It was Saturday, Dec. 11 when a group of leaders of the growing African community in Colorado met with State Rep. Naquetta Ricks at the Meskerem restaurant in Aurora to discuss her work. Likewise, she was eager to learn about the community’s hopes and expectations. Ricks, a Democrat representing House District 40 was elected in Nov. 2020 as the first African immigrant to serve on Colorado’s Legislature. The district encompasses parts of southeast Aurora. The area is highly diverse, with many immigrant families calling it home.
She opened the event by stating its purpose which she said was to serve the underrepresented immigrant community better and use her influence to benefit the African community in Colorado.
“What are some of the needs in the community,” Ricks said. “What are some of the things you’d like to see? What’s been challenging since the pandemic, and I’ll take all of your voices with me as we try to craft legislation this next session.”
Empowerment and diversity were the key themes. The majority of those in attendance were business owners, with many of them seeking opportunities to apply for small business funding. Attendees shared ways to locate the proper grants to propel their businesses. Other topics included talk about encouraging and attaining more diversity among teachers, politicians, business owners, as well as politics, scholarships, and internship opportunities for students at Capitol Hill.
“I invited a few friends who came, and they were just so surprised that this African woman is doing big things like that and she’s in such a powerful position in the government,” said Anita Ismail who is a business owner in Denver. “So, a lot of my friends felt really empowered. And I think that’s why this meeting was important. A lot of people just need to know that you can also do it and that anything is possible in America if you keep following your dreams.”
Ismail said she is looking for ways to become involved in the political scene and participate in decision-making that impacts the community. The meeting was an opportunity for her to meet Ricks and gather information about her so she could get involved.
Also in attendance was Ola Kukoyi, the program administrator for Denver’s New American Integration Network.
“We bring so much to the table, but we are being given the short end of the stick,” Kukoyi said. “We have people who are so skilled, have great work ethics, and we are very educated but there’s the unspoken word. What is called the elephant in the room is that anytime we go look for a job is that they don’t want you to get the kind of job they want.”
According to Kukoyi, a crucial problem to tackle is the implicit bias associated with African immigrants in Colorado. She shared her own experience of being turned down for certain jobs.
Kukoyi encouraged attendees to properly research political officials before voting. She urged the community to seek more leadership roles and be in positions to hire people of diverse backgrounds and create a presence that cannot be ignored.
Meanwhile, Ricks concluded the meeting by encouraging the African community to vote according to their interest rather than political party affiliation.
“We have to have that mindset of what are you guys doing for us?” Ricks said. “We have to be independent and say we vote for our interest. We don’t vote just because we’re democrats. You don’t have to sell yourself out to any party. Let the party work for you because the party is made of people. You are the people. The government is we, the people.”
The meeting left attendees such as Ismail hopeful and wanting to take the next steps.
“I’ve always wanted to meet Naquetta. I’ve heard of her back in 2014 but never got a chance to meet,” Ismail added. “I’ve shadowed her online and watched what she’s doing because I’ve always wanted to follow in her footsteps.”