This month, Oregon’s Legislature swore in its most diverse set of lawmakers to date. Among them is Kayse Jama. He’s been a prominent community organizer in the Portland metro area, and across the state, for about 20 years. In that time, he’s worked to lift up the voices of immigrant, low-income and historically marginalized Oregonians.
Jama is an immigrant himself, having fled a war-torn Somalia two decades ago.
OPB’s “All Things Considered” Host Tiffany Camhi spoke with the senator about some of his priorities in his first legislative session.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tiffany Camhi: You were selected by the commissioners of both Multnomah and Clackamas counties to fill outgoing state Sen. Shamia Fagan’s seat, and your district covers parts of both counties. You’ve said that you want to empower communities whose voices are not often heard in Salem. How do you plan on doing that?
Sen. Kayse Jama: Senate District 24 is one of the most diverse districts in our state. It’s home to many, many linguistically diverse communities, immigrant refugees and low-income Oregonians. This district really has a lot of needs, but it also has a lot of opportunity to address some of the issues that we’re facing.
At heart, I’m a community organizer. I spent 20 years working with a diverse population. As an organizer, my hope is always to bring the community that I represent to Salem. And one way to do that of course, is being there. I have deep relationships with the community organizations. My hope is that my extensive experience working with the community will actually allow me to bring those diverse voices to the table.
Camhi: You were a co-founder and the executive director of Unite Oregon, which is a coalition aimed at improving racial and economic justice for people of color, immigrants, refugees and people from low-income backgrounds. How do you think your time with that nonprofit will inform your decisions as a lawmaker?
Jama: I think just working with the community and really meeting [them] where they are and also listening. If you give them the opportunity, they will come up with solutions that really reflect their daily life experience.
We worked with multiple issues: racial justice, economic justice and immigrant issues for the last 20 years as an organization. And that really taught me one thing: You have to really allow the community to get involved in the issues that they care [about] most. And I’m hoping to continue that path, of bringing people to the table and having the opportunity for them to discuss issues that they care about. That definitely will help us to come up with better, more inclusive policies. And it will help the state to be more inclusive for all Oregonians.
Camhi: You’re a member of Oregon’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color Caucus and it released its agenda last week. Are there certain bills from this that you’ll be especially focused on?
Jama: The housing crisis is going to be one of my issues that I want to address. As I was campaigning or talking to the community members, it was very clear in my district that the community is suffering, they’re struggling. They don’t know where their next paycheck will be coming from. So the goal is going to be really addressing some of those [short-term housing] issues around COVID-19, but also making sure that we have a long-term strategy, whether it is through creating the opportunity for home ownership or creating more affordable housing stocks in our state.
But also I have a long history of working in police accountability and criminal justice reform. We are reckoning with the racial justice issues in this state...and we need to deal with [those]. There’s some amazing work happening already. My colleague in the House, Rep. Janelle Bynum and Sen. Lew Frederick and other leaders in the state have been really working to address some of those issues.
Measure 110 is something that I really was passionate about.
Camhi: That’s the measure that decriminalizes small amounts of illicit drugs.
Jama: Yes, it does. It will create more funding for drug treatment programs. It will create more drug treatment opportunities for the Oregonians who are struggling with addiction. So my hope is to implement Measure 110 the way that the voters intend it to work.
Of course, there are so many other issues that we are dealing with as a state. And I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues to address them. And of course, we all know that people of color, immigrant refugees, and low-income Oregonians are disproportionately impacted by those issues that I highlight.
Camhi: You’re now the Oregon Legislature’s first refugee senator and first Muslim senator. Considering the recent occupation of the state house in Salem by far-right extremists and the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol, do you feel safe as a lawmaker? And how do you square these recent attacks with the work that you want to do?
Jama: I think we’re all devastated by what happened in Washington, D.C. My safety of course concerns me and, of course, all of us who are serving. If we don’t think that we have safety issues, I think we’ll all be naive. But I think what I’m really more concerned about are the women and men who are either immigrant refugees, people of color, who are being harassed or attacked in our city and our state on a daily basis. So their safety and freedom for me is what I’ve been more concerned about more than anything else.
We all know that this country really has a lot of history around race and racism. My focus is more about data with systematic and structural racism that we have as a state, so we can really address some of the inequities that we are facing as a community.
To hear the full conversation with Oregon State Sen. Kayse Jama, click play on the audio player at the top of this article.