Nuhamin Eiden’s grandmother always told her, “the only medicine for people is people, and the only medicine for ailment is food.” What she meant was that as long as you have people — that is to say, community — and healthy nourishment for your body, you have the foundations for a happy life.
When people (or systems developed by people) get in the way of others thriving, the “medicine” you need is more people — other people — who in solidarity with the oppressed can become their fellow agents of change, creating more just systems.
Nuhamin took her grandmother’s words to heart as a young girl, and carried them with her when she migrated from Ethiopia to the United States at 16. She has spent her adult life putting that wisdom to practice as an advocate and community organizer. Most recently, she joined the staff of Unite Oregon as the equity coalition manager for the Southwest Corridor Equitable Development Strategy.
The Southwest Corridor Equitable Development Strategy (SWEDS) resulted from an effort by Metro to prevent the negative impacts that improved access to transit can have on a community. While it is true that new infrastructure is in many ways a boon to a neighborhood, history has proven that it also brings unintended consequences: higher rents and housing costs which lead to the displacement of long-established communities. The result is often that the people who benefit from the new infrastructure are not the people it meant to serve.
SWEDS was born as an effort to prevent this from happening in Southwest Portland, Tigard and Tualatin as plans to expand the light rail got underway.
Young Nuhamin was skeptical when her parents announced that the family would settle in the U.S. “As a teenager I read a lot about other countries,” she says, “and I told them — I don’t think they’re very nice to people who look like us there.” So even as a teenager, she approached America with eyes wide open and her experience as both a Black woman and an immigrant has given her a unique perspective on life in this country. She went to high school in the Washington, D.C. area, where she met people belonging to various cultural groups, including other immigrants from across the world. The friendships she formed there reaffirmed her desire to work with diverse communities.
Nuhamin and her family moved to Oregon after she finished high school. She enrolled at Portland State University, where she studied history and cultural anthropology. Her studies led her to do research on the relationship between African Americans and African immigrants in Portland. What she found confirmed what she knew from lived experience, which is that immigrants — African and otherwise — are often prejudiced against Black people in America. “People say things like ‘oh, but you’re an immigrant, you’re not like them,’” she explains. And that, she recognized, affords her a certain level privilege.
These experiences launched Nuhamin into a career devoted to dismantling the systems that create social inequality and economic injustice. Prior to joining the SWEDS initiative at Unite Oregon she worked at Home Forward, which is the state’s largest affordable housing provider, as well as at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), the International Language Bank, and Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives Inc.
Nuhamin’s goal in her new position is to bring into leadership the marginalized communities that have historically been denied a seat at the table. “It is they who should be leading,” she says, “and they should be the ones to say what is missing for their communities.” And although friction is inevitable when people from different backgrounds come together, she is confident that even the most diverse groups can form a united front against systemic injustice. She learned what is needed for that work by listening to her grandmother’s wisdom. You need people to become medicine for people — you need community to be a salve for wounds that have long been heaped with salt.
“I want us to start with healing,” she says. “I want us to start by speaking with one another about what it means to create an equitable community that advocates for one another and that works for one another.”