The African Youth & Community Organization (AYCO) moved into the group’s Dream Center at 2110 SE 82nd Avenue in January 2023. This new location is the first permanent space for the 501c3 nonprofit organization. It moved from a temporary office on NE Glisan Street, where two affordable housing units will soon break ground, prompting their relocation after only two years. As the first long-term occupants of this modern building on SE 82nd Avenue, the youth-focused group has plans to build out the unfinished space but still needs further funding to implement those changes. However, investing in the culturally specific community center is already expanding services for an often overlooked segment of Portland’s population.
Executive Director Jamal Dar founded AYCO in 2009 with an emphasis on athletics and mentoring. Thanks to the helpful staff and donors, he continues to grow the organization to support entire families and the wider community. This new building is the next significant leap for the organization, which already serves thousands. “AYCO serves over 25,000 community members every year, with youth development, skill building, environmental education, workforce development, mentorship, and leadership. We serve over 11,000 students every year,” recounts Dar. His group partners with six school districts with 575 students enrolled in its after-school program. In-school staff called Cultural Navigators are available to students in the participating districts. They offer educational support and mentoring with an understanding of the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee youth.
Jamal Dar explained that serving the children alone is not enough to build success for students. The family’s situation influences a child’s future. This realization is why AYCO expanded to support parents, providing them with tools to participate in the education process. “We’re dealing with a multi-generational model where our children will grow up here in the culture, creating a barrier between them and their parents,” said Dar. In some cases, the child acts as the family translator and can take advantage of the situation to filter out the negative aspects of their behavior at school. AYCO informs parents of their right to receive translation services from the school and helps them interface with educators successfully. Dar also emphasized the cultural difference in American education, explaining that many African communities will not require parents to participate in school matters. However, in Oregon’s schools, parental involvement is an ingredient for academic success.
When AYCO moved into the NE Glisan Street location two years ago, it provided a needed boost in facilities, helping expand their support services. Similarly, this latest relocation will also help grow the organization. However, the move was faster than Jamal Dar had planned. When they took the short-term lease from Metro in 2021, Dar hoped redevelopment plans would include AYCO in the new affordable housing project as part of the ground floor programming. Ultimately, Metro did not select the development proposal that included AYCO as a service provider at the site, forcing them to relocate permanently ahead of the building’s demolition. Fortunately, several funding sources materialized to secure a new space. However, not all funds were available in time, prompting the need for a bridge loan to help AYCO buy 2110 SE 82nd Avenue. The nonprofit community development organization Craft3 stepped in to fill that financial gap, which Dar hopes to repay later this year.
As the AYCO staff complete the acquisition phase of the Dream Center’s development, they must consider how to shape the raw space into the community center that they envisioned. Working with an architectural firm, they’ve crafted a draft proposal for the interior configuration. Dar has those building plans displayed on the back wall of the 82nd Avenue building, letting visitors imagine where the new walls will land in the open room. It features an ample event space at the front of the building allowing for organization lead gatherings and rentable space for personal celebrations. Plans call for segmenting the reaming two-thirds of the building to serve specific programs.
Ahlam Osman, the Youth Environmental & Workforce Development Coordinator at AYCO, explained that this transformation will take years. “So we have the outer shell built, but they’re going to continue building it, building walls and making it into an actual center. That’s going to take about two years for it to be complete.” Osman described how each area would enhance the organization’s offerings. “We’re going to have an adult daycare—a space for the elders in our community to come together and drink tea. Just having a space where they can relax and connect is important for our community. We like to talk and discuss,” said Osman. “We’re also going to have a childcare area, that’s a huge need in our community, and we currently don’t have any childcare facilities that’s culturally specific.” The plans have designated rooms for homework assistance and training classrooms. AYCO leadership envisions an organization that can serve pan-African youth from kindergarten to college. They’ve also planned space for a media room to foster podcast productions, giving voice to their community.
Osman appreciates the new space’s potential and how it benefits the African immigrant and refugee population. They can expand beyond the established youth programs, educating adults on navigating all the systems of American society. Recently they hosted a discussion about renter’s rights. “Our communities are [mostly] renters, not homeowners. So a lot of them want to learn more about what their tenant rights are and how to talk to their landlords because their landlords are not receptive to the issues that they bring up,” explained Osman. Much of this information is available from other sources but not as accessible to everyone. “There’s a lot of Somalis who live in this county and who live in this neighborhood. I don’t really see there being options for translated materials,” remarked Osman.
According to Osman, that barrier to information extends into political participation. “We’re definitely not as engaged [as others], and I think a huge reason for that is because of a lack of education. They all know what the problems are and what the issues are. They just aren’t aware of how to solve those issues on a structural level. Not understanding the system, and the language barrier, are all contributors to the lack of civic engagement. I also feel like our elected officials and local politicians don’t do a great job coming to our community and meeting us where we’re at. I just think there’s a huge disconnect between our local politicians and our community,” said Osman.
Part of the disconnect comes from a structural difference in how this community communicates. “We collect data differently than the way it’s traditionally collected through surveys. We as an organization collect qualitative data through storytelling, dialogue, and conversation,” explained Osman. This approach is a culturally specific method for imparting experience and often clashes with established techniques used to quickly harness data and normalize it to appear on a chart. “It’s really hard to capture quantitative data, and that’s usually what’s being asked for,” said Osman.
Although information-gathering approaches differ, pan-Afican community members face similar income and living expenses issues as many Portlanders. “Housing is huge and the main issue that gets brought up. We do a lot of wrap-around support and assistance, but it’s not really sustainable because there are a lot of underlying issues like a lack of employment. It’s really hard for the elders in our community to even find jobs because of the language barrier. You have to know fluent English to get a job, or they’re being mistreated and abused by their employers because they don’t know English, and they get taken advantage of,” explained Osman.
As with other population groups in the area facing rising housing costs, the African immigrant and refugee community must move further east. That can further isolate children as they relocate away from services. “Transportation is a huge barrier for our youth, they have to ask their parents for rides, but their parents work. We used to have a van, but it got stolen. We’re also trying to encourage our students to take the bus, but safety is a huge issue. A lot of our youth are black and Muslim and just don’t feel safe taking it,” said Osman. Jamal Dar reiterated that sentiment, saying the 2017 stabbing on the MAX train was a significant moment for his community. That attack began as a verbal anti-Muslim assault on two black teenagers, ending with two dead and one person critically injured. That incident still makes some Muslims hesitant to ride TriMet. This new center is closer to the people they serve and on a busy bus line. However, several changes are needed to make this center more accessible by public transportation. AYCO staff are looking forward to TriMet improvements to bus safety and a greater acceptance of headwear worn by some Muslim women. Osman also hopes to see a permanent student free-ride program for Portland Public and David Douglas School Districts.
Ahlam Osman began working with AYCO seven months ago while studying community development at Portland State University. She is excited to work in this position within her chosen field. “My job is very much tied to what I’m studying and what I want to do in the future after I graduate,” said Osman. “I lived in Portland my whole life. I’ve never felt like I had a place to call home outside of my actual home. I never imagined us having our own Community Center. So I’m really excited to see this building fully built because it makes me want to stay here in Portland.” AYCO is still searching for funding and volunteer support. People interested in helping develop the program and donating to this group can find more information on the organization’s website.
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