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And Justice for All

How a shared space gave a needed boost to area advocacy groups



Marrying a gay rights group with a local workers union makes total sense to Yaju Dharmarajah.

Dharmarajah is one of the masterminds behind Central Oregon Social Justice Center, a new meeting area in downtown Bend that houses everyone from Human Dignity Coalition to United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 555 to immigration attorneys Hecht & Norman.

The groups, which benefit from crossover exposure, share the cost of rent just like they share the copy machine, the wireless network and conference room. And it's saving them all a lot of money.

"By capitalizing on shared costs, every month every group sees a savings," said Dharmarajah, council representative of the Oregon affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 75. Dharmarajah is also the chair of Central Oregon Jobs for Justice.

Melissa Adams Gianopous, executive director for Human Dignity Coalition, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization, agreed. She said not only is her group now in a more central downtown location, the larger, shared space has allowed HDC to add a counseling office.

"We couldn't afford the office space otherwise," Adams Gianopous said.

But the shared space does more than just save the organizations money.

"Some of the union members are LGBQ and they may not know what HDC is doing," said Adams Gianopous. "There's some overlap in the people that we serve."

Dharmarajah thinks that with so many advocacy groups under one roof, the social justice center is forging new ground.

"The success of this group will be a model for other small to mid-sized communities, like Medford, Eugene and Klamath Falls," Dharmarajah said. "What we're seeing with the social justice center is daily, weekly, monthly ongoing relationships. All members interact."

And as if they weren't already inclusive enough, the social justice center also allows outside groups to use the conference room and Internet connection. For free. All Dharmarajah asks is that those groups, from vegans to anti-sex traffickers, consider attending another meeting by one of the other organizations.

"Being a union member in Deschutes County is about being part of a community," Dharmarajah said.

Dharmarajah, who downsized from a three-room suite to a shared one-room office, said the social justice center has been two years in the making. But it was the No. 1 request from a gathered group of community group leaders during a retreat last February.

In five years, when the lease is up, the bundled coalitions hope to upgrade to a bigger space. They also want to include even more organizations.

"My goal is to be able to have agreements with five unions, 10 different community groups and four to five attorneys housed under one bigger social justice center," Dharmarajah said.

So far, the model seems to be working. Dharmarajah said he's already seen an increase in foot traffic since the group's open house on First Friday. The conference room sign-in sheet is also filling up—another sign that area organizations "get it."

"It's understanding that your neighbor next door to you may be struggling with the same problem as you," Dharmarajah said. SW

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