Oregon refugee office’s first director talks about goals for new agency

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
April 5, 2022 9:03 p.m.

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie says her goal is to be a bridge between state government and immigrant and refugee communities.

Izzie Cing, left, and her mother Niang Cing hold welcome signs as they wait for a family to arrive at Portland International Airport, Nov. 20, 2021. The family are some of the hundreds of refugees who have recently made their way from Afghanistan to Oregon.

Izzie Cing, left, and her mother Niang Cing hold welcome signs as they wait for a family to arrive at Portland International Airport, Nov. 20, 2021. The family are some of the hundreds of refugees who have recently made their way from Afghanistan to Oregon.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


Last year, Oregon lawmakers created the state’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement, and last month, the office got its first director. Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie arrived in the U. S. as a refugee with her family about 40 years ago. She went on to work as a director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities and, most recently, served as the director of community health for the state’s largest coordinated care organization.

Soneoulay-Gillespie joined OPB’s “Think Out Loud®” to talk about her life, her work experiences and her plans for this new office.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Dave Miller: Can you remind us what this new office is supposed to bring to Oregon government that hasn’t been there before?

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie: Big question, Dave. So, aside from what’s written in the bill, I like to think that this office is uniquely positioned to serve differently, demonstrate how our state government serves differently people in community, particularly our immigrant and refugee community. I like to think that it’s going to serve as a bridge, a connector — not just among the state agencies and policymakers, but also with immigrant and refugee communities.

Miller: What does it mean to be a bridge?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: So, if we really unpack what bridging is, it’s taking the time to really get to know state agencies, immigrant and refugee organizations — what are their needs? what are their strengths? — and not be the one to speak for them, but really be, I hate to keep using the word “bridge,” but that connector.

Miller: Does that mean that it’s it’s your job, among other people’s, to make sure that those state agencies or offices understand the communities that they need to be serving?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Yes. I think we need to spend a little bit more time in the space of education, awareness about who immigrants are, who refugees are and then vice versa.

Miller: If I understand this correctly, it wasn’t clear for a while where this new office was going to be housed, but now you’re a part of Oregon’s Department of Human Services?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Yeah, I will be in July. I will be part of the largest state agency in the state of Oregon. That’s really exciting.

Miller: What do you see as the significance of being in DHS?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I think DHS, if we really think about it as a larger system, It’s not just a safety net. It really brings not just community and service providers together, but it has ... there’s a thread about DHS, where you think about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or aging and disability services, right? I just feel like it has a very unique way of serving people who are not just new to the country, but who fall in the category of those who are low-income, those who are on the margins.

Miller: I thought if you don’t mind, we could turn to a little bit of your own family’s story. My understanding is you were born in Thailand in a refugee camp and then when you and your family came to the states, you bounced around a lot at first — first in New York City briefly, and then Salt Lake City, then Idaho, then Fresno for a while, and then Kodiak Island, Alaska, for a while as well. But to go back to those first, early years in the U.S., what are some of your earliest memories of life in the states?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Can I keep it real, Dave?

Miller: Please.

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I mean, early life was difficult. Here’s me watching but also helping my parents navigate starting a new life in a new country, speaking very limited English, and then raising six children. You got everything from the excitement of folks who want you here, and then there’s the other spectrum of, “You need to go back to your country.” So, at a young age, I’m watching my parents navigate this. It was both painful, but also a huge learning. I didn’t understand the learning of course until I got older.

Miller: How old were you when you were actually doing the work of helping them navigate, whether it was language or bureaucracy or whatever, but but helping your parents make their way through life in the U.S.? How old were you when that started?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I would say six or seven, first and second grade.

Miller: What kinds of stuff would you do then?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Oh my gosh, we would be there at the Social Security office when my parents lost their social security card, standing there at public assistance, applying for food stamps and cash, applying for Section 8 housing, low-income housing. Those are the things that I had to help them do, and then those are the things [where] I started to see my community, my larger community, experience similar challenges.


Miller: That’s such an immense responsibility on a six or seven or even a 13-year-old’s shoulders, and it’s also the reverse of the way we think about the power roles and responsibilities in terms of kids and their parents. What did it feel like to have that responsibility?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I knew at the time that it was a responsibility that I had, being the daughter of two refugees who fled war. I am their legacy. I always say I’m the daughter of Phouvong and Soulideth. That’s mom and dad. I have a responsibility to make sure that they are getting access, they are being seen. My life was spared. So, I had to do these things, but I hated it of course, growing up. I wanted to be “American” and I’ll put air quotes on that.

Miller: What did that mean? Let’s look at the air quotes. I mean, when you were growing up, what did you [think] it meant to be “American” that you didn’t feel like you were?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Oh, going to school dances, having a boyfriend, going to the movies, being able to go out and spend time with your friends and just be free and not have the responsibility of not only helping my parents navigate, but also helping to raise my five siblings.

Miller: How much do you think that those experiences — everything you’re talking about, but broadly this this responsibility to help your family — how much do you think that played into your decision to pursue the career that you did?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: That had everything to do with it. If I were still 10 years old, of course I wouldn’t know this, but now that I’m older, all grown up now, it’s this like, wow, the pain and the suffering and the sacrifices that my parents and the larger immigrant and refugee community experienced is what prepared me for this, this work so that others don’t have to experience what my family and other immigrant refugee families had to experience. I mean, we’re in the United States of America. We have resources. We’ve got to be able to do better.

Miller: I want to go back to what we started with, which is that you see broadly the role of your office as a kind of bridge between state government agencies or other departments in the state and various immigrant and refugee communities. What do you think that people who have not been immigrants themselves, or refugees, most misunderstand about the day-to-day experiences or the day-to-day needs of these diverse communities?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Wow, that’s it’s very layered. I mean, you’ve got folks who think, — again, I’ll use air quotes — “those people, what are they doing here?” And there’s other folks who feel like they should be here, we should be here, and then there’s all the middle ground. So, there’s a lot of different perspectives about this community, and I think even when we talk about immigrants and refugees, there’s layers even within those groups. That’s why I think education and raising awareness has to be the basics, first.

Miller: I’m glad you brought up the variations, gigantic variations, between immigrants and refugees, which includes people who maybe are itinerant farm workers, and it includes people who make a ton of money in high tech in Beaverton or wherever else, and then so many other varieties of variation that we could also think about. How helpful is it to have all these different versions of immigrant or refugee experience all under one roof in your office?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I think it’s both a gift as well as a complexity. I don’t know if that’s a great way to describe it, but I see that as an opportunity to really help people understand this community of people, who happened to come from all over the world. There’s a beauty in that, Dave.

Miller: I noted that you previously worked at the state’s largest Medicaid organization, Health Share of Oregon, as the director of community health. To what extent did that job prepare you to do what you’re going to be doing now?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Oh, my goodness! I’m so happy you asked that question because if I were to have come straight from the resettlement program at Catholic Charities, I would not have been prepared.

Miller: Well, the reason I ask is because refugee resettlement was in that your title there. So, it would seem like that would be a perfectly good way to to figure out your current job. So, what were you missing that you were able to get in your most recent job?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Yeah. Learning about Medicaid, or Oregon Health Plan — same thing, but I didn’t understand the benefits and then the array of services that exist within health care and, to be specific, health plans, and then, of course, the CCO world. The four and a half years that I had worked there opened not only my eyes, but my heart and understanding how systems work. It’s very complicated, health care is, but what I didn’t understand is how pivotal it could be to support the refugee resettlement structure.

Miller: I’m interested in one of the words embedded in the title of your office. So, you’re the new head of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement. What does “advancement” mean to you?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Well, if you think of my own journey, if advancement means to obtain an education, get a degree, be at tables where decisions are made, be a part of laws getting passed, then that’s what this office will help to bridge.

Miller: You see yourself as a success story?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Well, it depends on how you describe success. I get asked that question often. I said, well, my parents who came here to this country, raising six kids, putting three of us through school, college, university, and then the other three in and out of the judicial system. Is that success? I like to say that it is. 50-50, right? Or depends on how you think even about the judicial system. So, I think all of those experiences that I was being gifted from my parents and my community. I just see those again as opportunities to really help shape how policies are created, how decisions are being made and how programs are designed.

Miller: What most helped you along the way?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: Oh, what didn’t help me? And I think there are folks on this call right now — they know who they are — who helped shape me, taught me about what it is to understand how bureaucracy works, how the education system works. I am here because of my parents and my ancestors; they are who ground me in this work, but the folks who gave me a chance and helped to teach me the dos and don’t, if you will, of what it’s like to live in America, I just wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.

Miller: The people you’re talking about or or what you got from them — how much of that do you think could be provided or could be made more readily available by government? Because that’s your realm right now. You’re you’re the director of an Oregon office. And I guess I’m wondering, because the way you’re describing it seems a lot like the importance of interpersonal help along the way, or people who believe in you, or people who can mentor you or teach you, and I’m curious the overlap you see between that kind of interpersonal world and the world of a state bureaucracy.

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I wish we had more time, Dave. When we talk about bureaucracy, it’s a really big, complex, scary, intimidating structure. But when we talk about serving people, it has to be grounded in relationships. But when we talk about relationships, many of us are like, “well, we don’t have time.” When we talk about equity, how do we center equity in terms of what the Racial Justice Council is talking about? How do we do that? It’s going to take time to do. It’s going to take resources and finances to make that work. I know it sounds basic, but that’s what we have to use to push against, air quotes again, “bureaucracy.” We have to be able to think differently about how we serve humans. No one wants to take time to do that, but then we end up taking time later to fix it. How do we start to cultivate storytelling? Making sure that those pieces are part of conversations, how narrative communicators like myself get to be part of these meetings where it’s very linear. How does this office model a different way, a different approach to the word “serving?”

Miller: How will you know that your office is making a difference?

Soneoulay-Gillespie: I think so much of that will be determined by the immigrant and refugee community. We have to earn trust from them. It’s not about building trust. We have to earn that trust from the immigrant and refugee community. That’s going to take time.

To listen to Think Out Loud’s conversation with Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, click the “play” button at the top of the page.


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