The product of two decades of multiracial grassroots organizing, Unite Oregon’s (UO) 22,000-strong membership is focused on addressing racial justice and human rights issues for immigrants, refugees, people of color, and low-income Oregonians. While Oregon is perceived to be a liberal state, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Black sentiments and factions are more prevalent than outsiders might expect. Unite Oregon’s four chapters span urban, suburban, and rural parts of the state providing connection to a population that has diverse cultural, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds.
Relationships are the key ingredient of Unite Oregon’s work and what drives its impact. The communities UO serves are represented in both its membership and its staff, many of whom were hired after taking part in its leadership development programs. The community-embedded nature of the organization is valuable to its efforts to build relationships and gain a deeper understanding of the specific priorities, so that those priorities can be centered in its policy work. Rather than speaking on behalf of people, Unite Oregon seeks to empower them to advocate for themselves, creating a space for their voices at the decision-making table. This approach has been instrumental in UO’s wins, the most significant of which was the passage of the strongest hate crime bill in the country. The stories of hundreds of people who showed up and told their stories at a listening session had a profound impact on the state’s attorney general and, consequently, the outcome of the legislation. 2021 resulted in a confluence of crises for the state and Unite Oregon, perhaps more than at any one time in its 20-year history. With members still dealing with the effects of the pandemic, the racial uprising and resulting backlash, and the devastating wildfires that swept through Oregon in 2020, a massive heatwave broke historical records, as temperatures reached 119 degrees and more than 100 people died. In addition to helping support immediate needs in communities due to the extreme weather event, Unite Oregon has deepened its commitment to climate justice and is developing a long-term vision for community shelters that can also serve as community organizing centers
Despite all of the challenges, as well as a leadership transition, Unite Oregon not only survived but thrived, increasing its staff by 50 percent. This growth includes more communications capacity to help influence policy shifts through storytelling. With the support of RISE Together Fund, UO has also continued the Pan-Immigrant Leadership and Organizing Training or PILOT, one of its longest-held leadership development programs, and began putting plans in place for a small business incubator and other new initiatives that will strengthen their impact for years to come.