OneAmerica has a history of supporting immigrants and refugees in the U.S. Originally named Hate Free Zone, it was founded in the wake of 9/11 to address backlash against these communities. The organization changed its name in 2008 and has spent years building power within immigrant and refugee communities in four Washington state counties with a focus on immigration, education, and democracy reform.  

Giving Compass recently spoke with Roxana Norouzi, deputy director at OneAmerica, about OneAmerica’s progress, their approach to changing systems, and what donors should know about this work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about OneAmerica’s approach.

Our strategy is to build power and expand voting access among immigrants and refugees. We really believe that in order for democracy to thrive, immigrants and refugees need to have a voice and be actively involved in decision-making and determining who's in office to ensure that representation is an accurate reflection of our communities and state’s changing demographics.

In areas where there is a growing people of color and/or immigrant and refugee population, we invest in the leadership of a  base of community leaders as well as train candidates to run for office. We also do voter registration and outreach work. Additionally, we provide naturalization services and subgrant to smaller organizations that support individuals to become U.S. citizens, which is one of the greatest gateways to access our democracy and register to vote.

Can you share the progress made by OneAmerica?

We are one of few organizations in Washington State that regularly targets talking to low-propensity voters. It’s about engaging people who are on the margins of our democracy and pulling them in. These are often voters who don’t have people show up at their doorstep. We’ve been able to talk to thousands of voters over the last 10 years in every election cycle. Our model is to train immigrants to talk to other immigrants or first-time voters. They are the most effective messengers who know the community, so we've trained a cohort of fellows who are stipended to have these conversations.

Another success has been getting the state legislature to pass the Washington Voting Rights Act, which we worked on for seven years. There are a lot of local jurisdictions that have majority-minority populations, but because the districts are at-large, there is a pattern of racially polarized voting. In some of these localities, because of the current election system, it's virtually impossible to elect people of color. 

In areas where there is a history of racially polarized voting, the law now says the district must move to a different election system that makes it more possible for people of color to be elected and for there to be more equal representation. 

The first complaint was filed in Yakima County and the county did not respond in time so we have moved to litigation. There’s a large percentage of Latinos in Yakima county, yet all the county council is non-Latino and white. To put things in context, the county council has authority over the health department and Yakima has one of the highest COVID infection rates. Representation in this moment and the lived experiences of our folks in these positions really matters. That’s why we've worked hard on these structural changes.

What do you want donors to know about the specific barriers that immigrant communities are facing in our democracy?

Fees for citizenship have increased. There is also a backlog of applications sitting in the immigration office waiting to be processed. There are structural barriers for immigrants and refugees to access our democracy and become more powerful.

Donors also need to understand the importance of investing in the long term. OneAmerica’s focus is building power, which can be hard to understand sometimes. We're not a direct service organization, and we're also not just an advocacy organization. We're building a base of people to stand up to our institutions over the next several decades with a clear vision for change. Explicitly building power is the way to stand up to the institutional racism and inequities that have deeply impacted our communities. OneAmerica is investing in a vision of what our future could look like by developing hundreds of leaders across the state that will drive that vision forward.

Why do you think it’s difficult for donors to understand the power-building approach to change?

It hasn't been at the forefront of philanthropy. When we talk about movements and power -- and I've heard this directly from donors -- they think it's just direct action and protests, which of course is part of a movement but there is so much more, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

We define power as organized people, money, and ideas. When we break it down like that, it's easier to understand. Most donors have a sense of power, but we’ve been training them on what power is for communities of color and what power organizations do on a day-to-day basis to make our impact more understandable. 

What are the bright spots that you see in your work?

I see people -- who haven't believed they could have an impact and have been told they're not a leader -- stand up, take a risk, and demand something they know their community needs. Everytime I see a leader take a risk I see a little piece of someone become liberated, because of that, our movement inches one step closer to justice. 

OneAmerica has also had some significant wins on improving education and making sure that immigrant and refugee parents and parents of color have a more prominent voice and that their needs are centered. Over the past decade, we’ve had multiple pieces of legislation to support bilingual education, to ensure that we're shifting our education system to reflect our changing demographic and to move from the deficit-based model for kids or families who don't know English to one that values their language and culture as an asset. 

As a result of passing legislation that created more bilingual classrooms I know now that hundreds of kindergartners are having very different experiences in school than I did when I was told that speaking another language would set me behind. This is the result of the leadership development work, engaging folks to vote, and moving public policy.

Finally, what makes me hopeful is the many women of color, BIPOC folks and first-generation immigrants and refugees who have stepped up to run for office and have come from our movement. That gives me a lot of hope that who's in power is changing because they govern differently and share more of our communities' lived experiences. People are feeling more motivated to run and there's more infrastructure for people of color to run for office and win.