White House Honors American Diaspora Communities


Each week the White House honors individuals who are “winning the future” across the United States by naming them Champions of Change. These community leaders are invited to the White House to share their stories and inspire others through a call to action.

In January, the White House honored fourteen leaders from Horn of Africa diaspora communities, including those with roots in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda. At the awards ceremony, these Champions of Change spoke about the challenges they have faced in coming to terms with an identity that straddles two continents and how they are working to promote change in their countries of origin.

In his blog post, Special Representative for Global Partnerships Kris Balderston discusses  his experience interacting with these leaders and why it is important for the U.S. government to show appreciation for their work by hosting them at the State Department and the White House. He mentions,

As Secretary Clinton has said, diaspora communities are often the “first-movers” beating institutions to local challenges — whether via humanitarian response, or investment opportunities, or even non-traditional means of engagement such as arts or sports. Through IdEA, we are committed to celebrating and supporting the efforts of changemakers like these outstanding individuals, who are innovating, investing, and promoting development and diplomacy in their American communities and their communities of origin.

At the event, many honorees mentioned that connecting with other leaders of the diaspora community is the most important step for increasing the scope of change exponentially, both in conducting development work in Africa and in creating a new image of what it means to be from the African continent.

One of the honorees was Semhar Araia, the founder and Executive Director of the Diaspora African Women’s Network (DAWN), an organization whose mission is to develop and support talented women and girls of the African diaspora focused on African affairs. During her comments, Araia spoke to the importance of publicizing the work of diasporan leaders:

As I look at the audience and I’m thinking of the people watching the webcast I’m thinking of the girl who is in junior high or high school…and trying to figure out is it right to work on Africa when you could be a lawyer, like I am, or a scientist, or an engineer, or should she start and be an entrepreneur. I think this is proof that having an entrepreneurial goal is legitimate, is possible, is powerful, and it is what we need.

TMS Ruge, co-founder of the social media platform Project Diaspora, was another honoree. Ruge was born in Masindi, Uganda, and grew up in Uganda, Kenya, and the United States. During the award ceremony, Ruge encouraged the use of technology for connecting with other members of the diaspora community who are interested in making a difference.

“If I can describe myself,” Ruge said,  “I will probably say that I am the unpaid social media activist in defending Africa…In terms of social media I would have to say it is the hidden weapon I think for us in this age in awakening the capabilities of the African diaspora.”

He went on to say, “If you look at the continent just by itself you’re looking at about half a billion mobile phones you’re looking at a continent with 450-500 million youth that are under the age of 15 and we’re looking at a diaspora that is sending remittances to the tune of $40 billion.

I look at what that promise is for us and where the future lies and one of the things that I see that makes that connection happen is social media…a lot of the Champions here I have met through social media and we’ve taken years before we’ve actually met but we’ve used that conduit to be able to collaborate and to discover each other.”

Many diaspora members who are interested in development work maintain a transnational identity and often travel back to their countries of origin. Online social networks provide the opportunity for diaspora members to come together no matter where they live.

With their demonstrated leadership, these Champions are challenging Africans everywhere to take ownership over the development of their continent. The diaspora has the resources, skills, and ideas it needs. Now it is time to connect and make this vision a reality.

View video here.