“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The ethnic makeup of Seattle has been changing for decades and is likely to continue to change in the years to come. What was once a 91 percent white city in the 1960s is now fast approaching a 50 percent minority population. Among those minority groups, a significant number are foreign-born. This has had a far-reaching impact on everything from education to social services in Seattle, as disparities in treatment become too prominent to ignore and the need for a multilingual public services sector becomes vital.
Recently, the Office of the Mayor announced a new initiative to increase public support for immigrant and refugee communities, creating two new groups to address these demographic issues.
The first group, the Immigrant Voting Rights Taskforce, is a direct response to the access needs of foreign-born citizens and speakers of languages other than English. King County Elections already provides full services in English and limited service in Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.
According to Mayor McGinn, limited language service is insufficient. He wants the Immigrant Voting Rights Taskforce to look at everything from where the ballot boxes are placed to how accessible civic engagement actually is for English language learners. In 2009, Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative estimated that the city’s foreign-born population would reach 20 percent, and it has, accounting for approximately 120,000 people. Those who attain U.S. citizenship now certainly have the numbers to sway whole elections, but only if they have geographic and linguistic access to the vote.
Beyond supporting voting rights for foreign-born citizens, the mayor’s budget also includes a new structure called the Refugee Women Civic Leadership Institute, intended to go into its pilot project phase in the coming year. The aim of the institute is to engage and train refugee women to take active roles in the civic process and in the local economy. The RWCLI has a budget of $100,000 and will also include discussions with Seattle Police Department officers about developing a positive relationship between police and refugee communities.
Seattle has become a hub for refugees in the Pacific Northwest. For example, the most recent U.S. Census indicates that Seattle has the nation’s second-highest Somali population, second only to the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. The African nation of Somalia has been in some degree of civil war for approximately 20 years, taking significant steps toward establishing a stable democracy only recently. The United Nations estimates that the war has displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis. Those who seek refuge in the United States are often directed toward major cities with cultural support structures smaller communities are unlikely to provide. Today, Seattle’s Somali population is concentrated around the Rainier Valley area.
The purpose of the city and other organizations reaching out to refugee women specifically is twofold: first, not all refugee women come from societies where women are encouraged or even permitted to engage in politics or business. Second, many refugee women are chiefly responsible for raising their children. This means that awareness of and access to basic services like school and free lunch programs is often very limited.
One organization, the Seattle Refugee Women’s Alliance, has been offering support for that under-served community for 28 years. The RWA connects refugee families with community resources, provides parent education and offers other services to people who come to Seattle from countries where their lives and livelihoods are in danger.
“They have English language barriers, they have experienced trauma, they have witnessed atrocities in their countries,” said RWA Executive Director Someireh Amirfaiz of the people her organization serves. “They need pathways to employment, self-sufficiency, housing, and to make sure their children have access to school. We need pathways for people to pull out of poverty.”
According to Amirfaiz, affordable housing is among the top concerns for Seattle’s refugee population. The RWA does not have the resources to offer housing assistance at this time, but they are hoping city officials will turn their attention to this need soon. Currently, the Refugee Women Civic Leadership Institute is not working in conjunction with the Refugee Women’s Alliance.
Since the creation of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Seattle has enacted a variety of programs to reach out to foreign-born people. City contractors now have to include cultural outreach media in their proposals, the OIRA has begun expanding interpretation and translation services in the city, and new project grants are becoming available for economic development in immigrant communities. The Immigrant Voting Rights Taskforce and the Refugee Women Civic Leadership Institute join these programs to address questions of access for foreign-born people living and working in Seattle.