African Leadership Group Prepares for Largest Event Yet
If you are not at the table, you are on the menu. Everything we do is catered to community members having a seat at the table,” says Papa Dia, Founder and Executive Director of the African Leadership Group. The African Leadership Group (ALG) is an advocacy organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for African immigrants and members of the diaspora. Over the past 15 years, the organization has focused on helping families and individuals successfully integrate into their local community by using social, economic, and educational empowerment programs.
Dia’s journey began in Senegal, West Africa, as one of 13 children. He says that growing up in such a large family that was “literally poor,” taught him the value and importance of caring and sharing. “I remember in order for me to go to school, I had to wait for my brother to come home and take off his pants and shoes so that I could put them on to go to school,” he recalls. “For me, what we were doing was just the norm.”
Having studied law in Senegal, Dia found himself having to start over when he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1998. “I came here looking for opportunities to support myself, and to support the family that I left behind,” he says. “When I came over here, obviously I couldn’t transfer my credits because they were French credits and I didn’t have the money to pay for it.”
Upon his arrival in Denver, Dia was hired at Tattered Cover Book Store, where he was limited to stocking books and arranging displays due to his inability to speak English. He used the opportunity to teach himself the language, and within a year he was prepared for the next chapter in his story. He left the bookstore and began to work as a bank teller. Working at the bank is where Dia believes the concept of ALG was born. A hotel near the bank employed several African immigrants who arrived every Friday to cash their checks.
Naturally, he wanted to connect with them and assist them as much as he could. “Back then, if you did not have a bank account, the bank would charge you seven dollars to cash your check because you were not a customer,” he explains, “So I started educating them about opening a bank account and getting their first car loans.” Almost immediately, word spread throughout metro Denver’s African community.
Soon, the lobby was filled with people hoping to meet the “brother from Africa” who spoke French and Wolof. On any given day, 30 to 50 people waited with questions about services or documents needing translation; Dia was able to teach financial literacy in ways they could relate to and understand. “All of a sudden, I found myself doing social work more than the banking job,” jokes Dia, “But it was good because I became the banker for this entire un-bankable community.” He realized how valuable it was to have someone who looked and sounded like them as their guide through the journey of living in America.
When the increasingly large group meetings at the bank began to concern his employer, Dia looked for an alternative location to continue helping the community. He came up with an idea to create a platform that would help African immigrants successfully integrate into America. “We didn’t have anything like that in Colorado, nor in the United States. That’s how I decided to start the African Leadership Group – with the vision to help facilitate the professional integration of the African diaspora through social, economic, and educational impact.”
Despite not knowing how to start an organization, Dia was fueled by his passion and vision of helping others. ALG was officially established in 2006 and operated for nearly 13 years without funding. From only about five members and regular small lectures, the organization has grown tremendously, welcoming approximately 1,000 participants throughout the years. ALG eventually received funding in 2016 from the Walton Family Foundation after researching grant criteria and identifying Dia’s campaign as a grassroots movement.
After spending a day with the CEO of the philanthropic foundation, Dia received an investment of $350,000, and the opportunity to leave the bank and focus solely on operating the organization. “Since then, not only has my life changed, but so many lives have transformed,” Dia expresses proudly; “From there everything changed.” Today, ALG’s executives, members, and volunteers take pride in its status as a true grassroots organization, with the community as its biggest focus.
The top initiative of the organization is to serve the African immigrant population’s most critical needs, while adhering to the core values of transformation, integrity, diversity and excellence. “Everything comes from the community; everything is about the community; everything is put together by the community and everything is driven by the community,” Dia says. In 2015, ALG hosted its first annual Afrik Impact event, celebrating the great contributions and impact that the African and Black diaspora have had on the state of Colorado.
In 2021, during the Afrik Impact Gala, Governor Jared Polis issued an honorary proclamation establishing the month of August as African Immigrant Month in Colorado. “With this proclamation, it allows for us to know that we are embedded into this society and we are a part of this society,” Dia says. “We are not just the immigrants that crossed the border; we are not just those immigrants that do not have papers; but we are the immigrants that contribute to the great advancement of this country and we are now being recognized and seen.”
This year’s Afrik Impact celebration will span the entire month, starting with a highly anticipated Community Cultural Event and Concert on Saturday, August 5 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.
The festivities will begin with a community celebration, followed by a fashion show by Senegalese designer, Oumou Sy, and will end with a spectacular performance by singer-songwriter, Baaba Maal, known for his music on the Wakanda Forever soundtrack. Philip Sneed, President and CEO of the Arvada Center, is also a good friend of Dia and a partner of ALG.
When the two met at a dinner several years ago, they discussed the Arvada Center’s new IDEA initiative, and the facility’s efforts to focus on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access. Sneed considered Dia’s involvement in the African immigrant community and remembers thinking, “We should not only look at the African American cultural work, but also the contributions of African immigrants and maybe the whole diaspora.”
The conversation sparked so much interest that the men traveled with their wives to Senegal earlier this year and met with Mbagnick Ndiaye, the country’s Minister of Culture. Ndiaye suggested Baaba Mal as the concert headliner and even offered to pay for the artist and his band’s travel expenses.
Dia has hosted several events at the Arvada Center in the recent past, but Sneed says, “This by far is the biggest one.” After the opening celebration, events will take place throughout the month, featuring the Education Forum on Thursday, Aug. 10, Business Summit on Thursday, Aug. 17, and other activities organized by partner organizations. Afrik Impact will conclude on Saturday, Aug. 26, with the Afrik Impact Fundraising Gala, to be held at Denver Botanic Gardens’ UMB Bank Amphitheater. The theme of this year’s gala is “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges.”
Unlike in previous years, Dia’s goal for this year’s event is to focus on representing not only the Black and African diaspora, but also cultures from all groups.
The theme was sparked by an initiative created by members of ALG’s Leadership Africa Program to create a space for dialogue between African immigrants and Black Americans. LaTerrell Bradford, team leader for the Black/African American Affinity Group and one of the founders of the Breaking Barriers initiative, explained the rationale for the innovative theme. “In the leadership cohort, we were placed in groups and we had to come up with a project, and I was the only Black American in my group.
I suggested to the group that our project was breaking barriers and building bridges between African immigrants and Black Americans because there’s definitely some tension there,” Bradford explains. “I had visited Ghana three times and I’ve been to Togo and Benin; I realized that they really don’t know us and they don’t know our struggle.” After working on the bridge between Africans and Black Americans for three years, the organization decided it was too limiting. The initiative has now been expanded to other “affinity groups” which are comprised of members from the Jewish, Indigenous American, Asian, Black, Hispanic, European, African and other communities.
The collective came together to create a unity poem that will be a blend of individual poems created by each group and will be unveiled during the Afrik Impact events.
Alan Frosh, a participant of the Breaking Barriers project, president of Frosh Philanthropy Partners, member of the AntiDefamation League board of directors, and now co-owner of Tattered Cover Book Store was introduced to Dia by a friend. He was encouraged to meet the man who had learned English at the same bookstore he now owns.
After meeting Dia and learning about ALG, Frosh believes the project and poem are transformational ideas. “The work he’s doing within his own community is exceptional. This led to literally building bridges of understanding, especially in a time when we are all divided by politics, by background, by religion,” says Frosh, “A lot of people could learn from what he’s done in convening these disparate ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds together towards a very beautiful community building activity.”
The public is invited to join in the Afrik Impact celebration, take a seat at the table, and build bridges toward a more unified future.
Editor’s note: For more information or to purchase community concert tickets, visit https://arvadacenter.org/events/day-of-african-culture and/or Afrik Impact fundraising gala tickets, visit, https://usalg.org /initiatives/afrik-impact-2023/.