Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JUNE 2010
Profiles in the Law
Rooted in Respect:
Nargess Shadbeh Advocates for Migrant Workers
By Cliff Collins

Nargess Shadbeh

Those who know and work with her see a consistent theme in the career of Nargess Shadbeh: She doesn’t take “no” for an answer.

For example, in 1985, after joining what is now Oregon Law Center, Shadbeh took up the cause of improving farmworkers’ living conditions. She began advocating for developing housing projects in towns rather than on farmers’ land. Predictably, “She ran into opposition,” recounts Art Schmidt, a lawyer with the center. “It didn’t faze her.”

Shadbeh formed alliances with community members to create the nonprofit Farmworker Housing Development Corp., with a mission to build decent and affordable housing for farmworkers in the Willamette Valley. The idea of situating housing projects within existing neighborhoods and towns gave many residents pause, she says, because, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, few models existed of quality, affordable farmworker housing within towns.

But Shadbeh says that over time, public fears were dispelled, as housing projects fit mostly seamlessly into the surrounding cities. Those developments now include on-site day care, after-school enrichment programs, adult English as a Second Language and computer classes. “It really has become a success story for all involved,” she says.

Schmidt, who has worked with her for more than 20 years, says the projects Shadbeh has taken on are “not the kind of stuff that was easy to do. She works harder than anyone else I know.” Shadbeh, director of Oregon Law Center’s Farmworker Program since 2002, has devoted her legal career to serving and improving the lives of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Oregon.

Choosing Her Path
Nargess Shadbeh, a native of Iran, moved to Oregon when she was 12, following two older siblings already here, and joined later by their parents.

“My mother and grandmother were people I saw who contributed to the community,” says Shadbeh. “They were my early role models.” In 1994, when Oregon Women Lawyers honored Shadbeh with the Judge Mercedes Deiz Award, which recognizes an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to promoting minorities in the community, Shadbeh remarked: “My grandmother told me, ‘The measure of a good Moslem woman is not how well you cover yourself or whether you are praying in the mosque five times a day. But it is what you are doing to serve your community.’”

Dispelling any misconceptions, she adds that, “Neither now nor then was there a prohibition about girls going to school,” and there were professional women at every level of society.

“I wanted to become a lawyer as long as I can remember, even in Iran. I knew some people who were lawyers by profession, and I was intrigued by the profession because I thought it was a way to make a difference. Over time, I came to understand what that meant more fully.”

In her native country, she formed impressions that stayed with her once she became involved with farmworker law. “I saw a lot of similarities between farmworkers in the Willamette Valley and the faces of those in Iran working along the Caspian, or who had to work in the city and send money back home,” Shadbeh says.

As an undergraduate economics major at Lewis & Clark College, she learned about the plight of farmworkers by studying under Don Balmer, then a professor of political science. Years before, he had done extensive work serving farmworkers, and he helped open her eyes to the Third World conditions in our own back yard. She went on to earn her law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School.

Reaching Out to a Growing Population
By the early 1990s, there was a gradual recognition among Shadbeh and her colleagues that the demographics of farmworkers in Oregon was changing. Many workers were from Mexico or Central America, but did not speak Spanish. Instead, they have cultural and indigenous linguistic histories that are different from Latinos, she explains.

These migrants come from from 68 different ethnic communities, each with its own language, such as Mixteco, Triqui and Zapoteco. Many of these indigenous people are subject to extreme poverty and discrimination in their own country, not just in the United States, and often work in the most low-paying jobs and lack access to legal and health resources.

Studies have estimated that approximately 174,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers are in Oregon each year, with 90 percent of these workers from Latin America. A 2001 study of farmworkers in Washington County found that approximately 40 percent were indigenous people.

Shadbeh recounts an anecdote to illustrate the need for health and interpretive services among these workers, and why the center is trying to help the justice system become better prepared to serve this client community. An indigenous female farmworker “had to submit to rape in order to retain her job,” Shadbeh says. “She needed the job in order to support her family, but she was injured so badly, she went for medical care.”

Because of the language barrier, her young son had to interpret as she told the medical provider of her rape. “It’s situations like this that show we’ve got to do better than we have been to provide services to clients, no matter where they’re from,” she says.

Betsy Tripi, grant administrator for Oregon Law Center, who has worked closely with Shadbeh, says: “She inspires me every day. Nargess truly sees opportunity where other people see only obstacles, and everything she does is rooted in her respect for farmworkers and commitment to making their lives better. When you work for Nargess you have to work hard, but she always works harder, and in the end you do more than you ever thought you could.”

In collaboration with the Oregon Judicial Department, the center has worked since 2002 to train indigenous-language speakers on interpreting skills. In addition, for the past few years, the center has sponsored interpreter training in collaboration with Maria Michalczyk, of Portland Community College, “so that when workers visit health care clinics, they are able to receive services in a language they understand, and in a culturally appropriate manner,” says Julie Samples, managing attorney and coordinator of the center’s Indigenous Farmworker Project. “Nargess has been instrumental in her support of these programs, and continues to figure out ways to fund” them, she adds.

The center and its partners also conduct intensive farmworker outreach and have implemented a Promotores (Peer Health Educator) Program, training indigenous farmworkers who speak one of the common indigenous languages to share information in a comfortable setting with their neighbors and co-workers. A key focus of the program is to develop effective leadership and advocacy skills among indigenous farmworkers themselves, and to allow community input to guide the project’s work.

Shadbeh has received several honors for her work, including a Harvard Law School Wasserstein Fellowship in 2006, which recognizes lawyers who have distinguished themselves in public interest law.

Despite these accolades, Shadbeh credits advancements in farmworker law as coming about through collaborative partnerships, not her individual achievements: “Over the years, I’ve learned that to tackle complex problems, you need a multidisciplinary approach, where different stakeholders come together to address the issues. My role was to bring those partners together.”

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2010 Cliff Collins

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