Monday, July 2, 2007
By: Julia N. Opoti
Celebrating its fifth year, the Minnesota African Women Association (MAWA) treated guests to a taste of African food, music and dance. An all day event, the anniversary celebrated the African woman in Minnesota and her continued growth in her new home.
In an effort to link with the African American community, St. Paul Councilmember (Ward 1) Debbie Montgomery was invited as a keynote speaker. Her message: the importance of female empowerment in the community.
Montgomery who served the St. Paul Police Department for 28 years stresses the need for the city to include ethnic and racial minorities in daily decisions.
Montgomery’s passion was born during the civil rights movement in America. As a young girl, she worked towards voter registration rights for black people, job development youth programs and mobilizing support for an open housing ordinance which was later adopted by the City of St. Paul. At 17, while serving on the national board of directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Montgomery drew her inspiration from the valor of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King.
In telling her story, Montgomery hoped to “show other women that because I made it, you too, despite your challenges can also make inroads in your career and personal life.” As a woman who rose steadily in rank over the years, hers was no easy feat. At a time when many blacks and women were denied opportunities by society, Montgomery fought her way to a successful career.
Montgomery urged women to take on leadership and mentorship roles in an effort to empower the youth.
When Melissa Nambangi, a native of Cameroon, founded the MAWA her goal was to encourage leadership development and an attempt at cross-cultural interaction. Five years later, and MAWA has continued to grow in the programs that offer support refugee and immigrant African women in Minnesota.
With a continued increase in the African population there are more non-profit and state organizations catering to the needs of African women in the twin cities. However, Nambangi contends that there are many cultural needs that MAWA offers to these women.” Many of them need, not just any interpreters, but cultural ones working to overcome cultural barriers.
According to Nambangi MAWA’s biggest success has been its female youth program– African Girls’ Initiative for Leadership and Empowerment—AGILE. “Mothers thank me for giving direction to their daughters as many of them are caught up in the daily hassle of making a better living for their children.”
The changes observed in these young girls who participate in the program include: better perception of self, career orientation and community involvement. With young black girls in Minnesota having one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country, Nambangi is pleased that girls in the AGILE program have graduated from high school and are now enrolled in colleges and universities.
Three years ago MAWA began a breakfast series where African women gather to dialogue on issues of self empowerment in an attempt to create social change through advocacy. Out of this association the African Women’s Empowerment Program was born.
MAWA also runs a school navigator program that is open to both African women and men. This program allows immigrant parents to learn the American school system. It also gives an opportunity for children to bring up issues that they are facing at school without fear of being different.
A silent auction that included the sale of African artifacts went on throughout the day to raise monies for funds for the day to day running of M