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Papa Dia School of Mines MLK Day speech: Strive to be like King

African Leadership Group Founder and Executive Director Papa Dia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon speech at the Colorado School of Mines Tuesday wove together quotes from King with Papa’s experiences as an African immigrant to the U.S.

You can watch the 15-minute speech at the bottom of this article.

Papa described the theme of his speech as “how Dr. Martin Luther King inspired my life and inspired me to launch the African Leadership Group.”

“Growing up in poverty in Senegal, I never imagined the profound impact the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have on my life. Yet as a Black immigrant to the United States, my opportunities and successes are a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King,” Papa said.

He recounted his early years in Senegal: He grew up poor in a family of 13 children, with no electricity and often not enough to eat. But he was driven to get an education, and despite many obstacles, managed to make it through high school and into college.

Papa cited a Dr. King quote summing up his attitude as a young man: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

When he arrived in the U.S. in 1998, Papa spoke no English. He landed a job stocking shelves at the Tattered Cover bookstore. He began meeting people who became mentors who helped shape his life, including Dr. Derrick Hudson, now an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

Eventually, Papa transitioned to an entry level job at a bank, and it’s there that seeds that would become ALG were sown. 

“While I was at the bank my fellow African Immigrants started to come see me to get help cashing their checks, opening bank accounts,  and getting their first car loan. They would then go into the community to let others know that “we have a brother at the bank who is helping us,” and next thing the entire-entire community was showing up and I started helping with translation, filing immigration papers, and so on.”

That volunteer work became time-consuming, and led to the formation of ALG. For 13 years, Papa ran ALG while still working full-time at the bank. Six years ago, after securing some grants, he was able to leave the bank and make the development of ALG his full-time work.

“Dr. King said it best: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’,” Papa said.

Papa stressed that an important part of ALG’s work going forward will be building bridges between the African immigrant and African American communities. “While there are significant differences between the African immigrant experience and the African American experience, we have more that binds us than divides us. Dr. King understood the commonalities between Africans and African Americans,” he said.

Papa concluded his speech with a charge for the hundreds of people in attendance and watching remotely. “Consider each and every day what actions you can take in your life to further the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 

“As a nation, we are more divided than at any time since the Civil War. What can each one of us do to reach across divides, to break down barriers, to build up understanding, to see one another as human beings?

“Our future depends upon each one of us taking action, nonviolent action, to help Dr. King’s dream become reality. In his own words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Here is the video:

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