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Denis Nyongesa: Building Community Power, Health and Resiliency

It is impossible to be cynical when speaking with Denis Nyongesa about his transformational work in the Swahili-speaking community in Washington County. As a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Outreach Ambassador, he works primarily to increase food security and improve their experience with SNAP. Denis’s work — from leading food distributions to COVID-19 vaccine clinics to voter registration — has made an incredible and long-lasting impact.

No one is an island,” He shares. “We all need each other. Sometimes we don't realize that, but in the long run, when something hits, when something comes up, I realize that I can't do it on my own. I need help. And that's why we need our community.

Denis recognizes that hunger is not an individual experience. It is inextricably linked to barriers to employment, education, housing and health care. That’s why he begins not with the goal to address a single issue or need, but to build community — to create a space where Swahili-speaking individuals and families feel safe and empowered. A space where mothers support each other with childcare, friends give each other rides to the ballot box and families grab their shovels to help each other build garden plots in their backyards.

To Denis, this sense of community is the foundation that must be laid before it is possible to imagine — and work toward — a world without hunger.

"No one is an island,” He shares. “We all need each other. Sometimes we don't realize that, but in the long run, when something hits, when something comes up, I realize that I can't do it on my own. I need help. And that's why we need our community."

Denis is a humble, patient and persistent leader — a kind of activism that mirrors his background in farming and gardening. Growing up in Kenya on a farm to a large family of food growers, sharing and caring about other people has always come naturally. As a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Outreach Ambassador and a former Food Systems Ambassador participant, Denis worked on a gardening project called HEAL: Healthy Eating and Active Living, distributing food grown in gardens as well as non-food essentials like personal hygiene products.

The first objective of HEAL is to support healthy eating and an active lifestyle, and the second objective is to form spaces where people can build relationships and access resources.

Denis also notes the importance of culturally-specific food within the HEAL program:

“We grow some culturally specific food. At the Learning Garden here, we had mm’chicha and some people in the community still ask, ‘Do you have mm’chicha? Whenever it's available, just reach out and I’ll come pick it up.’ We have some folks from as far as Southeast Portland who will drive all the way to pick those produce. It's important because it helps them to connect to their roots. It brings with it some comfort. And there's nothing as important as someone to feel at home.”

By building relationships and creating spaces to come together, Denis has been able to adapt and refine his work based on the needs he sees. And he recognizes the importance of building community power to advocate for change:

“It’s very important to build a community because no one knows everything. There are things you know that I don't know. And there are things I know that you don't know. So by having a community, we are leveraging information from different people. And as a community, you have numbers so you can advocate for something. That's why I always say no one is an island. We all need each other. By coming together, it's easier to advocate for resources. And it's easier if there is something that is affecting the community to raise the voice together. You can be heard as a community rather than an individual.”

While working to register people to vote and organize around issues that impact them, Denis made a point to address the specific belief systems and histories that shape the Swahili-speaking community’s relationship to democracy and civic engagement.

“With voter registration, we realized we had many people who are eligible to vote, but they were not voting. Especially with people who migrated into this country as adults, you find that the knowledge they have of voting where they come from is different. You can vote, but nothing is going to happen. Nothing is going to change. Sometimes elections get stolen. Sometimes you vote and whatever happens, you don't know. So to change that kind of thinking and to build confidence, it is a slow process. It doesn't happen overnight. You have to understand where this person is coming from before you can introduce something new. What is their perception? What is their understanding?… If you vote wisely, knowing what you are voting for, it is your life. And it depends on it. Because these leaders make policies that affect the community. These leaders represent us.”

Denis’s lived experience and commitment to long-term, sustainable change has made him a trusted leader. When the COVID-19 vaccine became available, he worked to set up vaccination clinics at food distributions to meet people where they were at. His roots within the community helped him understand vaccine hesitancy and the need for conversation, education and relationship building.

“The distributions are an incentive to motivate folks to come out so that as they get the distribution, they're also getting the vaccine. And that really helped because some of the people who showed up may not have otherwise. Due to vaccine hesitancy, we organized events whereby people can also feel comfortable coming out to get shots and coupling that with the distribution. At the end, we say it was successful because even if you reach 20, 30, 40 people in one event, that's a plus because if that person would have been infected and come in contact with others, you don't know what may have happened.”

Two and a half years into the pandemic — which amplified isolation and disproportionate effects on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and all People of Color) and immigrants and refugees — Denis’s work shows us the vital importance of coming together in community. Denis’s hopefulness, his persistence, adaptability and daily commitment to doing the work to end hunger — and its root causes — shows us that together, we are powerful beyond measure.

“I believe that no one should go to bed hungry,” he shares. “I've grown up sharing and caring about other people. And if I can help someone in that aspect, I don't see why I should not. I have my own things I do. But there are so many ways I benefit from the community. And my way of giving back to the community is to do something that will help the community members, access resources, which otherwise they will have not been aware of, or they'll not have access to.”

Please consider a donation today to support the work of community leaders like Denis. Your donation to our Annual Fund will make a justice-building and hunger-ending difference in 2023.

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