Montse Trejo-King: NIEP community organizer highlight

Get to know one of the eight National Immigrant Empowerment Project, or NIEP, community organizers that are advocating alongside members of their community and empowering the immigrant community to take the lead in creating long-lasting, positive changes in their cities.

Montse Trejo-King from SOAR Immigration Legal Services, A Program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, Portland

1. Where do you work and what is your main role within the organization?

I am a community organizer at SOAR Immigration Legal Services. My role within the organization is to develop leadership within Washington County and rural, northwestern Oregon Spanish-speaking communities to promote immigrant-led grassroots organizing in order to promote permanent and positive social change.

2. Why do you enjoy working with the immigrant and refugee community?

I have always been interested in all ways of expression, how human beings communicate and learn from each other. As an immigrant myself, I empathize with people who are forced to leave everything behind to seek a better future for their families. I want to help them through the struggle and difficulties they face along the way. I want to provide opportunities to those who are in difficult situations, trying to improve their lives.

3. What inspired you to enter this field of work?

I was born and raised in the border of Juarez, Mexico/El Paso, Texas. I personally experienced the unfair and oppressive treatment of immigrants. Growing up in a Catholic household, I learned from a young age that all people deserve equal treatment and opportunity in this world. Yet to realize these values, our community has lots of work to do. This is an issue close to my heart, and I want to dedicate myself to this cause.

4. In your opinion, what benefits does integration offer your community? What strategies have you found most impactful when promoting integration?

I believe that if we all work together as a collective unit we can accomplish more, and evolve as human beings. In my experience, the exposure to different cultures creates an openness and acceptance to new ideas and beliefs. (Intercultural encounters)

5. How have community organizing efforts impacted your community?

Community organizing has led to individuals realizing they have the power to impact changes that improve society and their lives. Here in Oregon, the state-allocated funds for agricultural workers despite their migratory status, along with supplying COVID-19 tests to the camps, are a direct result of community organizing. The possibilities are endless!

6. In what ways have immigrants and refugees been involved in grassroots organizing?

With our project, we have engaged DACA recipients, and other low-income immigrants, and involved them in legislative visits and advocacy with local Oregon elected officials. We are expanding this work, and hosting an advocacy day where immigrants and refugees will receive training, train each other, and meet with legislators to advocate for policies and changes that better their lives.

7. How has the immigrant community been empowered in your community? Why is it beneficial for them to feel empowered?

Immigrant communities are empowered by engaging and receiving the tools to advocate for their interests. We continue to work toward developing leadership skills within the community, and sharing the idea that every person can make a difference, and have their voice heard. It is beneficial for the immigrant community to feel empowered, so they can confidently work and engage to create a community that better responds to their needs and concerns.

8. Can you briefly explain your project and what changes you are hoping to see over the next few years? What do you hope communities across the country will learn from the National Immigrant Empowerment Project (NIEP), your project specifically?

SOAR assists refugees and all low-income immigrants to become self-sufficient, integrated community members. We provide culturally competent legal representation and education specific to the low-income immigrant community’s needs. Our goals with NIEP are to support the development of a network of leaders from within immigrant communities. We’ve begun in Washington county, Oregon; now we’re extending our reach to rural or geographically challenging areas in Western Oregon. SOAR works on building solid relationships with schools, trusted immigrant owned businesses and service providers and develops politically and socially aware immigrant networks. We encourage visible and active engagement with elected local and state representatives to push for policies and laws which will improve immigrant’s lives. We hold listening sessions, host workshops and create educational material to engage with community members and provide the necessary resources for community members to become self advocates.

Over the next couple years, I hope to see hundreds of people in my immigrant community here in Oregon demanding changes in the areas they feel are most important to their lives, and developing the means to make these demands heard. So far, through listening sessions, we have found these areas of change desired in Washington County to be immigration policy, health equity and a just legal system. I hope to see our support network grow to engage the Latinx community from Washington County to the coast with strong networks of advocates in each area where our community is represented. I also hope to see the community members using the skills they are developing to advocate for themselves in personal situations. For example, explaining their situations to their children’s teachers, asking for medical help and calling elected state officials to discuss important issues and culturally integrated solutions.

We hope that communities across the country will learn how to effectively advocate for the changes in their communities that help make lives better. Part of developing effective leaders is ensuring that individual community members understand that their voice matters, and that by speaking up they can make a difference. Also, we are reinforcing the idea that they also make a difference by asking their friends and neighbors to speak up with them. We have engaged our community members in legislative advocacy in Oregon, and will be hosting an immigrant advocacy day. We hope our model can be used by others across the region and across the country.