A collective unified voice is far more effective
Many people of African descent harbor a wish for a brighter future for their homeland. They imagine a gathering of the African Diaspora, united by one objective: to steer Africa toward a new horizon. They wish for a unified Pan-African voice to move the continent beyond focusing on country-specific or regional issues, to developing communal solutions and recommendations that address Africa’s immediate and long-term needs. This vision is equally shared by Semhar Araia, founder of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN) in 2007. DAWN is an online professional membership network based in the District of Columbia, USA, for women of the African Diaspora who are committed to African issues. Ms. Araia is a visionary and an eloquent community leader with a clearly demonstrated passion for Africa –particularly East African affairs – through her work as its regional advisor for Oxfam International. Ms. Araia’s interests are in the areas of humanitarianism, peace-building, and conflict resolution in Africa.
Born in the United States of Eritrean parents, Ms. Araia was fully immersed in her cultural heritage from a young age. Until the age of 4, she spoke Tigrinya exclusively. Her parents came to the United States on educational scholarships with specific intentions of returning to Eritrea to apply the knowledge and skills acquired from their studies. But they left home during the brewing of what would become infamously known as the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence (1961-1991). Little did they know that a full outburst of that war in the 1970s would redirect their vision of returning home. And so, Ms. Araia was introduced to civic action at a very early age. Growing up in a nationalist family, typical day-to-day life involved widespread movements of change philosophies, social consciousness activism, and liberated self-expression. Ms. Araia humorously states that she “grew up in a community center.” She developed a sociopolitical awareness of her own by witnessing the organizing of the Eritrean community towards a call for an action-response. Her parents and other Eritrean nationalists’ work in highlighting the plight of Eritreans during the 30-year war influenced her to pursue an international law degree.
Ms. Araia’s founding of DAWN was fueled by an intense yearning to contribute to the ongoing development of Africa – a trait that reflects her parents’ influence. Motivated by a strong desire to help rebuild Eritrea, she became involved in the legislative aspect of the 2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace Agreement. She even relocated to Eritrea for three years to live and work in the community, helping to empower citizens to know their rights and work towards national peace and a better future for their homeland. She remarks that “Politics is not necessarily what changes the country. It is citizens knowing what a state is supposed to do and not do. Citizens abroad knowing their rights in the country they are in. We should be getting into the space where we understand the process and how we change it.” Having obtained a wealth of knowledge about how to broker peace and nurture collaborative exchanges on sensitive issues during her legislative studies in international law and her employment on the Obama-Biden Transition team, she has been able to direct other Africans who are abroad seeking guidance on how to help their countries in Africa. Ms Araia believes that “We all have a part of home in us and we want to help whether family to family or business.”
According to the U.S. Census American Community Surveys Briefs, the foreign-born population has almost doubled between 1990 to 2009. The foreign-born population from Africa makes up just 4% of this total, though this figure does not include those with no legal status. Two distinct sub-populations have emerged among African immigrants. Some Africans were displaced because they are fleeing post-conflict war-torn areas in search for safety and security. Others moved to the US temporarily or long-term in search of a better life and for educational, professional, or economic advancement. However, universally, a significant proportion of both groups share a fervent desire to help their respective countries of origin.
In talking with Ms. Araia, DAWN seems like an organic product of a group of women with Africa in their hearts, coming together to find solutions. DAWN’s membership includes women on legislative staffs at the U.S. Capitol and the European Union, social and business entrepreneurs, lawyers, health professionals, anthropologists, educators, and artists.
It has not been unusual for organizations and community leaders with amazing, innovative ideas for Africa to work in isolation. DAWN attempts to bring together women of a global diaspora who have been searching for ways to meaningfully and effectively collaborate on projects for Africa’s long-term welfare. By connecting these organizations and leaders, DAWN broadens their reach and subsequently their impact as well. Additionally, DAWN provides mentorship and professional opportunities through its monthly dinners, access to Africa-related events in the Washington Metropolitan area, monthly newsletters, Meet Our Mentors (MOMs) nights, professional development workshops, and career panels. A key aspect of DAWN is sisterhood. DAWN has built a supportive community that encourages its members to network, seize opportunities to thrive, and have fun. Members meet at monthly gatherings at local area restaurants or informally at members’ homes. Conversation topics span a number of areas, from negotiating cultural differences and finding a balance in the work environment to current events in Africa. DAWN makes it possible for an African woman to sit at the table with decision-makers on African Affairs and know that she has access to a supportive network of sisters within reach.
One cannot help but embrace Ms. Araia’s sentiments, that “collectively, it has always worked if we do it together. We need to be united.” This is indeed the DAWNing of a new era. Ms Araia has created a platform that unifies talented, knowledgeable women of the African diaspora for the advancement of African Affairs.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.