Papa Dia is the founder and executive director of the African Leadership Group, a nonprofit based in Denver, Colorado that helps the African diaspora integrate and prosper by connecting cultures and promoting businesses within local communities in America and abroad.
ALG encourages political participation and brings together the African diaspora in Colorado. ALG provides business opportunities in the communities, mentors the youth to become community leaders and encourages civic engagement. ALG also hosts networking events to build social capital and educational programs to encourage career opportunities in the community.
In this Q&A, Papa discusses the vital work of bringing the concerns and contributions of the diverse African immigrant community together to work toward common goals of uplifting the community’s visibility and presence in the Denver metro area, and throughout Colorado.
How did the African Leadership Group come about?
I’m an immigrant from West Africa, from Senegal. I came to the United States to seek opportunities, to get a job and help the family I left behind. I came from a very poor family, where even eating is a luxury.
For my first job, I worked at Tattered Cover Bookstore. I couldn’t speak English, so my job was stocking books. I would spend 10 hours just stocking books. I had access to books and English tapes, and that’s how I learned English. I learned English from listening to audiobooks. .
My English got better and better, and I transitioned to work at the bank as a teller. Africans would come to the bank and would very surprised to find me, a fellow African, working at the bank. They started asking for me, whenever they wanted help or advice with opening an account, building credit, buying a home, or starting a business. They would also come for help with translating financial documents, things like that.
I got in trouble at the bank, because my mangers thought I was doing more social work than actually doing what I’m hired to do. I told myself that there has to be better way to work for community. That’s how African Leadership Group got started.
Initially, it was a platform for African immigrants to come, and we help them integrate professionally. We wanted to give them the opportunity to be exposed to a professional environment, where they can come and pursue their dreams.
What are the main offerings of the African Leadership Group?
Our vision is to help the African diaspora integrate and prosper by connecting cultures. We work to achieve that by working on social, economic, and educational impact.
Our community is very diverse. We serve many West Africans, East Africans, South Africans – pretty much the whole continent across the board. The Ethiopian community is the largest.
Even though ALG was formed to serve Africans, we are open to other nationalities. We strongly believe that if we live in the United States, and we want to learn and grow, then we need to learn from the locals. We have white Americans and African Americans who are contributing to the organization. We bring human beings together who want to liberate and help elevate Africans.
We focus on social impact because we often need someone to host or guide us when we are still new to the country. People may need help with a place to stay or buying a home. In terms of economic impact, we help people find jobs or start their own businesses.
Our main focus is educational impact. We help families learn about navigating the education systems: how to enroll their children in school, understand what’s next after elementary school, graduating from high school, and moving on to college.
We offer different programs, such as our public speaking class, which is offered every Tuesday. In this class, we teach members of the community how to build their confidence, build character, and have good content. Often, when we come here, we don’t speak English very well. All the knowledge that we have, we tend to keep to ourselves. We tell community members that no matter how bad your English, you can always come to the class and express yourself. We also help prepare them for job interviews.
We also host an after-school program for our school-age children. As immigrants, the way that we studied at home is totally different from the experiences of our children here in America. The system and the curriculum are totally different. We have a lot of parents who don’t know how to help their children, when it comes to education. We also have many parents who don’t speak English. Through the after-school program, we can help the kids with math, science, and reading homework.
We offer kids’ debate every Friday for children ages 9 to 14 years old. I think it’s the most amazing program, because it allows us to truly hear our children. They identify an issue, for example, discrimination or understanding parents. They talk about the issue, come up with a solution, and present the solution to community members.
We also host a health and wellness program. For many in the immigrant community, we only see the doctor when we are about to die, pretty much. We really want to implement an understanding of preventive care, eating habits, and so on.
Our skills training program helps people understand what kinds of skills are needed by employers. Graduating from community college doesn’t guarantee a job. Many African immigrants have trades background – they may be plumbers or construction workers back home. When they come here, they may not know how to channel their skills or how to get proper paperwork done so they can work those jobs.
Our goal is to help elevate them to become competitive in the job market. How do we create employment opportunities for members of the community? How do we build the path for them to become professionals?
What are the top community needs that you are working to address?
Education is a big issue. The welcome orientation, language survey, language protocols, and many other materials are primarily in English or in Spanish. They don’t include all the languages that are widely spoken by our African Immigrant families. We are running a campaign where we are trying to have written materials to be available in the top five most spoken languages in Aurora and Denver schools.
Editor”s note: Walton Family Foundation produced the video below to highlight their support of ALG. The Foundation’s Board Chair Carrie Walton Penner visits with Papa Dia and members of the African Leadership Group.