City of Portland: Office of Community and Civic Life - Immigrant and Refugee Program

Newcomers in Portland, Ore., mobilized in 2007 to elevate their voices in the community and with elected leaders. Their advocacy lead to the creation of a city program and more services for the foreign-born living in Portland. The newly rebranded and named Office of Community and Civic Life started with just two staff members before growing to include the Immigrant and Refugee Program and the New Portlanders Policy Commission advisory group. After hearing from the community, former Mayor Tom Potter joined with other city leaders to establish a taskforce made up of immigrant and refugee community members, leaders and a few city departments with the goal of identifying barriers to civic inclusion of the immigrant community. Through these efforts, the taskforce identified several recommendations outlined in the New Portlanders Speak report for the city council to implement. The creation of the New Portlanders Policy Commission, or NPPC, blossomed from the work of the task force in 2016. The NPPC is a body of 25 community leaders comprised of mostly immigrants and refugees actively involved in the community and willing to commit to a 3-year term. The positions are voluntary, and commission members receive a series of trainings including hands-on experience in leadership roles and relationship building.

The NPPC’s mission is to “integrate immigrant and refugee communities’ voices into the City of Portland’s policies and decision-making.” The NPPC is housed within the Office of Community and Civic Life, works jointly with the Immigrant and Refugee Program, and serves as a connection between city council, local partners and community leaders. With the support of nonprofits, grassroots organizations and other local partners, the commission has accomplished several integration milestones. Portland, for example, became a sanctuary city in 2018. The following year, NPPC and a dozen allies reexamined the initial New Portlanders Speak report and released the New Portlanders Speak 2.0 report, adding updated recommendations and emphasizing the importance of partnerships for implementation. Through partnerships with nonprofits and city offices, NPPC envisions forming a team of immigrants and refugees who can guide and assist newly arrived immigrants in finding employment, obtaining social services and learning the governmental structures.

The New Portlanders Speak report also recommends increasing community power, civic engagement, and working with and identifying community leaders. In response, the city launched the Diversity and Civic Leadership Program, which aims to provide grants to community organizations led by people of color in order to create programs that promote leadership development, civic engagement, community organizing and culturally competent community building, all while creating new channels of community with city officials to influence public policy. Six local organizations currently participate in the program, together, with alumni who continue to work closely with NPPC and the Office of Community and Civic Life. Most recently, NPPC joined forces with Asian Pacific Network of Oregon and Portland United Against Hate to present a Proclamation to Portland City Council condemning hate crimes again Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Although a fully inclusive Portland can feel elusive and NPPC staff are constantly learning new and more effective ways to engage city leaders, NPPC is collaborating with the local university research center to gather data on the various neighborhoods to be able to provide elected leaders with quantitative data and evidence-based studies. In the years to come, the Office of Community and Civic Life hopes to open a separate office for immigrant affairs that will work closely alongside NPPC.

For city leaders eager to promote integration and are looking to collaborate with communities and nonprofits, the staff at the Office of Community and Civic Life offer some of their best tips:

  • Take time to listen to the community and come without an agenda
  • Take time to build trust with quiet leaders
  • Hire staff from the community
  • Focus on relationship building and be community driven
  • Learn from your peers to avoid re-creating the wheel
  • Find out what works and customize as needed to address the needs of community members

CLINIC applauds the Office of Community and Civic Life, the Immigrant and Refugee Program, and the New Portlanders Policy Commission for their efforts to work together to promote integration while advocating for all new Portlanders.