Balm in Gilead: Amaha Kassa
July 8, 2014
July 8, 2014
Amaha Imanuel Kassa is the founder and executive director of African Communities Together, a new mutual aid, organizing, and civil rights organization for African immigrants. ACT’s mission is to empower African immigrants to integrate socially, get ahead economically, and engage civically.
Amaha was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and immigrated to the United States as a child. He trained as a labor and community organizer, organizing groups as diverse as poultry workers in Alabama and public sector workers in Silicon Valley. For nine years, Amaha directed the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), an economic justice organization in Oakland, California, where he first conceived the idea of building a grassroots organizing network for African immigrants.
Amaha is an attorney who received his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a Master’s of Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School. In 2012, he was recognized by Open Society Foundation and Echoing Green as a Black Male Achievement Fellow.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Amaha Kassa: I first got involved with organizing in college, when I was an activist on financial aid and minority admissions issues. I’d say that was my first exposure to the excitement of collective action, the challenges of strategy, and the difficulties of holding together a leadership group. After I graduated, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself, and I was working as an office temp in D.C. I got the chance to temp at the international offices of a big labor union, and I jumped at it. One day on my lunch break, I wandered down to the organizing department and asked, “So how do I become an organizer?” They pointed me toward a union organizer training program, and I have been an organizer ever since.
KR: How did you develop your organizing skills?
AK: I learned to organize through some formal training, but mostly through trying over and over, failing a lot, watching and learning from better organizers than me, and eventually experiencing success.
I got most of my training in the labor movement, organizing low-wage health care workers, janitors, and factory workers. Union organizing campaigns are really high-stakes and demanding, so they force you to be pretty rigorous and aggressive about things like reaching people who are hard to reach and assessing support.
I then spent nine years at an economic justice organization that was working with both labor and community organizations. A lot of immigrant rights and community-based organizations are doing really innovative work in developing leadership and engaging members, and I’ve learned a lot from them.
KR: Talk about some differences and similarities between labor organizing and community organizing.
AK: The basic goals are the same in both cases: getting people to see their individual struggles as part of bigger, systemic issues, moving people into action, building community, developing leaders.
One of the things that makes labor organizing unique—at least in the U.S.—is that you always have to be concerned with building a majority – to get recognition as a union, to ratify a contract, etc. On the plus side, that forces good labor organizers to really struggle with each and every worker instead of just focusing on a militant minority. On the negative side, the pull to do a lowest-common-denominator program instead of something more militant is strong.
One of the greatest strengths of community organizing grows out of one of its greatest weaknesses. Relative to union organizing, community organizing is chronically under-resourced. That means the staff-heavy model that a lot of unions use just isn’t possible for most community organizations. As a result, community organizations are forced to be innovative and take risks when it comes to member leadership. I think as unions try to tackle sectors where the old models don’t work- like fast food or WalMart- they are learning from the strategies and structures that community organizations and worker centers have been developing over the last decades.
KR: Why did you decide to start African Communities Together?
AK: I’m a first-generation African immigrant: I was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to the U.S. when I was very young.
I’ve been involved in national immigrant rights mobilizations since 2001. Back then, I was looking around at who was in the coalition planning meetings and policy calls and saying, “Where are the black immigrant organizations? Where are the other Africans, like me?” Unfortunately, today, I still find myself asking much the same questions.
There is a real organizing gap in the African immigrant diaspora in the U.S., whether it comes to building local power in cities, having a voice in national policy debates, or using our collective power to benefit the African continent. With ACT, we are working to bridge that organizing gap.
KR: What are some of the unique challenges in building community organizing work in African communities?
AK: African immigrants are tremendously diverse. If you’re working to build community and common identity-which is what organizing is about at the most basic level you have to manage those differences of national origin, language, religion, generation, etc., and find the values and concerns that tie us all together.
Another challenge we are dealing with and we will see if this holds true in other cities to the same extent as it does in New York-is that African immigrants are often decentralized. You might get a few buildings where every resident is African, especially when it comes to refugee communities, which tend to cluster together more. But for the most part, African immigrants are spread out and live side-by-side with other African-Americans, Latinos, etc. It’s forced us to be very creative about reaching people through African associations, religious congregations, businesses, and so on.
KR: When you reach out to African organizations to engage them, what is your message?
AK: In many ways, it’s not that different from the message to individuals. Our communities are struggling, and the only way that we can progress is if we stop struggling alone and instead struggle together.
I think a lot of African immigrants are really invested in this idea that we are doing everything we are supposed to do to achieve the American dream: getting an education, working hard, being entrepreneurial, praying to God, and taking care of our families. An important part of our message is that, yes, other immigrant groups did do all of those things. But they also united to help each other find jobs and housing, they mobilized to challenge discrimination, they demanded representation. That is an essential part of the story of how all immigrant groups have gotten ahead in American society, and African immigrants need to learn from those other immigrant communities.
KR: You have led community organizing groups in the Bay Area and now in New York. From your experience what are some of the most important factors to building long-term Black leadership?
AK: Community organizations, whether they are Black-led or not, have to think about building Black leadership as essential to achieving our missions, and not a nice add-on to them. If we want to build Black leadership at every level of an organization, from membership to our boards, to our staff, it is at some point going to require risks, trade-offs, and sacrifices. Maybe we will have to do more work to integrate and build community among our membership. Maybe it will take longer to fill that board slot, or we will have to do more training for that new organizer. But if we make those sacrifices in the short-term, we will be better off in the long-term, as we promote new Black leaders who bring their own insights, skills, and assets to our organizations.
KR: What is your long-term vision for African Communities Together?
AK: Right now, we are focused on building our first chapter in NYC and honing our model. Over the next couple of years, we aim to launch additional chapters in other cities with large African populations, like Atlanta, D.C., Houston, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Once we start to build bases in multiple regions and connect those bases to each other across the country, all kinds of exciting organizing and advocacy become possible.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
AK: I think that there may be a leadership transition happening, where new Black organizing groups are gradually emerging to fill the gaps left by some of the older, more established civil rights organizations. Those organizations are important, but they can’t do everything. It may be that other communities of color have had fewer established organizations and therefore have built more new institutions from scratch.
I think it’s also partly a definitional problem of what we consider to be “Black-led organizing.” When we look at some of the biggest community organizing networks and labor unions, their work is absolutely driven by and dependent on Black leaders. But those organizations may not define themselves as Black-led or may not be thinking about promoting Black leadership. It’s up to us to organize and change that.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
AK: I think I’ve touched on some of the key needs. We have to be prepared to take risks and make trade-offs to promote Black leadership at every level of community organizations. That goes for funders as well-people need to be asking hard questions of the organizations they support.
And we need to organize within multiracial organizations to say that black leadership matters, and we should be doing more to support and promote it.
The last thing I would say is that I am a big believer in collaboration and alliance-building. The basic lesson at the heart of organizing is, “What appears to be your individual failings are actually structural and systematic problems. We are better off taking collective action to solve our shared problems that we are struggling alone.” We preach that to our members, but we don’t always practice it when it comes to working with other organizations. I think we need to find more spaces to bring black leaders together-as representatives of their organizations and as individuals-and ask them what they need to succeed and what we could accomplish together. To organize, in other words.