After years of inaction, Ohio’s New African Immigrants Commission came together pretty suddenly.
“We sat two years idle and did not hear anything,” says Ibrahima Sow. “And then out of the blue just a couple months ago, some of us started receiving calls from the governor’s office.”
Sow, a community engagement coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, is one of the six newly appointed commissioners.
“When I got the call to reaffirm if I wanted to get appointed, it felt surreal because it was something I thought wasn’t going to happen anymore,” Sow says. “And it was a little disappointing that it took so long, but then I was excited that it finally happened.”
State lawmakers created the 11-member board in 2008 to advocate for the interests of sub-Saharan African immigrants. As WOSU reported, the commission was supposed to be seated in 2009 but as of June had no members appointed.
Then, at the end of July, Governor John Kasich seated six people to the board – the minimum number needed for commissioners to get to work. They'll meet for the first time on Thursday.
Ashland University associate education professor Rosaire Ifedi, who was also appointed by the governor, says she’s anxious to begin.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Ifedi says. “If you read the law, it’s about 12 or 13 different assignments. So we have to get together and work.”
First order on the agenda? Get the word out that the New African Immigrants Commission is operating and here to serve.
“One of the most important things is communicating a very unified front to the rest of the continent so people will know we want to hear their voices,” Ifedi says.
Sow says a key goal is to determine just how many sub-Saharan Africans live in Ohio. The latest estimate from the U.S. Census pegs that number at about 110,000.
“We need to be able to collect that data, see what kind of impact they have, where they live and collect the challenges that they have and be able to advocate on their behalf,” Sow says.
With more detailed information, commissioners can survey the needs of Ohio’s African communities and get to work on specific issues.
State Sen. Charleta B. Tavares, a Democrat from Columbus, has been involved in advocating for the commission’s formation for several years. She says she’s happy to see work starting.
“Certainly we have a large number of Africans from throughout the continent. And there are unique needs in different parts of the state,” Tavares says. “Whether it’s in the economic security of their families, whether it’s in education or healthcare their needs may be different.”
It’s now up to Republicans and Democrats in the legislature to fill the remaining commission spots.
Ifedi says one difficulty remains: Coming up with a diverse list of appointees who live in different areas of Ohio and originate from a geographical spread of Africa. That problem contributed to the initial delay, as Somali community members disagreed with other African groups over representation on the board.
But, Ifedi says, at least the ball is rolling.
“Set our policies, set our agenda, these are things we can accomplish in the first - I mean the year is almost over,” Ifedi says. “But we’re not going to put any time to waste.”