Afrik Impact: Empowering the Next Generation for Economic Impact
From August 5-10, the African Leadership Group will host a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage, inviting policymakers, business leaders, social dignitaries and members of Colorado’s communities to celebrate the impact of the African diaspora in Colorado, while recognizing community champions for their collective and individual commitment to improving conditions for African immigrants.
In its fourth year, the Afrik Impact event, themed, Empowering the Next Generation for Economic Impact, will feature guest speaker and former president of Liberia, Honorable Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the event’s impressive line-up of activities will showcase the role African immigrants play in the local economy while highlighting local and international business opportunities.
Since its inception in 2006, the African Leadership Group has assisted countless families in the transition from Africa to Colorado’s vastly different communities with resources, support, and guidance. Despite an increasingly turbulent social landscape with several egregious immigration policy changes implemented by the current presidential administration, immigrants who reside in Colorado haven’t lost hope in the “American Dream” and are working to strengthen their community while maintaining a strong cultural identity.
The African Leadership Group’s founder, Papa Dia, launched the Afrik Impact event in 2015 as a celebratory culmination of year-long programming and an opportunity for people outside of the immigrant community to learn about the social, economic, and educational impact that African immigrants have had on Colorado’s communities. The event, which continues to grow in size and influence, supports Dia’s objective to see the month of August proclaimed, African Immigrant Month.
When he arrived in the United States in 1998, 28-year old Dia was determined to earn enough money to send back to his family in Senegal, West Africa. “When I had a chance to come here, my family had hope that they would have breakfast and lunch. My main duty was to work and send money home, that’s it,” he says. Despite having studied law in his homeland, Dia was at a disadvantage in the United States; he was limited by his minimal English, but he didn’t let that disrupt his efforts to create a better life for himself. “When I came here, all the education and degrees didn’t matter. I found myself studying all over again,” he recalls. Dia got a job at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, where constant immersion in the world of literacy helped perfect his reading, writing, and speaking skills.
After leaving the Tattered Cover Bookstore, Dia got a job as a bank teller, where he worked for the next 18 years. During his time at the bank, he learned about financial resources that were not readily accessible to the immigrant community, though they were necessary for successful integration. Information about government assistance was readily available, but Dia says, “Nothing existed to help us achieve the American dream,” so he began to disseminate his newly-discovered economic resources to the community of African immigrants in an attempt to help families accomplish their educational and professional goals. Eventually, Dia’s outreach work garnered the attention of his community, attracting dozens of immigrants to the bank each week. When the bank started to expressed concern, Dia realized that he needed to create an outlet to continue to help people outside of his workplace, “I didn’t know that what I was doing was what a grassroots organization does. I came from a poor family; everything you had, you had to share it.” He created the African Leadership Group to facilitate the integration of African immigrants.
The African Leadership Group’s programming offers opportunities for children and adult immigrants to address the diverse issues within the community, adjusting to the cultural differences in their new environment while accessing resources to help strengthen the rich entrepreneurial efforts of men and women who come to this country in search of a better life. The group operates with several initiatives, and features activities that help empower African immigrant communities to achieve long-term goals. A health and wellness initiatives facilitate reduced-price health services while hosting community discussions that address key health concerns and improve community wellness. The career and economic advancement initiatives provide opportunities for communities to learn about important industries, engage in professional networking, and receive financial literacy and home ownership training. The leadership initiative provides public speaking training classes every Tuesday in addition to a 9-month leadership program to prepare African immigrants for meaningful engagement in education, civic, and community processes. Women and youth empowerment initiatives provide support for women and children who face a unique set of challenges after immigrating to the United States.
The process of leaving home and immigrating to a new country is not without challenges; but for young people trying to become acclimated in American society, immigration is especially difficult. “When African immigrant children are in their household, they are raised based on African culture, because we want them to keep some of the cultural value that we have back home; but when they go to school, they are exposed to the American culture. They’re not African enough and they’re not American enough. When we talk about identity crisis, that’s what our kids go through every single day.” Dia explains that the specialized youth programming gives African immigrant children a sense of belonging and helps them realize that they are not alone, while programming for parents helps entire families navigate life in the United States with a safe space to share stories and find solutions for common intergenerational problems.
The African Leadership Group, with headquarters in the city of Aurora, values strong partnerships with city officials and governmental entities that exist to simplify the process of integration, but with drastic changes to immigration policies, there is a growing need for programming that protects the human rights of immigrants. The organization hosts a legal clinic forum every Monday, but tensions are hastily increasing as the future of the United States’ policies regarding immigration are uncertain. “I have a lot of families that have been separated. There are a lot of people in the community that are being deported on a daily basis. There’s constant fear in the community.” Dia believes that the work of the African Leadership Group is critical in bringing people together with a shared goal of humanitarian protections for all, emphasizing the need for strengthened relationships between different African communities as well as between Black Americans and Africans as a whole.
Black Americans have been faced with social, educational, political, and economic hardships resulting from 400 years of inequity in the United States. After being removed from Africa and brought to the Americas through The Middle Passage, most of the cultural values and heritage of the homeland were stripped away by slaveowners, leaving the Black community ravaged and isolated from its roots by the time slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. With no significant efforts to reacquaint Black people with their African heritage, the rift between Black Americans and African people has been widened by negative stereotypes and misconceptions that exist as a result of mutual ignorance and missed opportunities to learn and grow closer.
Dia is intentional about bridging the gap between Black Americans and African immigrants. He regularly attends meeting hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, organizations that exist to support the Black community by fighting economic inequity and promoting self-reliance. Earlier this year, the African Leadership Group hosted a retreat at The Denver Foundation, with leaders from around the metro Denver area working to strengthen the African and Black communities by sharing what they want others to know about their communities to deepen cultural understanding. By collaborating with these groups, Dia hopes to eliminate the divide between Blacks and Africans that holds us back from reaching our true social and economic potential in the United States. “I am exhausted of seeing us be labeled. I am exhausted of seeing human beings being divided. I am exhausted of seeing whatever environment we are in dictate who we are as human beings,” says Dia, “I am looking for people to be willing to take the time and take a chance to get to know people they didn’t know before; even if it’s coming and having a conversation. If we stay in our corner, we’re going to continue to have misconceptions about each other. I’m looking for us to rise above these challenges and come out of our corners. We are all in a position where we can impact somebody.”
Each day of the Afrik Impact event is designed to bring awareness to the contributions of African immigrants to support the need for the state’s proclamation of African Immigrant Month. “I want to do the work first before I go with the ask,” Dia says. “Last year’s event was three days long, this year is a week. We are growing from an event with a couple hundred people to this year welcoming at least a thousand. Next year, we want to celebrate for the entire month.” The Afrik Impact event is joined in August by the Taste of Ethiopia festival, and the African Leadership Group is working with the community at-large to highlight activities that focus on pre-slavery historical education, sporting and entertainment events, and a substantive celebration of African heritage. “I want to use this approach to bring everybody from the Black community together with everybody from the African community,” says Dia.
Afrik Impact’s interactive workshops and activities are free to the public. On Monday, August 5ththe event will kick off with a community celebration of African heritage, culture, food, art, and human accomplishment. Tuesday, August 6thwill feature a community “Shark Tank” event with opportunities for entrepreneurs to pitch business ideas, products, and services to a panel of potential investors. On Wednesday, August 7th, the African Leadership Group’s Youth Empowerment Group will host a preview of its work in education and throughout the community. On Thursday, August 8th, an Economic Impact Conference and Workshop will present a panel of finance, investment, and business development experts with information about business opportunities in the United States and in Africa. The African Leadership Group will host an invitation-only reception with guest speakers and high-profile business and civic leaders from around the world on Friday, August 9th, and Afrik Impact will culminate on Saturday, August 10thwith its signature Gala event at the Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center.
The featured speaker for the Afrik Impact Gala, Honorable Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was awarded along with Leymah Gbowee for their peacekeeping efforts and contributions to women’s rights. Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia, is a renowned speaker who delivers powerful messages from her experiences as one of the driving forces of Africa’s social and economic transformation.
African immigrants have made significant contributions to Colorado’s communities. Whether relocating to the United States in search of asylum or for better opportunities, the powerful stories that exist within immigrant communities lend to the rich fabric of diversity that blankets our beautiful state. Entrepreneurs, attorneys, teachers, doctors, and immigrants who are engaged in politics and education are working together to move the community forward with a commitment to social progress that is felt for generations to come. “One thing we believe in is ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ How do you make sure people are equipped to be part of the solution-finding of an issue? I don’t believe in waiting for people to come up with miracles to save us, but I believe in people coming up with ways to improve our quality of life,” says Dia.
In its fourth year, Afrik Impact is sure to bring Colorado’s communities together to celebrate the positive impact of African people while highlighting the importance of strengthened collaboration now and in the future.