and job training, focused on the need for career and English training for newcomers to resume former careers, older workers who have been laid off, and new career paths such as green jobs as well as the need to network to help find jobs. Employment assistance is needed in the areas of resume writing, job search and volunteering as an employment strategy, while youth need assistance in selecting classes to prepare them for the job market and careers.
Education was the fourth priority with financial literacy, gang prevention, and cultural awareness training as service needs. Other priorities in descending importance included a) equity concerns around racial discrimination, b) transportation barriers particularly for seniors, c) public safety and crime prevention concerns about gang violence and human trafficking, d) civic engagement around creating scholarships, acculturation programs, working with other communities, and more effective volunteer outreach and engagement, e) affordable housing, f) arts and culture to preserve cultural identity and g) economic development supports such as small loans for new businesses.
African Immigrants and Refugees:
The main priority for African immigrant and refugee community was education. Concerns included placing refugee children in grade levels according to their age rather than by their actual academic skill level, language barriers, culturally inappropriate food and dress codes, and growth in dropout rates. Adult education barriers included inconveniently located and scheduled classes and non-expert ESL instructors. Solutions included more ESL classes targeted to different demographics such as seniors, home tutors, better trained ESL instructors, onsite classes in housing complexes, skill assessments before children are placed in a grade level, better parent-teacher communication, parent education and tutoring, and second language education.
The second highest priority was family resources needed for single mothers with large families, parenting and child discipline, and seniors who are isolated, homebound, and without jobs or SSI. Solutions included community or family mentors targeted to the needs of seniors, women, and children, youth and parenting support and education. The third priority identified was health and mental health issues. Health care barriers included the high cost of medical care, lack of insurance, loss of medical assistance after eight months in the U.S., insufficient youth, preventive and chronic disease care, lack of health awareness and nutritional knowledge, unaffordable healthy and nutritious food, and inaccessible mental health care for depressed community members. Solutions included assistance for families to obtain physical and mental health insurance and health awareness training.
Housing was the fourth priority with the principal problem being the high cost of housing in relation to income, too little Section 8 housing, large families with inadequate housing, growing homelessness for single, temporary and impermanent jobs and housing discrimination. Solutions included more affordable housing, housing cash assistance, and permanent, higher paying jobs. Employment and job training was the fifth priority with employment barriers such as the lack of prior work experience in the U.S, lack of education, lack of English, and the cost of transportation and childcare. There are inadequate job, computer skills, and vocational training available to meet employment needs. Solutions included more job development for clients after eight months in the country, more credit for past employment experience, networking, transportation options, more tolerance for women’s cultural dress codes, and increased basic job, vocational, and ESL classes linked to employment.
The immigration process with the short eight-month period of support for refugees was the fifth priority as was the challenge of integrating into U.S. society. Other priorities in descending importance included: 1) the high cost of transportation particularly for accessing services, jobs, and seniors, 2) equity issues around racial discrimination in housing, education, and jobs, 3) arts/cultural issues such as creating after school programs in traditional arts and culture, and 4) more civic engagement for the community to have a voice among policymakers.
Slavic Refugees and Immigrants:
Since all the Slavic participants were seniors, most of their concerns reflect their demographic needs. The highest priority was physical and mental health, with participants noting the high cost of medical care, misunderstandings of insurance and Medicare, and health care barriers such as transportation and language. Solutions included community education in Russian about medicine and health care in the U.S., more Russian speaking personnel in health care facilities, including a direct Russian language telephone line, and decreased co-pays for eye and dental care.
Education was the second highest priority with participants noting the low English skills of seniors, lack of knowledge about American history, educational gaps for youth, and lack of knowledge of childrearing and parenting rights in the U.S. Solutions included classes about America, ESL for seniors, and parenting education. A mix of other needs such as interpretation services, energy assistance, and affordable funeral planning came in as the third priority. Other priorities in descending importance included: 1) employment and training needs included more job development services, 2) more subsidized housing, 3) better and more affordable transportation options for shopping, medical care, and going to meetings, 4) public safety and crime prevention focused on youth delinquency and the need for a Russian language line for the police, 4) equity issues included the need for more interpretation services, 5) for arts and culture suggestions included developing a Russian Community Center and free/low cost activities for children, and 6) the need to register to vote for more civic engagement.
Newly arrived refugees ranked employment and training as their highest priority with needs that include a lack of employment opportunities, insufficient job training in specific dialects, and ongoing unemployment after eight months. Solutions included more specialized employment, job readiness and English skills training meeting the job market demand as well as advanced training for those with professional backgrounds. More job coaches from the newcomer communities, more job interview practice, three-month trial job placements are needed, extended benefits for those who are still employed after eight months, more pre-employment training, and transportation assistance to attend community college are needed.
The second highest priority was housing with many having low paying jobs living in housing whose cost exceeds their income. More public housing with no pre-determination requirements, resources for low- income housing, information is needed about housing options, cash assistance to cover full cost of rent, and information on home ownership are needed. The third highest priority for the new arrivals was access to health and mental health services because of the high cost of medical care when medical benefits expire after eight months, lack of health insurance, over usage of emergency rooms, and language barriers to make an appointments Solutions included extending medical benefits beyond the eight months, more Oregon Health Plan coverage, and indefinite benefits for those with disabilities. Other solutions included education on accessing low cost and free health care, more primary language interpreters at clinics and educating medical professionals on culturally appropriate practices.
Other priorities in descending importance included: 1) support for arts, culture and religion and for presenting their cultures to the community at large, 2) immigration issues such as culture shock and language barriers, 3) equity concerns surrounding illiteracy as a barrier to getting a job and over reliance on interpreters rather than bilingual staff in offices, 4) transportation issues such as learning how to drive, getting a car, and barriers for youth and senior, and 5) civic engagement including engaging more people as volunteers and citizenship barriers.
Summary of Specific Issues for All Communities
Reflecting the overall poor economy and need for jobs of new arrivals, employment and job training are clearly the number one priority for all conference participants. Issues included: the lack of living wage jobs, employment barriers such as lack of English skills, lack of education and transferrable skills, transportation costs, and child care cost, need for English and job skills, job orientation, computer skills, workplace language, and job specific skills training, career training, networking, and the cutoff of public assistance after 8 months in the country. Recommended solutions included: more pre-employment classes, job oriented training and job readiness training tied to the job market, advanced and career specific training, more bilingual/bicultural job coaches, specialized job marketing, more youth workforce programs, enhanced support system and public assistance, and developing a network of volunteers to mentor others.
Again reflecting the overall poor economy, lack of health insurance for the unemployed, and the concerns of seniors, the following physical and mental health issues emerged for all conference participants. Health care barriers included the high cost of health care, lack of insurance, language, transportation, and lack of knowledge of how to access care. Families also do not have sufficient nutritional information, face cultural and access barriers to mental health care, and do not understand how environmental health affects their health and well being. Recommended solutions included: Bilingual/bicultural community health workers to connect community members to services and educate them about physical and mental health issues and services, assistance obtaining insurance after 8 months in the country, more bilingual health care providers, and violence intervention services.
The poor economy, low wages, high unemployment and scarcity of affordable housing, also helped housing issues to emerge as the third highest priority. The core problem is the high cost of housing and shortage of affordable housing in relation to low incomes due to impermanent jobs, unemployment, under employment, low wages, and inadequate public assistance. As a result homelessness is growing. Housing discrimination affects families as well. Recommended solutions included more affordable housing, whether public or private, low income, Section 8, or subsidized, more housing assistance, better employment, and home ownership assistance.
Both K-12 and adult education emerged at the fourth highest priority for conference participants. Problems included children being places in grade levels by age rather than skill level while adults, particularly women and seniors struggle with learning English. There is a need for ESL and adult education classes targeted to differing demographics and provided at times and places convenient for single mothers and seniors. Participants want children to be given basic skill assessments before placement in grade levels, more parent-teacher communication, parent education and tutoring, and special classes and activities.
The following immigration issues were the fifth priority across all the groups: too short of a resettlement period for refugees, barriers to sponsorship and family reunification, and difficulties integrating such as learning English and becoming socially isolated. Participants recommended more community education in appropriate languages.
The following equity issues ranked as the sixth highest priority for participants: discrimination in housing, education and jobs, lack of adequate interpretation and bilingual staff, and illiteracy. Family resource and other issues were the seventh highest priority and focused on women’s barriers to becoming self-sufficient, reliance on traditional parenting that do not work in the U.S., and senior isolation and inability to meet the legal age-requirements for defining a senior. Solutions included having volunteer mentors to coach and advise seniors, women, and children, youth and parenting supports, parenting education, and funeral planning assistance. Transportation tied with arts and culture for conference participants.
The high cost of transportation is a barrier for seniors and for employed refugees, particularly for those who don’t drive. Participants, who overall prioritized arts and cultural issues as number eight, suggested more cultural preservation programs to reduce social isolation and the creation of a Slavic Community Center. Public safety and crime prevention, ranking number nine, were of most interest to the Slavic and Asian Pacific Islander populations. Despite the bad economy, economic development was of little interest to the participants except for the API community. Tied for lowest priority was civic engagement. Here the API, Slavic, and African communities, who are participating in IRCO’s civic engagement program, saw this as a priority.