About Mercy Corps Northwest
Mercy Corps Northwest is the domestic branch of the internationally known aid organization, Mercy Corps International. Here in Oregon, MCNW works on several fronts to improve individual lives and communities. Their flagship programs are small business support; the Reentry Transition Center for individuals coming out of prison; a refugee garden program; and a small business class for incarcerated women.
There is a remarkable common thread running through these disparate projects: a clarity of purpose and an empowerment model that leaves clients with a sense of their ability to pursue and achieve their goals.
In 2015, MCNW supported hundreds of entrepreneurs in starting and building businesses; over 1,000 ex-offenders in reentering the Portland community, and 60 refugee participants in the Refuge Garden project, with a $6,000 average family income from produce sales.
We were asked to create a series of client portraits and profiles we titled “Picturing Mercy Corps Northwest.” In the process, we met with individuals involved in all four programs to take photos and hear their stories. We were invited into the vibrant heart of MCNW’s work, and met some truly exceptional individuals.
16 of these client profiles were selected to be printed (at nearly 3’ x 4’!) and displayed at the Mercy Corps headquarters in downtown Portland. They were part of the end-of-year party celebrating volunteers, staff, and clients, but they will also be on display as an installation in 2016 (check back for more details).
In addition to these printed portraits, our photos and writing will also be used on the MCNW website, in outreach materials, on social media, and in their annual report.
We are delighted that our early project with the Reentry Transition Center led us to this work with Mercy Corps Northwest!
Our Work with Mercy Corps Northwest
As we met with individuals in the small business program, the Reentry Transition Center, the Refuge Gardens, and the LIFE class at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution, we witnessed how these programs inspire and empower their clients. The individuals we spoke with had a clear sense of their goals—and a well-considered path to achieve them.
We were welcomed into homes and businesses, life-giving garden spaces and a lively discussion at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. We were offered food and coffee, and invited to understand people’s journeys.
LIFE Class at Coffee Creek Correctional Institution
The LIFE class offers women who are nearing the end of their sentences a chance to build skills and knowledge of running a small business. In the process, they not only discuss budgeting, accounting, loan applications, taxes, and income projections, but also broader life skills like communication, goal setting, and self-care. We spent two days at Coffee Creek, first sitting in on a dynamic class discussion, and then interviewing participants. Both days we were struck by how engaged, motivated, grounded, and collaborative these women are.
Small Business Program
MCNW offers a wide array of programs supporting entrepreneurs. Business classes include foundational skills courses, accounting, internet marketing, and more, and also offer a specialized program for Russian-speaking entrepreneurs. Microloans support businesses that do not qualify for more conventional funding. Matched savings grants can triple low-income business owners’ resources.
We met incredible individuals through this program.
Reentry Transition Center
Our work for Picturing Mercy Corps Northwest was our second experience with the Reentry Transition Center. As with our previous visits, we were struck by the welcoming and encouraging atmosphere of the organization, and the way the navigators worked together with clients to facilitate their success post-incarceration.
The people we spoke with for this project were focused on overcoming the many challenges of reentering the community: finding jobs, rebuilding ties with family, securing stable housing, and developing positive community and plans.
Refugees often face intense challenges in finding their place in the community. Depending on the individual’s past experiences, they often are living with trauma and culture shock while facing challenges in securing work and finding a place in the community.
The Refuge Gardens Project provides gardeners with important and empowering work while also ensuring that they can access healthy, organic produce for their own consumption as well as income from sales in local farmer’s markets.