The U.S. Africa Leaders Summit is shaping up to be an important barometer of a new dynamic in U.S.-Africa relations. The event, the first of its kind, is being heralded as an opportunity for the Obama Administration to transform U.S. relations from a traditionally aid-based one to a multi-dimensional relationship that includes hard investments from the private sector. For the summit, Face2Face Africa spoke with Semhar Araia (pictured), founder and president of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN) to get her thoughts on what the summit means for the diaspora and how her organization is helping the community stay engaged through the week.
Face2Face Africa: DAWN has been actively sharing information and promoting the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Why do you think it’s important for the diaspora to be actively involved in the summit?
Semhar Araia: This summit is a huge opportunity to strengthen relations between the United States and Africa. Although the official summit program is between heads of state, there are a number of side events and additional opportunities to shape the agenda. The diaspora play an important role in that relationship because we are the people, both here and there.
Our lives have changed once we leave home, but we are still a part of both places. We have different experiences, but we all come from communities that are directly affected by the policies and developments in our homelands, both near and far. We should be involved in the conversation between Africa and the United States and DAWN is trying to create those opportunities.
F2FA: How has DAWN been involved in conversations leading up to the summit and what immediate impact do you think this has had on your membership and the broader diaspora community in the United States?
SA: DAWN has been actively engaged in conversations leading up to the Summit, and we have to introduce our agenda and priorities to U.S. and African decision makers who will be participating in the week’s events.
We want diaspora leaders to have access to as much information about the summit. And we want them to be engaged in the conversation, even if we cannot be at the official gathering itself. So one of the things we did was create a social media guide for people to send tweets about the #USAfrica Summit in support of ongoing Africa-focused campaigns, such as #TheAfricaWeWant and #WeAreAfrica. The idea is for citizens around the world, including the diaspora, is to say what they think the agenda at the summit should be.
F2FA: There are different conversations going on during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — those that involve policy and trade at the public sector level but also those at the private sector level. What is or should be the diaspora’s role in each and is one more important than the other as it relates to the diaspora?
SA: The most important aspect to our role is that we are informed, active participants in all conversations about US-Africa relations.
That requires that we show up and present ourselves as the stakeholders that we are. To be taken seriously in any sector, we need to establish our presence as sustainable organizations, businesses, and institutions. We must present ourselves with an agenda that is clear, relevant, and useful for stronger partnerships.
And we must always, always, always show up for the next conversation. Because at the end of the day, if we want that seat at the table where decisions about our countries are being made, then we must be willing to show up and own that seat. We must be willing to show how committed we are to the agenda by engaging and influencing. Every time. In every way.
F2FA: As a women-focused organization, what are some words of advice you would give to women in the diaspora seeking to navigate the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and maximize it as a professional opportunity?
SA: The best thing any professional who wants to maximize this moment is to show up. As women of the diaspora, it’s even more important we show up because there aren’t enough of us in the room.
The power of networking cannot be overstated. DAWN wants to help you find out where to go. Our Community Calendar is intended to capture as much as we can to help you find the right opportunity.
There will be events hosted by the U.S. government, the African Union, the D.C. Mayor’s Office on African Affairs, a number of private businesses, major companies and media groups, diaspora organizations, and the broader Africa and international affairs community.
Get your business cards, focus on your professional goals, practice your 30 second introduction and meet at least 3 people at each event. Ask them two questions to learn more about what they are interested in. Don’t be shy about extending your hand to greet someone or announcing what you do or why you are at the event.
F2FA: In your own words, what would be a summit “win” that could directly be tied to the engagement of the African Diaspora in the United States in the outcomes of the Summit?
SA: A direct win? Well a win would be if the governments made commitments to work with diaspora actors in a multifaceted way. In addition to economic investments, diaspora actors are critical for stability, development, and peace. Our experience in DAWN has shown us that diaspora members are leaping in to professions specifically to work on Africa, making them highly qualified, highly skilled, and well-positioned to serve as catalysts for both sides as professionals and as leaders.
Another win would be if we hold the governments to continue this dialogue and widen the space for civil society members to be a part of the discussion. Africa’s civil society leaders will need to work with their governments for the national agendas. And America’s civil society, including diaspora, will need to engage with the United States on its agenda with Africa.
The worst thing would be if this Summit happened sporadically or wasn’t held annually. We must press them to address their shared areas of interest, namely strengthening economic ties, lifting unnecessary trade barriers, ending conflict and promoting regional stability, upholding the rule of law, and strengthening institutions, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring that citizens’ rights are protected.
Each of those are incredibly important. For me, and for many diaspora members, long-term stability requires that the people are a part of the process and able to shape the agenda with the governments.
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