Editor’s note: Decontee Winka Yaah (who prefers to be called Winka) has been an active member of the African Leadership Group since 2019, when she enrolled in the Public Speaking Class. She is a member of the second Leadership Africa Class, which holds its graduation ceremony next month. Winka works for the State of Colorado, assisting adults with mental and physical disabilities.
ALG talked to Winka about how important both the Public Speaking Class and Leadership Africa have been to her personal development and in building a community of like-minded people. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
African Leadership Group: Please tell us about how you ended up in Denver and how you got connected to ALG.
Decontee Winka Yaah: I am originally from Monrovia, Liberia, but during the war my family moved to Ghana in 2000, when I was a teenager. I came to the U.S. in 2005, and have lived in the Denver area ever since. I was connected to ALG by State Representative Naquetta Ricks, who also is Liberian. At a Liberian event one evening we were talking and she told me about Papa Dia and ALG. I am always looking for opportunities to learn, and she mentioned the Public Speaking Class and said a new cohort of the class was beginning soon.
So she set up a meeting for me with Papa. The class had already been going for about a week, but I joined it. It was a great experience, and I learned so much and formed a community from my classmates.
ALG: How did you decide to join Leadership Africa?
Winka: Papa sent me an email and called. He said “Winka, we have a leadership program coming up and you should apply.” So I applied and got a spot in the second cohort.
ALG: What are the most important things you’ve learned in Leadership Africa?
Winka: Community. Community is the big one. Being in a community is key. Our class is a community in and of itself. We all come from different places and different communities, and when we enter class, we are a community of our own. We cater to one another, we feed one another positively. Community is very important. That’s one of the biggest things I’m learning in class.
ALG: And most of your classmates weren’t people you had met before when you started?
Winka: I knew one or two people other than Papa from the Public Speaking Class, but everyone else was a stranger to me. Now we are a big family. Every single person in that room from the professors to the students has become family in one way or another. I can call anybody anytime and I can depend on anybody in that room. I can share with anybody and I know that it’s safe.
ALG: What other important lessons have you learned from Leadership Africa?
Winka: One thing that was very big in that class is the importance of mental health. I did not know how deep it was, and how important it was and how and how it is affecting our communities, our schools, our jobs. I learned about the importance of taking care of yourself and your own mental health. Because of that class I started going to therapy, which is not something I would have ever done before.
I plan on continuing to work on my mental health because if you’re mentally stable, you can help orders. I want to play a role educating my community about the importance of taking care of your mental health. In African communities, going to therapy is not a thing. People say “oh, we can talk to God, we can pray about it.” And I tell people, yes, you can do that, and that is good, but it’s OK to talk to a professional as well. God cannot do everything from heaven but he put people in these spaces to help us. Where we’re from, it is not something we do. For men especially it is considered a sign of weakness. But I want to help change that idea.
I also learned from Leadership Africa that it is OK to cry things out. We’re able to cry in class, we are able to be vulnerable. We are able to be authentic and nobody is judging you. Nobody’s laughing at you. So I plan on putting that into my communities. And then people know it is OK. If I can do it, You can do it. We can work together and we can help each other.
ALG: Do you have any final thoughts to offer on Leadership Africa?
Winka: Leadership Africa has opened my eyes to a whole new world. A whole new form of trust. It’s possible to meet people and build new relationships and you can trust these people. As long as the space is safe. And the Leadership Africa space is very safe.