Andrii Nagornyi is the Slavic Leadership Program Coordinator at the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), a role he took on after serving as the Slavic Youth Advocate for over two years. Andrii moved to the United States from Ukraine a little more than three years ago. We asked him to share his thoughts about civic engagement as a participant of the Code Change process
Which community conversation or gathering did you attend?
It was the Slavic community conversation. We have a few IRCO staff members who attended, and I helped with organizing. There were more than 50 people from the Slavic community who came.
What are some of the ways that you have already engaged with Portlanders?
We brought together community members through IRCO’s leadership program. Our community also has held civic engagement classes. Instead of organizing things at IRCO, we go out to communities and have ESL classes at churches. That is how we engage with our communities. We offer different classes—they can be as simple as CPR, or they can be on different topics like immigration. The community understands their needs and is willing to work with us to let us know what they need.
We have recruited a lot of business owners, pastors, government employees, and other leaders onto the Slavic Advisory Board. Those people are the ones who help us navigate the system. They help us understand and serve as a bridge to the city. This helps us work with thousands and thousands of others. We all work together to develop a center, and the Slavic Advisory board members play an important part in that.
IRCO provides many services for the community: preschool, SUN program, employment, immigration, seniors. If the community could see outcomes from advocacy work, it would build the trust and engage of people to participate. The [Slavic and Eastern European Heritage Week] Proclamation last year and the year before was important for us. The Slavic proclamation was initiated by the Slavic Empowerment Team in the city of Portland and was signed by the mayor on January 9th. We brought all the community together and we invited as many commissioners and government workers as we could to IRCO for a celebration the next night, on January 10th. We invited everyone to taste a little bit of our food, and to celebrate our culture.
What do you want to make sure we include, that we don’t miss through this process?
I would really like to see some more Slavic staff in office—elected office and working in government. We need to raise up these leaders who can actually represent Slavic communities on school boards and in city institutions. We are doing poorly with that and we need to educate our community about that. Slavic people need resources in their own language. If there is any way, we want to gather together to teach our people about engagement and advocacy. If we both do this work, we can bring this work outside of our churches, out of our bubbles, to make our city better.
The biggest thing is to help establish a specific place with the services that people need. It can be helpful for our families to know about and to come get services. I think this is something they didn’t have for a long time, and they are slowly coming out of their shells. There are a lot of issues in the community. They are coming from a completely different government system, and it is not easy for them to navigate this system.
What is civic engagement to you?
It all starts with just educating our communities. It is important to understand that you have a voice, that you have a right to speak. You can make change, and you can advocate for what you want. Every voice was shut down, every right was shut down in our old government. You couldn’t believe in government. We have a hard time even educating our staff that it is different here.
At the end of the day, it’s about making a difference and voicing the issues in our communities. There are some things that our communities really believe in, but they don’t know how to advocate, how to talk about these things. We need to expose them to the system here, and to support them to do more testimony, more advocacy, more engagement on issues and on committees that the city offers.
Something that I am looking forward to is that the Slavic programs continue that we already have, plus leadership programs in different areas to educate and sustain the Slavic Center and bring our communities out of their shells. There are a lot of professionals within the Slavic communities who can be a resource for the City. We want to create that symbiotic relationship in which the City can invest in our health and education, and our community gives back by being more engaged.