'The African is Invisible in America'
17 Oct 2011
A large population of African immigrants in the United States of America resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area. On a recent visit, Constance Ikokwu spoke to Ngozi Nmezi, the Executive Director of the first-ever Mayor’s office on African Affairs in the area. She opens up about the problems faced by this group and the significant steps taken by her office to help
When was the Mayor’s Office on African Affairs established and what is its mission?
The Mayor’s Office on African Affairs was established on March 23rd, 2006, by District of Columbia Council when it passed D.C. Act 16-313. The is to ensure that the full range of health, education, employment, social services, safety, business and economic development information, services and opportunities are accessible to the District’s African immigrant communities.
What is the demographic of Africans in Washington, DC?
The District of Columbia has one of the most vibrant and diverse ethnic African communities in the country. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) approximately 10 percent (147,336) of the nation’s foreign-born African population live in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV area, second only to New York-New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA, 14.2 percent (211,560). All in all, about ¼ (one quarter) of the nation’s 1.5 million African-born populations live in the greater metropolitan areas of DC or New York. In DC alone, there are approximately 11,000 foreign-born residents. It must be noted, however, that there are major discrepancies concerning the actual numbers of African-born in the District of Columbia Major places of origin are: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Cameroon, Liberia, Somalia, Guinea, Sudan and Eritrea.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
I was confirmed by Council as the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office on African Affairs on May 26th, 2011. As a native-born Washingtonian, raised in Manor Park NW Washington, DC by foreign-born Nigerian parents, I had firsthand experience of the challenges that immigrants face from navigating the tedious process of acculturation. The most obvious issue was the lack of a culturally competent local governmental support system – geared towards Africans – to address differing economic, social, and language needs of the DC’s African immigrant constituencies. The absence of such a local support system prolonged the transition process for countless African constituents. I witnessed family friends and countless Africans work two to three minimum wage jobs despite having earned professional expertise and numerous educational accolades in their respective African homelands. Of course, a stellar governmental support system (like OAA) – which guides African immigrants through transitioning by connecting African immigrants with resources and information and facilitating unique programmatic activities could have assisted in addressing the issues of under employment by facilitating proper job placement based on skill and professional expertise. I became passionate about this issue.
Having lived in Nigeria for just under four years; I am fortunate enough to have a working understanding of the African thought process on governmental culture. Views of government by Africans may be skewed with mistrust, fear and skepticism as a result of repressive or corrupt governments in their respective homelands. This familiarity with the African thought process on government and a thorough understanding of these views made me want to empower them, and educate on civic engagement and public participation. All in all, being privy to the skewed perception of government, I feel, has equipped me with skills and tactics to diplomatically reach out to Africans, garner trust, and liaise them with the array of services, resources, information and unique opportunities available to them via the DC Government.
The mere exposure to the duality of cultures – familiarity with the African experience in America, and the American experience in Africa – has given me a wealth of knowledge which enables me to see issues that plague the DC African constituencies from a very personal perspective. I understand and can relate to the plights of the African immigrant population – I know what it is like to be a 1st generation constituent; the struggles of being an immigrant in DC; I understand the confusion and need for direction that comes with acculturation. Such real-life experiences have readied me to take on the task of being a usable vessel by which the voices of the DC African constituencies are heard.
How do you describe yourself? Nigerian, American, African-American?
Did you have identity issues growing up?
I did. Identity is a challenge that most African struggle with. It’s difficult to find a meaningful balance between the African and American cultures. My father is a very traditional Nigerian man, being removed from continental Africa definitely did not change his views and perceptions on the way children should be raised. So, I was raised very much as an African child - strict rules, very “unreasonable” curfews, enswathed in Nigerian cultural programs and events, heightened Nigerian cultural youth group involvement, Igbo lessons every Saturday…things that my parents felt were essential to my upbringing. Culture retention and preservation was at the tip top of their list. But these very things made me different from other American children, and as a child, you want nothing more than to be the same. So, as much as I embraced my Nigerian culture, I faced the music, different wasn’t seen as unique or quirky, it was simply seen as strange and no child wants to be strange. This presented the either or dilemma – I felt I had to identify as either Nigerian or American, but not both. The truth of the matter is, no one is born with an identity. Rather, identity is something that evolves over time. Innately, the older I got, and the more I experienced, the more important it became to embrace my identity…first as a Nigerian, then as an American. Living in Nigeria further solidified that I am Nigerian before I am American.
In terms of race in US decennial census classification, where do you fall?
I would be classified as a “Black”, “Negro” or “African-American”
Explain to us what this classification means to the foreign-born African population in the United States and their offspring?
We are all aware of the importance of the data that is collected in the US decennial census. More specifically:
a) Many federal programs are put into effect based on the race data obtained from the decennial census
b) The data effects a number of federal statutes i.e. assessing racial disparities in health and environmental risks
c) The data is critical for the basic research behind many policy decisions
d) The data is used to track economic contributions of ethnicities
e) States require these data to meet legislative redistricting requirements by local governments to run programs and meet legislative requirements. i.e. identifying segments of the population who may not be receiving medical services under the medical service act or law.
It is the data source used by federal, state and local governments and private organizations to allocate resources and determine special needs of ethnic constituencies. I really want readers to understand the ramifications of the “Black”, “Negro” or “African-American” classification – since it is a huge contributor in one of the major issues of the diverse ethnic and national African communities in America – the misconception that “Black”, “Negro” or “African-American” is a homogenous/monolithic constituency which results in the invisibility of the Africans and their various needs in data sets. I will use examples of how other immigrant groups in the US are classified to explain further. Since the 1970s, the census questionnaire has asked US residents whether they are of Hispanic origin and if so which broad Hispanic group they identify with. This action to consider Hispanic origin separately is mandated by a US Public Law. See U.S. Public Law 94-311 and Census Short Form
The take away?
a) “Hispanic Identity” is an isolated question on the census form, completely separate from race
b) “Hispanic Identity” is presented in a binary fashion “Is this person of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish Origin“. Left for the respondent to mark “yes” with options of origin or “no”.
Disaggregation is accounted for and encouraged. Respondents are asked to “print origin for example Argentinean, Colombian, Salvadoran and so on” The American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian constituencies are also disaggregated. “Other Asians” not listed are encouraged to print their race, and tribe and are given examples “Fijian”, “Thai”, “Hmong” same for Pacific Islanders. What about the “some other race” box you ask? Don’t bother indicating “Nigerian” here. “Black”, “Negro” or “African-American” includes those who “provide written entries such as African American, Afro American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian." Verbatim. So you see, without proper disaggregation of the foreign-born African population and their children on the US decennial census level, the diverse ethnic and national African constituencies – with all our differing linguistic, cultural, social and health needs – are invisible. Invisibility - no resource allocation and difficulty in influencing policy.
The African community is the newer, younger, and better educated but also poorer than other immigrant groups (more likely to live below the poverty line). Could you explain the paradox of economy and job placement in the African immigrant communities?
The paradox is an explanation of the divergent needs of the African immigrant constituencies. In 2009, a greater share of African immigrants lived in a household with an annual income below the federal poverty line than the native-born African-Americans and immigrants overall. It is worth mentioning that there are substantial differences between origin countries with respect to living in poverty. For example, immigrants from Nigeria, Morocco, Sierra Leone and Ghana are much less likely than African immigrants overall to live below the federal poverty line. In contrast, almost half of all immigrants from Somalia live in poverty and poverty rates for immigrants in Guinea and Sudan are also above the average for African immigrants overall. Somali and Sudan have both accounted for a large number of refugee admissions over the past decade. See African Immigrants in the United States. Presumably, this paradox of relative poverty may be attributed to African immigrants recent arrivals; other immigrants include significant numbers who have established themselves in the US for a long time. Additionally, there is the issue of the language barrier in Africans who emigrated from countries where English is not the national language. Of course, language barriers greatly decrease likelihood for proper job placement.
What are your goals for the office in relation to the African immigrant communities of the District of Columbia?
a) Improve the quality of life of the District’s diverse African-born constituencies and their children
b) Promote and subsequently increase civic engagement and public participation of the District’s African immigrant community
c) Increase understanding and sophistication of DC African community issues, complexities and developments within local government and in the larger community by:
d) Providing briefings to the Mayor, District government agencies and the larger community about the particular needs and/or interests of the African immigrant communities of the District of Columbia
e) Support community development of the African immigrant communities
The Mayor’s Office on African Affairs is inimitably positioned. It is the only office of its kind in the US mandated to provide support, resources and ensure the development of its diverse African immigrant communities. OAA acts as a principle resource center for African residents and business owners in the District of Columbia. We field walk-in, telephone, email and inquiries and requests regarding District government agency services and resources. We facilitate complex interagency coordination to help resolve constituent issues. We enhance service delivery and provision of District government services to the African communities through continuous monitoring, assessment and data collection of communities of African communities. OAA implements targeted outreach activities and works collaboratively with other District agencies to educate the community and improve overall awareness about their specific needs. We disseminate information about District-wide services, resources and programs. OAA works to support local entrepreneurs, small businesses and community based organizations by providing then with training and information about available grant funding and contracting opportunities in the District and facilitating training sessions, brownbags and seminars to assist with increasing the capacity of African businesses in DC. OAA works with all levels of the District government, Federal government, community based organizations, faith based organizations, and the private sector to ensure the delivery of pertinent information and services to District’s diverse African immigrant communities. Specifically, OAA organizes and facilitates public programs on public safety, human rights, economic development, employment, social services, public health, education, and cultural awareness preservation and development
Is this office useful in terms of influencing policies for African countries?
Most certainly. There lies a supreme opportunity for Africans to empower themselves and their relatives back home. Given our prime location in the nation’s capital, proximity to the major decision makers, and the significant increase in voluntary migration of Africans to the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area since 1980 (again, 1/4 of the entire nation’s foreign-born African population lives in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area) Africans in DC have the unique opportunity to add a distinctive voice to the discourse of African (international) Affairs. This could result in a greater understanding of development and issues of continental Africa. In other words, by having such ease in political access, we actually have an opportunity to be at the table with decisions-makers and affect change in African foreign policy based on our personal experiences and expertise in our countries of origin. Hilary Rodham Clinton said it best at this year’s ‘Global Diaspora Forum’, the diaspora/migrant communities of the US are all diplomats to their countries of origin.
Will you come back to Nigeria?
Absolutely. Nigeria is home. I thank my parents for being so progressive and sending me back to Nigeria to attend secondary school. You have to understand that at the time, as a 14 year old, I could not understand their decision to do this; from America straight to an all-girls boarding school and I had to live with my grandparents during holidays. I was a good kid, earned pretty good grades in school, stayed out of trouble – this drastic decision didn’t make sense to me. Of course, I now see that their sole intent was to ensure that I wholly imbibed the Nigerian culture and was fully acquainted with my land. For them, I truly believe it was all about the little thing, the little experiences, being able to get to my village on public transport from the west, pricing goods in a local market, “hearing” the language. All in all, their wish was for me to call Nigeria, home.