Community-police relations are an issue that is on center stage. The City of Seattle recently launched an innovative program designed to strengthen both relationships and policies within refugee communities and the Seattle Police Department. The Refugee Women’s Institute was the first major undertaking of Seattle’s new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). The program grew out of a 2012 series of conversations between community members and Seattle Police called Safe Communities. These conversations revealed that the most pressing issue identified by refugee communities was fear and distrust of law enforcement. The OIRA developed the Women’s Refugee Institute in direct response to this need. Sahar Fathi, Policy, Programs & Strategy Lead for the OIRA, was the lead staff for the program.
Sahar notes that for families who have fled their home countries seeking safety in the United States, police often represent terror, not protection. In addition, some in the refugee community experience confusion or doubt about their legal status as a refugee and may fear deportation if they interact with police. While Seattle employees are prohibited from asking about immigration status in the routine provision of services, refugees and immigrants may not always be aware of this. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs wanted to create a program that would help break down these and other barriers between law enforcement and refugees.
The OIRA began by researching successful models of working with refugees and decided that working specifically with female refugees would be a powerful starting point. Many refugee families in the Seattle area are female head-of-households with children. These single women become the sole providers for their families in a strange new country. The Women’s Refugee Institute provided a unique space where these women could learn about their new home as well as engage in transformative conversations with Seattle Police.
An advisory team was created to inform the program process and curriculum. The team included representatives from the Seattle Police Department, the Director of the Seattle Community Police Commission, staff from Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, King County Public Health staff and refugees. The team helped shape details of the program from an equity lens. The team is also working on how to create further infrastructure within SPD that makes it more equitable for refugee communities, using what they have learned through the Institute.
The Institute officially began on September 6th, 2014. The cohort involved 40 women; 20 refugees and 20 police officers. The refugees came from Bhutan, Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq and Somalia. In Seattle, some refugee communities have been established in the city for longer than others. Newer communities of refugees, such as those from Bhutan, do not yet have services or community centers established. Sahar notes that the OIRA found it particularly important to reach out to these communities.
The Institute took place in two phases. Phase I included eight weeks of seminars during which the officers and refugees learned together. Before the eight-week Institute began, the officers and refugees were given separate trainings on race and social justice. Training for the officers used a modified version of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative curriculum, focusing specifically on refugee issues. Preparation for the refugees focused on team-building as well as breaking down the inherent power imbalance refugees might feel in the presence of officers.
The seminars were co-facilitated by a U.S. professor from Seattle University and a refugee who recently completed graduate school. The content of the classes was highly interactive. One week, the refugees were given a tour of the west precinct 911 call center. Upon entering the center, one refugee bravely confronted the police officers as to why there was nothing in her language. As a result of this situation and the Institute as a whole, the Seattle Police Department is working to translate all of its in-house materials into multiple languages this summer. In addition, materials on domestic violence will be translated into 150 different languages this year, as a result of the Institute. Driving the creation of equitable language access for refugees was one way the Institute advanced racial equity.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]Also as a result of the Institute, SPD realized that the 911 process was not intuitive to many refugees. SPD is currently working with the OIRA on a training video about how to call 911, what happens after calling 911, and how to access Language Line Interpreters. The videos will be translated into different languages for different refugee communities. Creating greater access to 911 services for refugees advances racial equity.
For the second half of each seminar, representatives from different organizations gave presentations. These included the school district, employment programs, domestic violence services, refugee services, utility assistance, the Parks Department and many others. Every week the refugee women completed a survey asking what else they wanted to learn about. The refugees requested a range of topics from outdoor recreation to driving to sexual abuse.
A secondary goal of the Institute was to recruit interpreters that could begin using their language skills as contractors for the city. The range of topics covered in the Institute included some very sensitive subjects, so the interpreters needed to be women, and they needed to be trustworthy. Rather than simply choosing from the list of city-approved language contractors, the Office did extensive outreach and chose interpreters that were vetted by refugee communities.
After choosing interpreters, they had to be approved by the city as contractors. The OIRA soon recognized that the process for becoming an approved interpreter is exceedingly difficult for those who, while fluent in speaking English, don’t necessarily read and write English. Part of the process also required computer literacy. The OIRA successfully advocated for those processes to be eliminated. Potential city-contracted interpreters no longer need to go through that complex process. They can simply invoice the department. This policy change advanced racial equity in city contracting for interpreter services.
The Women’s Refugee Institute is currently in Phase II. This means that the refugee women and police officers are spreading the word about what they have learned to their communities and colleagues. One Somali refugee has started going to the community center daily and talking about her experience. A Bhutanese refugee is hosting gatherings in her apartment complex to talk to her community about what she has learned. Each of the participating police officers will give a presentation about what she learned in the Institute to fellow officers at roll-call. Along with OIRA staff, the officers are also presenting on domestic violence issues within refugee communities to various non-profits and coalitions.
Data was collected and is still being analyzed around the effectiveness of the program. Participants completed surveys during intake, on the first day of the Institute, at the midpoint and on the last day of class. Another round of surveys will be completed at the end of Phase II. A completed report of the initial data is still being drafted, but Sahar states the raw data is promising.
Sahar’s advice for any jurisdiction considering a similar endeavor is that the process will ultimately be an exercise in effective community engagement. Extensive knowledge of the refugee community is necessary, and strong partnerships are essential. Sahar states that the program requires a huge amount of commitment and an unwavering willingness to see it all the way through. For the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, that commitment has paid off and is paving the way for a more racially equitable Seattle.
For more information: contact Sahar.Fathi@seattle.gov