“Si, se puede,” “Pabst, please” and now, “African Unity” is the latest political mantra echoing in the Mission.
The African Advocacy Network will hold its inaugural meeting early this year at its headquarters at 522 Valencia Street to explore ways to promote stronger cooperation within the African community and with other ethnic groups in the Bay Area.
To this end, the network has extended an invitation to the leaders of other communities, including the Latino, Asian and Arab communities, as well as to the Oakland-based Black Alliance for a Just Immigration.
“We think we can learn a lot from the experiences of well-established communities and we might better achieve our goals by cooperating with them,” says Adoubou Traore, who was born in the Ivory Coast and is currently a language teacher at Cañada College in Redwood City as well as project director of the African Advocacy Network.
An Afro-ethnic Mosaic
“Coordinating workshops and events can be really challenging because African immigrants are dispersed all over the Bay and are not as tightly connected as Latinos or Asians are,” says Joe Sciarrillo, a paralegal at the network, which was created last June. An estimated 38,000 African immigrants live in the Bay Area, with approximately 4,700 in San Francisco. The largest number of immigrants come from Ethiopia, but there are also substantial numbers from Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa.
Still, creating services that cater to all of them has proven to be difficult, at least partly because local governments frequently fail to identify them adequately.
“The first challenge that African immigrants face is being under-counted, since most local government forms do not list Africa as an option for country of origin, so African immigrants are often counted as ‘African-American,’” explains Tomás Lee, director of the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs.
This social fragmentation also reflects Africa’s cultural and linguistic heterogeneity and the geographical distances within the continent itself.
“Very often it’s only when we come to the US that we meet other African immigrants for the first time outside of our countries of origin,” Traore said.
“It takes time to overcome the anxiety resulting from the contact with individuals who are different from us, learn about each other and focus on what we have in common – being African and away from our homeland.”
Starting Small, Growing Quickly
The organization has a growing number of clients who accept free social services, case management, housing assistance, resources for employment, job searches and legal assistance. A third are from Ethiopia and Eritrea, a third from French-speaking countries in Western Africa, such as Ivory Coast, Togo and Senegal and a quarter are from English-speaking countries, mostly Nigeria and Ghana. Newcomers from North Africa, in particular Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, add to the mosaic of ethnicities that the network is seeking to stitch together.
The majority reside in San Francisco, including a great many in the Mission.
The upcoming meeting will focus on how to support unique ethnic identities while simultaneously forming a greater African movement, helping people resolve immigration issues, organizing joint cultural events, providing educational services and fundraising.
Another key focus will be on promoting business awareness within the community and encouraging people to patronize each other’s services.
“Many Africans we see don’t even realize that some compatriots live in their same neighborhood, thus missing the chance for accessing mutual support,” Sciarrillo says. “For example, few Africans living in the Mission know that one of their community members has a thriving computer repair business (Bay Computers) and that another one runs a taxi service.”
Promoting Dialogue Between Communities
The African Advocacy Network receives funding from the Mayor’s Office of Community Investment, through the San Francisco Immigrant Legal & Education Network, as well as from the California Endowment through Dolores Street Community Services. Both the legal network and Dolores Street are based on Valencia Street.
The way the network operates is a unique example of inter-community collaboration.
“AAN is a project of Dolores Street, which traditionally serves Latinos, and as such it represents the first official form of cooperation between the two communities,” Sciarrillo says. “Up until now, these two communities have collaborated but there has never been a formal organizational integration.”
Many clients who need specialized legal assistance from immigration attorneys are served by the Asian Law Caucus.
The Arab community, through the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, also assists the African network by providing office space at below-market rates.
Another important issue on the agenda is how to work together with the African-American community.
“Our current level of intercultural understanding is not as great as we would like it to be,” Traore says.
“We are different from each other: many African-Americans no longer know much about Africa. Many African immigrants only know of the mass media’s narrative when it comes to African-Americans. It’s going to take a great deal to educate both sides. African-Americans can serve as powerful source of support for newly arrived African immigrants. And we can help them to recover their historic roots.”