People of color may make up a quarter of Oregon’s population, but they represent a far lower percentage of elected officials across the state. BIPOC candidates face multiple hurdles: lack of access to donors and gatekeepers, low pay once in office (or no pay—school board members are volunteers), and the psychological toll of public service.
That’s changing, though, thanks in part to a semi-under-the-radar, Portland-based nonprofit called Oregon Futures Lab, and its associated Color PAC, which has been working since 2014 to seed and support progressive leaders of color at all levels of government around the state.
“We realized getting people into public office isn’t enough,” says OFL executive director Ana del Rocío. “We need to follow through with the support during their years of governance, especially for new leaders.”
After the 2020 election, OFL launched a “continuing education” program for new officeholders, with tutorials on the ABCs of governing, budget-jockeying to bill-passing. Recently elected BIPOC leaders are matched with higher-level electeds for coaching and peer mentorship.
Here’s a look at three of the lawmakers in OFL’s class of 2021, plus a sneak peek at a few candidates to watch in elections to come.
Massène Mboup is the first Black person elected to the Lake Oswego City Council, a watershed in this wealthy suburb where just 1 percent of the population is Black.
An immigrant from Senegal, Mboup isn’t new to politics. In his home country, where he worked as an elementary school teacher, he was a member of a left-leaning political party, led his fellow educators in a 17-day hunger strike to protest the government‘s refusal to recruit new teachers, and ran (unsuccessfully) for parliament, he says. “In the wake of George Floyd, people realized enough is enough,” he says.
At 26, Ricki Ruiz is the first Latino legislator elected from Rockwood, a low-income, diverse Gresham neighborhood.
Ruiz says he ran to serve undocumented families, immigrants, Muslims, and people with disabilities after four fearful years of the Trump administration. “Just seeing that fired me up [to make] sure that folks did not lose trust in local government.”
Ruiz wants to document the logistics of becoming (and being) a legislator in a handbook so future generations can follow in his footsteps. “I want to ... let folks know that if I did it, then you can certainly do it.”
Khanh Pham, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is the first Asian American legislator in a sprawling PDX district that has one of Oregon’s highest concentrations of Asian and Pacific Islanders.
Pham is a climate champion because, she says, the people on the front lines of climate change are her friends and neighbors.
She’s backing the Oregon Green New Deal, which includes a transition to community-controlled 100 percent renewable energy. Pham says Portlanders care about climate justice and understand that “when you fight for communities that are most depressed, it benefits everybody.”
Next up? OFL-backed candidates on ballots this May
Karina Guzmán Ortiz & Maria Cecilia Hinojos Pressey
Both Karina Guzmán Ortiz and Maria Cecilia Hinojos Pressey hope to become the first Latina board members in Salem-Keizer, the state’s second-largest school district, whose student body is 40 percent Hispanic/Latinx. The goal has eluded other Latinx candidates in recent years because, according to local organizers, the at-large race in a massive district is expensive and turnout for school board elections tends to be low.
A community educator and member of the Confederated Tribe of Warm Springs, Jaylyn Suppah is running for the Jefferson County School Board in a district where a third of the students are Native American. That’s the highest concentration in the state, yet there is only one Tribal board member. Suppah, a community planner for the Tribe’s health and human services branch, is also a traditional food gatherer.
Karen Pérez-Da Silva
Karen Pérez-Da Silva is a multilingual educator, community advocate, and first-generation immigrant whose family was granted political asylum in the US in 1980 after her mother was held hostage in El Salvador during the country’s civil war. The family relocated to Portland, where Pérez delivered newspapers and cleaned houses with her family to help ends meet. She’s running for the Beaverton School Board.
Hoa Nguyen is a second-generation Vietnamese American who spent her childhood helping her refugee parents run a neighborhood convenience store in New Orleans. After moving to Portland, she became the first in her family to graduate from college and currently works as a school attendance coach for Portland Public Schools. She’s seeking a seat on the David Douglas School Board.