by Chamidae Ford
OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy agency founded by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal in 2001, recently announced Roxana Norouzi as their new executive director.
Norouzi has been a part of OneAmerica for nearly 12 years, beginning as an intern and working her way up the organizational ladder. During an interview with the Emerald, she spoke frankly about her inspiration and hopes for OneAmerica’s future.
“I was in graduate school in 2009 and Pramila Jayapal, who is the founder of the organization, spoke to my class,’’ Norouzi said. “At that time, OneAmerica was rebranding from Hate Free Zone to OneAmerica. And along with the rebrand was also kind of a fresh mission around building power in immigrant communities and really investing in the leadership of people directly impacted to fight for things like immigration reform. I was learning about those things in school and was like, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ I just felt this strong pull, like ‘I know this is what I want to be doing.’ [Jayapal] actually left the classroom and I got up and chased after her. And I told her ‘I was so inspired. I know this is the work I want to do. Will you take me on as an intern?’”
During her time at OneAmerica, Norouzi has worked in many positions; first as an intern, then on to building OneAmerica’s education strategy. She reflected on her internship.
“[My internship was] really where I learned about organizing, my first week on the job,” Norouzi said. “The organizing director at the time asked me if I could take a bus trip down to San Jose to protest the then head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and I was like, ‘well, I have school.’ And the organizing director, David, turned to me and said, ‘Roxana, do you want to be a student? Or do you want to be an organizer?’ And that really agitated me. It pushed me to think about the role I want in the world and also the opportunity of the moment.”
Her experience, immediately being thrown into the deep end, illuminated the importance of giving youth and those wanting to be involved chances to participate.
“I learned over the years that organizing is not only about showing up, but it’s actually about giving people a role and giving people responsibility,” Norouzi said. “ I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what David was doing. He was saying, ‘Great, you’re here, you’re showing up, and now people are depending on you to hold a piece of this action and this strategy.’”
Her time working to craft OneAmerica’s education strategy was fueled by her own experience as the daughter of immigrants and as a bilingual child. She focused on crafting a grassroots movement that would create policies to push and support OneAmerica’s mission to have inclusive and accessible education for all Washington students, regardless of their immigration status.
“I am the daughter of Iranian immigrants and so, growing up, I was raised bilingual and I felt really proud of that,” Norouzi said. “And as soon as I went into the school system, I got messages from my teachers, from the principal, that [being bilingual] was a deficit and that it was something that would hold me behind in school. And that really affected me. It wasn’t until I got older and politicized that I realized that it wasn’t actually about me and my inabilities, that it was about a system that failed to recognize my strengths.”
Norouzi dedicated herself to making schools a place where no student has to compromise themselves to feel included.
Norouzi’s attention to creating power and confidence in identity for immigrants is a cornerstone of the work she has done through the years and is a focus that others have noticed. Montserrat Padilla, the Western Washington network coordinator for Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, expressed her appreciation for this skill in one of the many celebratory video messages left for Norouzi on Facebook.
“I am really excited for the new role that you are taking on Roxana, as I can only foresee our movement growing in our power but also growing in our inner magic,” Padilla said.
During Norouzi’s time in the education role, OneAmerica received millions of dollars to expand dual-language instruction across the state. They supported legislation to create the Washington State Seal of Biliteracy and worked to pass the Washington State Dream Act.
“Shortly after Trump was elected — at that point I had been with the organization for almost five years — I felt like [I was] ready to lead a much bigger vision and move from just the issue area of education to actually leading the entire strategy of the organization. Not just to resist and fight Trump but to actually build power for our communities for the better. And I felt really mad and angry and I wanted to channel that.”
Norouzi became OneAmerica’s deputy director and began to think about the type of world and organization she wanted to create.
“What does it look like when we’re thinking about building immigrant power every day? What kinds of campaigns do we need to be running? How do we put our members and our grassroots leaders at the center of our organization and of our tactics and our strategies and our decision-making? How do we invest in people in the same way that I was invested in by David, the old organizing director who gave me responsibility? How do we do that with every person that comes into the organization? So that was kind of what I did over the last four years.”
Now as she steps into the role of executive director, her vision for OneAmerica is clear. She described her leadership style as “highly relational” and is planning to center Youth and Women of Color.
“OneAmerica is launching a more formal leadership development curriculum and programs where we’re investing in people around organizing skills, their political analysis, and pushing them to act powerfully in the world and supporting them to act with power and build power. The other piece to this is about elevating Women of Color into leadership roles. So supporting Women of Color to run for office, supporting younger people with bright, fresh ideas to run for office, investing in them, having their backs, training them. And then once they get into office, actually supporting them to go govern and be part of a movement. Not just be an individual person who’s there to represent but be carrying the values of organizations like OneAmerica and other progressive organizations into their elected seats. I can’t overstate how much of a cornerstone of my leadership — and just what I believe will make the world a better place — is investing in Women of Color and youth and BIPOC and LGBTQ folks to be in leadership and to act powerfully in the world.”
The passion that Norouzi has for her work is seen by those around her. In another video message to Norouzi, Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, expressed her excitement at Norouzi’s appointment.
“We know you will bring vision, passion, and commitment into this next chapter of leadership at OneAmerica and we look forward to working alongside you to make sure that Washington State and our nation remain a welcoming country for immigrants and refugees alike,” Melaku said.
As executive director, Norouzi is focusing on creating a more accessible pathway to citizenship, fighting to allow all residents the right to vote in their local elections and investing in immigration integration — a process that connects immigrants with legal services to help them gain citizenship — English classes for adults, and increasing workforce mobility.
“We won the House back, we won the Senate back, we won the White House, and now we need those folks who we’ve elected to deliver on their promise and pass a pathway to citizenship for the many undocumented people in this country. And then not stop there. Continue to completely uproot our immigration system to one that is just, humane, and values families and values people and humanity.”
Chamidae Ford is a recent journalism graduate of the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle. Reach her on IG/Twitter: @chamidaeford.
📸 Featured Image: Courtesy of Roxana Norouzi.
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