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Oregon nonprofit sees success in getting women and women of color elected

Saturday November 21, 2020

The first Black member and first Muslim member of the Washington County Commission and Mayors-elect of West Linn and Beaverton went through Emerge Oregon training

Washington County Commissioner-elect Nafisa Fai (left) and West Linn Mayor-elect Jules Walters (right).Credit: KGW

PORTLAND, Ore. — The 2020 election saw the most women and women of color elected to Congress in history, and that trend played out on the political stage in Oregon, too.

Among those elected on Nov. 3, Nafisa Fai. She becomes both the first Black member and Muslim member of the Washington County Commission. Commissioner-elect Fai came to Oregon two decades ago from a refugee camp in Kenya, where her family had fled the civil war in their native country of Somalia.

Fai, who leads Washington County's COVID-19 contact tracing, said she's grateful voters put their trust in her and she's honored to join a list of firsts for communities of color in Oregon.

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"Jo Ann Hardesty being the first (Black woman on Portland City Council) and Carmen Rubio (the fist Latinx member on Portland City Council), and Mohamed Alyajouri, elected to the PCC Board (in 2017). They are a group of people ahead of me who I can look to for guidance and advice," she said.

Emerge Oregon offers support

Fai credits much of her campaign success to the nonprofit Emerge Oregon, which trains Democratic women to run at all levels of office. She was part of the program's class of 2018.

"Emerge Oregon really teaches you how to run for office successfully, starting with the values and passion you have for helping people," Fai said.

Jillian Schoene is the CEO of Emerge Oregon. The nonprofit has worked to recruit and train Democratic women from around the state for the past decade.

Schoene and Commissioner-elect Fai, along with West Linn Mayor-elect Jules Walters, were guests on this week's episode of "Straight Talk."

"We work with women of all ages, over 15% of whom identify as LGBTQ, over 30% are women of color, many of whom are first generation Americans. They truly represent the diversity of women we should have in elected office," Schoene said.

Shemia Fagan and Val Hoyle are Emerge Oregon graduates

Emerge Oregon counts among its successful graduates, Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, and Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan, as well as Beaverton Mayor-elect Lacey Beaty, and West Linn Mayor-Elect Jules Walters. The organization supported over 70 women up for election in the 2020 May primary and November general elections.

"In Emerge, we encourage women to run for the office that aligns with what they’re passionate about and the issues they really want to work on,” Schoene said.

Commissioner-elect Fai said she’s excited to get to work for her Washington County district, but the new responsibilities also come with some nerves.

“If I’m honest, I’m also scared," she said. "To be the first is scary. But, I’m confident we’ll make things happen for District 1 in Washington County. I want to be a voice that represents the people in our county."

Fai faces discrimination and hate online

As a Muslim woman, Fai wears a head scarf. She said she was greeted warmly and felt community-support as she campaigned, knocking on doors before the pandemic.

However, she experienced discrimination and hatred online.

“On social media, it’s completely different, unfortunately," Fai said. "It’s real easy to mobilize people with hate in their heart. There were times it got really messy and scary and I thought, 'Is the right place for me?'”

She said many of the hurtful and discriminatory responses she received came from out of state. Some people confused her with  Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, also a Somali-American Muslim.

“We took safety precautions. By the Grace of God, nothing bad happened to me,” Fai said.

Credit: Nafisa Fai

Washington County is one of Oregon's most diverse

More than one-third of Washington County residents are non-white. Schoene said the county will be well-served by Fai.

“I would like to highlight all the women of color who ran and won their races in one of the most diverse counties in the state," Schoene said. "It’s about time. I’m grateful to Nafisa and the other women who stepped up to run. It’s not easy."

Emerge Oregon sisterhood

Commissioner-elect Fai also credits Emerge Oregon for providing support that continues after the training it offers.

“One of the great things Emerge does is it gives you a network, a sisterhood, a group of women that takes you under their wings and shows you the ropes. I’ve met people I wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for Emerge,” she said.

West Linn Mayor-elect Jules Walters 

Part of that sisterhood is West Linn Mayor-elect Jules Walters, who is also a graduate of Emerge Oregon training.

Walters is a current West Linn city councilor and won the mayor’s race in a field of four candidates.

“I enjoyed the work I was doing as a councilor, and after different issues came up during that time, I really saw a need for new leadership in our city government. And when the mayoral role opened up, I decided it was time for me to step up,” Walters said.

Addressing fallout from Michael Fesser bogus arrest racism scandal 

One of those issues Mayor-elect Walters will be facing is the fallout from the bogus arrest and racial discrimination of Michael Fesser.

In 2017, Fesser, a Black man, was falsely arrested by West Linn police in a conspiracy between the former West Linn police chief and Fesser’s former employer, a Portland towing company. Fesser had complained to his former boss he was facing racial discrimination. That employer asked his friend, the police chief, to build a case against Fesser and arrest him before he could sue his company.

Ultimately, Fesser won a $600,000 wrongful arrest settlement against the city of West Linn. One of the largest settlements of its type in Oregon history.

Mayor-elect Walters said she was outraged when she learned about what happened, and pledged that making sure nothing like it happens again in West Linn is one of her top priorities.

“I agree to hold myself accountable to fixing things," she said. "We’ve done several pieces of work this year. Last night, I was in a meeting with our police oversight task force. That’s something I proposed to the city council."

Walters also said they have a citizens group with a wide variety of backgrounds working together to create an entity that will oversee the police department. Citizens with complaints can bring them there instead of to the police department. She said they will also have an independent arm that will look at the complaints and decide which ones to investigate.

Walters also said the city of West Linn is undergoing an equity audit, as well as several investigations including one involving the Department of Justice.

Fesser frustrated with West Linn

In a panel discussion in October, Fesser expressed frustration and disappointment with the city of West Linn for not moving fast enough toward real change.

Mayor-elect Walters said she understands Fesser’s frustration and that she, too, sometimes feels the same way. However, she pledged to Fesser that things will change.

“I can pledge to him that I’m working and have been working very hard," she said. "And will not stop until I feel like we have come to a place where I feel we can really grow and change as a community."

Building bridges

Walters called Fesser a ”great man,” and said he’s been working with the community of West Linn to try to bring about change.

“He’s met with our youth," Walters said. :He’s met with many in our community to try to bring us together and bridge us with his community in Northeast Portland."

It’s work she would like to continue with him, especially when it becomes easier after the pandemic.

'Hate is unacceptable'

Emerge Oregon CEO Jillian Schoene said she’s confident Mayor-elect Walters is the leader who can bring about change in West Linn.

“We need leaders like Jules who can make it very clear to everyone in the community that any form of hate is unacceptable," Schoene said. "And who are committed to the change we need for the long term. I believe 110% Jules will deliver."

Other priorities for West Linn

Walters said she has a whole list of priorities, in addition to police reform and making West Linn a welcoming community for all. She pointed to transportation issues as one of those priorities.

“There’s a plan to toll I-205 just here around our city, which I don’t find as equitable,” she said. “It’s disproportionately putting a lot of diversion traffic on our roads.”

Walters wants to repair and build new regional partnerships, so West Linn is at the table when decisions are made involving transportation, housing and infrastructure. She wants to improve the communication outreach in West Linn to make more data-driven informed decisions. She also wants to examine how the city has responded to the recent wildfires and to the pandemic.

Encouraging women to get involved

Emerge Oregon’s Schoene encouraged women to get involved whether it’s running for office, joining a committee or attending their community’s city council meetings.

“Our elected leaders can’t do it all on their own," Schoene said. "Show up at those meetings. Share with our elected leaders what is going on. Help them be successful in their jobs."

Women who are interested in finding out more about possibly running for office can check out the Emerge Oregon website. It offers a variety of programs and boot camps.

'It’s a great day to be an Oregonian'

Washington County Commissioner-elect Nafisa Fai said it’s a great day to be an Oregonian and encouraged others to do what she did.

“To borrow a few words from our Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan, I’m just an ordinary Oregonian and I look forward to serving our community,” she said.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 p.m., and Monday morning at 4:30 a.m. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

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