Kayse Jama was born in Somalia into a nomadic family. He lived the nomad life until his older brother, who worked in the Education Ministry, brought him and one of his brothers to Mogadishu to live with him so they could get a formal education. Jama was eight, with the confidence engendered by his tribal culture, but still an outsider in the urban school environment. Even at eight, he knew the organizing strategy of turning the negative into a positive and turned his difference into a leadership role in school, chosen to lead the class while they waited for a teacher to come and, later, to lead the class poetry lessons, a skill enhanced by the oral tradition of tribal life.
His first deliberate political act was when he was in eleventh grade, leading a delegation of students to the Minister of Education’s office to demand more resources for the schools, schools who were losing teachers and resources to the civil war that was consuming the country–a tribal conflict over resources that was repeated throughout the developing world as colonial empires receded leaving behind artificial borders and governments. This was a bold act in a dictatorship. Before long, the civil war consumed the country and Jama, like many of his compatriots, fled seeking refuge abroad, eventually coming to the United States.
Kayse Jama testifying to Portland City Council, February 2008
It was here where Jama came to understand the systemic nature of oppression in the US context. While he understood well the systemic oppression of hierarchical tribal conflicts that divided his country, in the US these oppressions were linked to historical injustices different than his own experience. Certainly, he was aware of gender oppression, but when he arrived in the United States as a poor, black refugee, the full weight of these interwoven oppressions landed on him. He was soon was back to his natural mode–organizing.
JoAnn Hardesty was organizing long before she knew it was a career. She represented District 19 in the Oregon House before she ever thought of herself as an organizer. However, with or without the label, Hardesty has been organizing most of her life. “I remember that from a young age I was angry about injustice. I remember constantly questioning my parents? But why, that’s not fair! I realize how much patience my mom had when I was much older! I’m sure that she prayed a lot for me.”
Hardesty developed a fierce sense of justice as a child of the civl rights movement. “My idea of justice hasn’t changed, justice is an ideal that African Americans have never enjoyed in this country but we continue to strive for. Justice would demand that the social determinants of health would be the same regardless of your ethnic or racial background. Justice would mean that your ZIP code won’t determine your outcomes in life. In pursuit of that idea of justice, she is now running for City Council.
Hardesty’s first ZIP code was in Baltimore, Maryland, where the mothers in the community were M-O-Ms with all capital letters. “What I mean is they looked out for all the children,” she explained. “If you were somewhere you weren’t suppose to be, the neighborhood moms would tell your mom before you could make it home. At the time it was annoying but as I became an adult I realized how priceless that was.” Not only did it provide physical and emotional security for Hardesty, it also prepared her to resist internalizing the racist and sexist judgements that plague our society. As she continued, “It prepared me for the sexism, racism and other ism’s I experience regularly in Oregon…I have a strong sense of self and justice and I thank my family and community for preparing me for this ongoing challenge in our society.”
Her first job with the official organizer label was at Oregon Action, but she believes “I’ve been organizing all my life I just didn’t have a name for it!” As she clarified, “I didn’t consider myself an organizer for a long-time. I was committed to working with people to help them use their voice. I didn’t know there was a profession for it. It was just something I did.”