African diaspora & community organizing

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Picture courtesy of Nhial Chut

On June 8th, all roads in the Washington DC Metro region led to Silver Spring Maryland where about 1100 diaspora Africans held a first, historic accountability assembly with candidates running for governor in the great state of Maryland. This unprecedented first is hailed as the beginning of organized African civic engagement in the DC metro area.

What is community organizing and why now?

For me, community organizing is a process that involves mobilizing people and money to effect and affect change. Now is the time, the social will and political will are present, the changing US demographic landscape, the waning of white Christian “good ole boy” domination of the political process and the rise of ethnic minority influence led by the Latinos.

Historically, Africans living in America have gone through the full life cycle of any American. They have settled attained education, obtained employment or started businesses, paid taxes, raised families, retired and some eventually passed on in the USA. The only aspect that has been neglected is that of civic engagement. Yes, while we do see Africans participate in places of worship, school boards, and housing /neighborhood associations but in most cases they largely stand on the sidelines.

Why this is the case?

Could it be because those Africans who found themselves in the USA were there to get an education and returned home after school and therefore didn’t see the need to participate in any community? Could it be coming from politically immature countries where politics is truly a “dirty game” characterized by fear, kleptocracy, and poor governance we become leery of politics and cannot see beyond our previous experiences and chose to sit out altogether. Could it be because being immigrants we don’t feel like we belong here?

This would be absurd considering America is a nation of immigrants, everyone came from somewhere with the exception of the Native Americans, the true indigenous people of this land. In addition, we all belong because we came through proper channels. Due to geography, it is difficult to the point of impossibility for Africans to sneak into the USA in cargo containers as some Asians immigrants or swim across the Rio Grande as Latinos do. The point is, almost all African immigrants currently in America entered the country through a government port of entry and regardless of their current immigration status, should feel free to engage in civics.

Why has it taken this long?

As recent as the last 20 years migration and settlement patterns of Africans has been short term to medium term. Unlike European immigrants who came to America to permanently settle, the majority of Africans came for a purpose and with the intention to stay long enough and then return home. Even those who settled here had the plan to work raise their families and ultimately return to Africa for retirement earning the nickname “The Going Home Generation”. Given this “going home” state of mind it is easy to focus on work and accumulating the means to build a home and start a business in Africa. It is easy to shut out the immediate environment however this means we are left as by standers in our current environment as well as in Africa. Because of distance we cannot be as plugged in to the civic society in our countries of origin. Yes we read and discuss the ongoing issues and for some even vote but the level of engagement while globally dispersed, is limited. We have become stateless people neither belonging neither here nor in Africa. Caught in between 2 worlds is a contributing factor to why it has taken the African Diaspora in America a long while to organize.

Why is this important?

Since 1976 election every election cycle candidates be it local and national office, scramble to court the Latino vote. The Latinos have progressively built their influence and have become the de facto king makers of American politics. But it was not always the case and come about through persistent and consistent mobilizing people and money. Though many Latinos are undocumented, that has not deterred them from banding together, voicing demands and holding authorities accountable. Similarly Africans have to start somewhere and persistently organize till we finally get that recognition and earn that respect.

Secondly, we are short changing ourselves, not maximizing our fullest potential and allowing opportunities to pass us by. Through my government contracting work I can attest on how it is nearly impossible to get an African owned subcontractor to collaborate with yet there are many African owned companies in the DC Metro. We can’t even register as Small Minority owned Business Enterprise? With the exception of healthcare and IT professional many African immigrants are underemployed in America despite being the most highly educated group of immigrants. Why is this so? Firstly, we have allowed ourselves to be defined by other people. We allow the continued stereotyping as docile and complacent people, Forever followers and incapable of leading. We work hard and wait for recognition, with the belief that our work will speak for itself. However in America the squeakiest wheel gets the grease and no one will toot your horn for you. Similarly in the political arena, unless we demand recognition and respect, we will forever be the forgotten ones all our degrees notwithstanding. I cannot stress enough on the importance of organizing and how it affects our economic advancement prospects

Lastly, the decisions and outcomes affect us! Whether we chose to get involved or watch from the sidelines, local and federal decision makers will continue to make decisions that affect us. Therefore if we are going to be bound by these decisions it makes sense to be part of the decision making process and influence the outcome. As much as we need pay attention to the socio political situation at home, it is imperative that we become engaged in the communities we currently live in. Let us mobilize, stand together as Africans, speak with one voice and finally claim the recognition and respect we deserve.

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