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Refugee activist wins Portland Peace Prize

Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing

 Lincoln and Madison high school students give annual award to Kayse Jama


Saturday, June 1, 2012

Kayse Jama, executive director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, was awarded the third annual Portland Peace Prize last week. Students from Lincoln and Madison high schools spent four hours on May 24 making their choice.“It was a really tough decision for them,” says project founder Brady Bennon, a teacher at Madison. “They almost went with a dual award, but decided against it.”

In the end, after much discussion, the students decided that the combination of Jama’s “life story, charisma, and day to day work” made him the best candidate for the award.

The schools raised $700 with a car wash and a silent auction as part of the prize. Proceeds will be donated to one of Jama’s youth immigrant organization projects.

Bennon says the project has been such a success that 87 students have already signed up for next year’s selection committee. He can only accept 30.

This year’s finalists, narrowed from 20 nominees, were Mark Jackson, executive director of REAP Inc. (Reaching and Empowering All People); Jeri Sundvall-Williams, a coordinator for the city’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement; Ronault “Polo” Catalani of the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, and Kayse Jama. All four finalists demonstrated dedication to promoting peace, democracy and sustainability in the community, the students say.

Last year, Jefferson High School students organized and handed out the Peace Prize. This is the first time the project became a collaborative effort between two schools. In 2010, Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public Charter High School led the effort.

Bennon, who advised the Madison student effort, says he came up with the idea after President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, and he began to wonder why there wasn’t anything similar on a local level.

“There seems to be such a big divide between the Nobel nominees and our local heroes,” he says. “Kids can often get a jaded worldview, so it has been great to see them witness the good in our local community.”

The Portland Peace Prize is the culmination of several months of collaborative study by students in Lincoln’s Peace Studies class and Madison’s School Leadership class. The students investigated winners of the International Nobel Peace Prize and looked for similar traits to select a local leader.

Madison junior Mikal Yohannes says it’s refreshing to read about people’s accomplishments. “You are more likely to see negative stuff in the news than positive stuff, so this is a nice change.”

Lincoln sophomore Joe Tuazon is inspired by the work of his city’s local leaders. “They do so much that isn’t recognized and it’s great knowing we’re helping to celebrate their efforts.”

The Madison and Lincoln students, despite their different demographics and east-west divide, worked together to narrow down the finalists and interview them.

They unanimously selected a winner before Friday’s event.

Last year’s Portland Peace Prize winner, Emanuel Price, spoke at the event, as well as internationally acclaimed public speaker Lou Raja, state Rep. Alyssa Keny-Guyer and students from Madison and Lincoln.

Here are the finalists:
• Kayse Jama was born in Somalia and left when civil war erupted. In his work Jama works to protect and expand immigrant and refugee rights through education, civic engagement, community organizing and intergenerational leadership development. Jama helps organize forums on social justice issues, educates immigrants and refugees on ways to become active in the community and coordinates legal assistance for immigrants and refugees.

• Jeri Sundvall-Williams has been working with low-income residents and communities of color on issues of workplace and environmental justice since 1994. She’s an activist against sex trafficking and prostitution, and has worked to fund programs and shelters to help women get off the streets.

• Polo Catalani coordinates the city’s New Portlanders Program, working to connect immigrants and refugees to each other, to social agencies, and to city government. He helps keep kids off the streets and out of gangs, and facilitates lines of communication between immigrant communities and the Portland Police. Polo and his wife, Nim Xuto, also run a nonprofit called Colored Pencils, which works to facilitate intercultural learning through artistic expression.

• Mark Jackson works to bring a culture of equity in public policy and education. REAP helps students develop their leadership skills and understand the interactions between law, institutional power, and system policy implementation. Jackson engages business leaders, educators, students, community leaders and parents through workshops and listening circles.


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