Lessons from Black Immigrant Women Advancing Community Success
By Hannah Liu
One in ten Black people in the United States is an immigrant. And nearly one in five is a child of an immigrant. But Black immigrants are too often overlooked in media and policy discourse and are often left out of important decision-making processes. As a result, challenges like language barriers and racism in the immigration system go unaddressed, and families must confront greater hurdles to economic security.
Community organizations like African Community Housing & Development (ACHD) in King County, Washington, are working hard to bridge the gap. Its leaders are developing solutions to help the area’s African Diaspora community thrive. The organization’s approach holds lessons for advocates and decision makers.
Black immigrant communities are a fast-growing and extremely diverse population. But despite having similar education rates to non-immigrants and participating in the labor force at a higher rate, Black immigrants face higher rates of poverty. The median income of Black immigrant households in the United States was $57,200 in 2019, much lower than the overall median income of $68,703. Black immigrants are also much less likely to own their homes than non-immigrants, preventing many families from building intergenerational wealth crucial to breaking cycles of poverty.
Hamdi Abdulle and Bilan Aden co-founded ACHD in 2019, after community members and elders came together to discuss what issues they were facing and brainstorm solutions together. From these conversations, they created a two-pronged approach to their work. The first is to address the immediate needs of the African Diaspora community through housing, education, and access to better paying jobs. The second is to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through economic development, network building, and large-scale systems-change efforts. ACHD works to bring the over 40,000 African Diaspora immigrants and refugees who live in the Seattle area together by strengthening streams of information. As Ms. Abdulle says, “An informed community is a thriving community.”
To tackle the issues facing the community, Ms. Abdulle and Ms. Aden believe in using a holistic, culturally relevant approach. ACHD provides a host of different programs, including case management, eviction prevention, food access, and rental assistance. Since its inception, ACHD has distributed more than $30 million in rental assistance. The organization also provides education, small business support, and workforce development programs.
“While we’re working to provide social service programs that meet the immediate needs of our community today, we’re also working toward our future,” says Ms. Aden.
ACHD is currently in the process of creating an African Diaspora Cultural Anchor Village. It will be a community center with affordable family-sized housing, early childhood education, community gathering space, and more.
In the wake of the pandemic, ACHD needed to quickly expand its staffing structure to serve a much larger population. The pandemic disproportionately harmed African Diaspora immigrants and refugees in the Seattle area, many of whom are frontline workers. According to Ms. Abdulle, the community suffered many losses, including leaders who had helped co-establish the organization.
As the pandemic also took an economic toll, ACHD’s programs helped families stay afloat. With large portions of the community working jobs in the hospitality and travel industries, unemployment rates in 2020 hit 40 percent in several area zip codes. In 2019, ACHD started out serving around 1,000 families. It now serves over 6,000 – growth mainly attributed to the rental assistance program.
ACHD is more than a service-providing organization. It also works hard to encourage civic engagement, especially among youth, and to keep the African Diaspora community engaged in issues impacting them and their families.
Ms. Abdulle says that the African community has too often been painted as “hard to reach.” “We’ve seen people speaking for us without even connecting with us,” she notes. “It is dangerous to advocate for people that you don’t know.”
Community organizations like ACHD have spent years building relationships and trust with members of the Black immigrant and refugee community. Decision makers and advocates alike should establish long-term partnerships with such organizations and invest in them. Leaders must give Black immigrants a seat at the table to ensure that the issues impacting their community are finally addressed.
Special thanks to Hamdi Abdulle and Bilan Aden for lending their time and expertise for this blog. You can learn more about African Community Housing and Development by visiting the organization’s website.