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'Say Hey' to community

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Bathscheba Duronvil is often hunting for places at Southern Oregon University where she feels a sense of community.

The sophomore president of SOU’s Black Student Union moved to the Rogue Valley from Minnesota. At times, she said, the absence of a community of color can feel “suffocating.”

Monday night, however, provided a change of pace. Duronvil attended Say Hey, a gathering of professionals and students with different skin tones and accents, eating, drinking and trading information in multiple languages about local employment and educational opportunities.

“I’m here because I need that connection with people of color — with black people specifically,” Duronvil said. “And it’s just really refreshing to be in a space where I don’t have to explain myself. I can be natural, I can be whoever I want to be, and no one’s going to judge me, no one’s going to side-eye me or do whatever.”

The event, held Monday evening in the Rogue River Room in Stevenson Union, was the first Say Hey event held in the Rogue Valley in 13 years.

Ask any of the organizers behind the event, and they’ll say Duronvil’s comments fall right in line with their reasons for planning it.

“I hope you will make of this opportunity, as I hope to, where we begin to ... make each other better,” said Suresh Apavoo, SOU’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer, during a short speech.

This being the first iteration of the networking event since 2006, organizers said it served as a test run of sorts. They modeled the format after the recurring Say Hey events organized by Portland organization Partners in Diversity.

That function began when local people of color organized an event to welcome a new provost at Portland State University in the 1990s, said Mari Watanabe, executive director of Partners in Diversity. Since then, it’s grown into a full-fledged mixer held multiple times per year to welcome recent arrivals and plug them into the community.

Alma Rosa Alvarez, English program chair, said the connections formed at events such as Say Hey enable graduates from underrepresented groups in the Rogue Valley to realistically imagine working here, rather than moving instantly.

“We want to keep the talent here,” she said.

Employers, too, shared a desire to not only recruit, but also retain a more diverse workforce.

Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and a speaker at Say Hey, urged employers — members of the Ashland chamber and beyond — to actively work toward equitable environments.

“It’s important for our community and region to recognize ... the benefits they will receive from being more inclusive and prioritizing equity in their internal practices and operations,” Slattery said. “We know there is much work to be done.”

Partners in Diversity has conducted research in the Portland area that offered insights into barriers that drive employees of color to leave the area.

“We do know if people don’t get involved in their community, they tend not to stay here long,” Watanabe said. “We’ve heard anecdotally many times that people who can’t find their community say, ‘I’m done, I don’t have a place where I can go and be with people who look like me.’”

Employers, with that knowledge, steer their recent hires to Partners in Diversity events, she said.

“Employers spend a lot of money to move people here and they want them to stay,” Watanabe said.

The organization’s Workforce Diversity Project found that prospective employees are likely to apply for jobs at places that family, friends or acquaintances recommend or view favorably.

Following a round of speakers from different sectors across the valley Monday night, attendees chatted and laughed well beyond the scheduled 7 p.m. end time.

Duronvil, a criminal justice major who hopes to pursue a law degree, said she spent some of her time with members of local law enforcement.

“I’m really interested in law,” she said. “I got an opportunity to connect with them, grab some of their cards.”

The steering committee will send out surveys to attendees asking for feedback as they plan for another round, said Roy Fernandez, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s audience development associate. They’ll also scope out new locations to hold the next Southern Oregon Say Hey.

“We don’t want to just be focused on Ashland,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Freshman theatre student Kayvette Osorio meets Kamilah Long of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, (left), and Michelle Cummings of the Medford School District in a "Say Hey" networking event Monday at Southern Oregon University. Photo by Denise Baratta
Criminal justice student Bathscheba Duronvil meets with Jackson County Sheriff deputies (clockwise from top), Jesus Murillo, Chad Miller and Ryan Tuff during the "Say Hey" networking event Monday at Southern Oregon University. Photo by Denise Baratta