In Her Own Words: Charlene McGee, African Women's Coalition

The African Women’s Coalition was founded by African immigrant and refugee women and their allies to fill the gaps in services offered by local groups. The role of the AWC expanded to advocating for issues of women and their families.

The mission of the AWC is to mobilize, advocate and empower African women living in Oregon and Southwest Washington by providing a culturally supportive and nurturing environment that builds the capacity of the community to help itself and allows other members of the community to reach their highest potential through support, guidance and educational opportunities.

AWC works to help African refugee and immigrants find and elevate their voice. There’s a great wealth of community wisdom that exists within immigrant and refugee communities. I know this from my own lived experience. Being a naturalized U.S. citizen, my roots and my life experiences have been shaped by my experiencing growing up in Liberia. My family moved to America because of the civil war. My father had a prominent position in government, and we lived in a privileged environment. In Liberia, the ruling class is made up of fellow Liberians.

A lot of people who are here have accomplished so much back home, yet among immigrant communities, there’s this misconception that everyone has conform to the “American way” to be accepted. To be considered valid, you need not have an accent or speak multiple languages or have English be your second language. It’s important for our members to realize the collective community wisdom that we have, and really developing our organization to better serve the community.

Addressing Community Needs

With each of the programs we run, we focus on disparities or an unaddressed issue – incorporating the unique cultural components and facets that unintentionally maybe excluded. With our family literacy programs, we offer in-home English as a Second Language classes to African immigrant and refugee women and their families. Volunteers go to member’s homes and work with women who are trying to improve their English. This is important because many women in our community are unable to leave their homes. They may be new to the country, and still trying to understand how to navigate public transportation. Eventually, women in our ESL program move on to other ESL offerings in the community, or move on to go to college, and even graduate. We are really proud that the model is successful.

Our work with youth involves a focus on preserving heritage and culture. Young people learn about the histories of different African countries through storytelling, arts and music. This is so important, because the longer immigrant families stay in America, the more assimilated they tend to get. Especially for young people, there’s a yearning desire to fit in. Some people feel that they have to lose their culture to be successful in America. What we’re encouraging our community to do is to take the best of what America has to offer, but not lose the gifts of our culture in the process.

There’s also an academic component to our work with youth. We have a program that helps young people who need academic support with math, reading and writing skills. Another program also helps connect families with the school system. Parents who are new to America may find the American school system structure very foreign. We have volunteers to help people understand that if they have problems, they can go to the school board, or approach the PTA or another advocacy group.

One example is work we did for some Portland Public School students at Hosford Middle School. They were African young women who wanted to play basketball. Because they were Muslim, they wanted to continue to wear their hijab. They didn’t feel comfortable doing either, for many reasons. We worked with the principal, Mr. Kevin Bacon to help the girls create an Africa Club, and within that club, they started basketball teams. The AWC women came in and sewed uniforms for the girls that accommodated their culture. The girls now talk about how they felt so empowered, because it meant a lot to them to do something American, but still be able to honor their culture and their religious values.

Our work in health seeks to address disparities. We know that the physical health of immigrants tend to decrease the longer that they’re in America. And in the State of Oregon and Southwest Washington, nobody really knows the health status of African immigrants and refugees. Available data combines our outcomes with African Americans. We received funding from a number of different organizations to look at issues specific to our community. Our work with women revolves around helping them understand how their body works. We have organized health summit and advocacy training around an array of health issues – including sexual and reproductive health and chronic disease. At our health summit in April 2010 we also had a varierty of community based organizations with services relevant t o our community participate in our community resource fair. May attendees, had never hear of the Multnomah County’s WIC program or the Josiah Hill III Clinic. For the various programs we offer – we seek to educate, empower and mobilize our community members to improve their lives thus affecting the overall health of our community.

We are in the process of collaborating with the Urban League of Portland on developing a community garden. Our communities need better access to healthy foods and environments that support physical activity. This initial effort made possible by the Convergence Partnership Fund will allow the AWC to increase our organizational and community capacity to begin the process of establishing community gardens and increasing access to familiar fruits and vegetables for African immigrants and refugees in Portland. Back home, many of our women and men had access to fresh produce through gardens and farms. Coming to America, they may be living in apartments where there’s no available land. Or they may not know the growing seasons in their new country.

Through funding and with technical support from the Western States Center, we also started the process of training community members to conduct health surveys. A lot of the information we have our community is raw, anecdotal data – derived from storytelling. With this project, we’re trying to have a good, clear balance between qualitative and quantitative data that looks comprehensively about all the different health issues faced by our community. We’re looking at domestic violence, or how safe people feel in the workplace. We’re also looking at the impact of anti-immigrant sentiment on our communities.

Building a Dynamic Membership

Our membership is reflective of the African diaspora here in Portland, and the largest concentration of our membership are East and West Africans. We have about 300 folks on our database, and have more than 60 members who participate in AWC events regularly. We’re working with community members who will serve as “regional” captains who represent the different African regions who can help us recruit more members.

We’re also focusing on getting more youth and men involved in AWC. When people think “African Women’s Coalition,” they may think there’s no space for African youth or African men to participate. We have started recruiting African men to serve on our board. We realize that we cannot advocate for the African woman without working with her husband, or her partner, or her kids. Ultimately, the vision is to have a healthy community, and we know that we have to work with everybody to accomplish that. We strongly value having African men at the table.

We want all newcomers to take advantage of the best of what American has to offer. Part of becoming an American is understanding the history of racism in this country, and the role that institutions played in making that happen. We work on empowering all our members, and part of that is helping them understand their rights. Too often, our community is afraid to speak out because English is not our first language, or because we’re not citizens.

We recognize that African immigrant men face a lot of challenges, from higher rates of unemployment to health disparities. The reality is that few groups are working with them to advocate for and raise awareness for their issues.

Our goal is always to make sure that both our membership and leadership is diverse, to reflect our community. Getting men involved makes them part of the conversation and solution to community issues, like domestic violence, for example. There’s a perception that African men are violent, and abusive to their wives. We know this is not true, and that many of our men model healthy behaviors in our communities. By having them at the table, they can speak for themselves about what’s right and valid, from the African man’s perspective.

Developing New Leaders

I’ve been on the board since 2006, and thankful for the opportunity to step up to larger leadership roles. That’s really a key priority: to develop community members for different leadership opportunities in AWC and in the community. We really want to get our members take on more active roles in leading the program areas, so they can build their resume and get the experience and the connections. That’s a good thing for AWC as well, as we can broaden our advocacy network, and have more people plugged in to different systems.

We’re so fortunate to have the commitment of board members who have stepped up to write grants. Many of our board members work fulltime, yet they volunteer their free time to get resources for AWC.

Having the lived experience of being an African immigrant in America gives our members the strength to speak for our community, and advocate for our needs. Oftentimes, what tends to happen is that everybody else but the community members gets to decide what’s right and legitimate. Decisions are made without community input. We speak power to truth. There’s so much power to the truth that we have lived, and ultimately, we need to be the decision-makers about the issues that affect our community.

Strengthening the Foundation

We’re in the process of “re-birthing” AWC – and letting the community know what we’re about. For us, our most important focus is nurture and develop both women and men in our community, and empower them to speak for their issues.

The AWC was birthed from Lutheran Community Services in 2003, and we finally got our 501(c)3 designation as a nonprofit in 2009. We’ve realize that wisdom does not come overnight - we too like many growing organizations endures our share of growing pains, but there’s also been a lot of great work that’s been done by our amazing board, dedicated volunteers and our resilient community members.

What makes AWC unique is that our by-laws require that our board membership must include African immigrant or refugee women as the healm and decision makers. Our leadership must be reflective of the population to which we seek to empower and mobilize. That puts us in a really good position to allow women with the lived experiences to influence the direction of our organization. AWC leadership and community also welcome the support and particaition of allies and others who understand their role within the mission of AWC and the work that AWC strives too do. AWC’s mission and work is a true reflection of the old African proverbs “it takes a village”.

We’ve been quite busy strategically re-organizing and re-assessing our strengths as an organization, and map out opportunities for growth. In the process, we really want to develop our community members to take critical and important leadership roles. We had our strategic planning retreat recently, and we’re so honored to have 20 community members who came and offered their perspective about the direction of AWC.

To truly be advocates, and emerge as a grassroots, social justice community-driven organization, we need to speak for ourselves and be the influencers of changes and policies we know will improve the wellness of our community. We can’t allow others to speak for us. What tends to happen is that well-established organizations get to speak on behalf of the community, but the community members who have the lived experience are not at the table nor decision makers.

Colors of Influence / Winter 2011

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"There’s a great wealth of community wisdom that exists within immigrant and refugee communities...It’s important for our members to realize the collective community wisdom that we have."

"We want all newcomers to take advantage of the best of what American has to offer. Part of becoming an American is understanding the history of racism in this country, and the role that institutions played in making that happen."

"We have started recruiting African men to serve on our board. We realize that we cannot advocate for the African woman without working with her husband, or her partner, or her kids. Ultimately, the vision is to have a healthy community, and we know that we have to work with everybody to accomplish that."

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