Its election time in many U.S. communities, but local government politicians aren’t the only ones scrambling for the vote. In one of Minnesota’s flourishing immigrant communities, an organization called OLM (Organization of Liberians in Minnesota) is preparing to induct its next president into office.
Established in 1973 amongst a handful of university students, OLM — the oldest Liberian organization in Minnesota — provided a forum for networking and exchanging their unique experiences as international students.
About a decade later, due to a series of devastating civil wars beginning in the late 1980s, a mass influx of refugees fled Liberia for the United States to bravely begin their lives anew. Conservative estimates place the current number of Liberian refugees in Minnesota at 20,000 people, the largest Liberian population outside of Liberia, estimated at 13.5 percent of the national total according to the Minneapolis Foundation.
As these numbers continue to increase, OLM’s goal is to maintain its self-proclaimed position as the leading Liberian organization in Minnesota, working to preserve, unite and advocate their community’s interests on both local and national levels.
Described as a “membership-based non-profit organization… that created a sense of identity for the Liberian community” by its current board of directors chairman Abdullah Kiatamba, OLM admittedly established only minor community projects and “struggled to find its own niche.”
All that may have changed recently when OLM, under President Martha T. Sinoe’s leadership and in collaboration with other city and state government officials like U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, scored a major triumph by winning the battle over the national DED (Deferred Enforced Departure) agreement; it was extended for 18 more months by President George W. Bush. This means that Liberians holding a TPS (Temporary Protected Status) have an extended lease to stay, live, work and contribute to the United States’ economy until the summer of 2009.
With this hard-earned and momentous victory under OLM’s belt, the candidates vying for the presidency are under immense pressure to sustain OLM’s momentum and further mobilize a displaced people. This is no small order. Here are some of the individuals rising to the challenge.
On December 2, 2007, the ballot slip to elect the next OLM president will include the names of incumbent President Martha T. Sinoe and first-time runners Winfred “Billy Dee” Russell and Kerper Dwanyen. In separate conversations, Sinoe and Russell presented their views on the future of the Liberian community and their goals for OLM; unfortunately, Dwanyen couldn‘t be reached for comment at this time.
Martha T. Sinoe came from Liberia over 20 years ago, making Minnesota her home in 1995. She wasted no time making a local name for herself.
Four active years in local politics have earned her a reputation within the community as a woman for her people, she says. Sinoe credits herself with over 20 years of dedicated service and sums up her campaign platform as promoting “Unity and Reconciliation,” a clear tribute to the past and future of Liberians throughout the Diaspora.
In previous years, Sinoe has earned her stripes serving as head of a community center project and co-chairman to then-OLM president George Wou, as northern regional vice president of ULAA (Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas), and most recently as the first female president of OLM.
For this election she is relying on her faithful supporters, who have rallied behind her in the past to once again show their allegiance in numbers at the polls. Under her platform of “Unity and Reconciliation,” Sinoe’s goals if reelected are to “bring our people together and work as a community.” She declines to elaborate further on the issue, confident that her past accomplishments will speak for themselves.
Although she does admit that OLM‘s two-year term appointment is too short a period to effect change, Sinoe is proud of the accomplishments of her previous term and plans to secure Liberians a permanent residency status in the near future: “I‘m looking at the bigger picture for this community.” Sinoe questions if her opponents have the same motive, asking them, “Do you really have the heart, or is it part of your political agenda?”
Sinoe projects a clear professional goal to “continue to work for OLM” no matter the outcome of this election. Attacks from her competition calling her and her efforts “ineffective” and “seeking to advance individual ethnic groups” she quickly dismisses as noise from people gunning for her seat, coming from people who she claims “failed” at their appointed positions within her own administration.
Sinoe’s resonating message is that she is in this for the people and the genuine love and betterment of her community. She emphasizes that “OLM doesn’t pay,” and her sole reward comes from working for her community.
Wynfred “Billy Dee” Russell has an extensive resume detailing his community involvement, too. Arriving stateside in 1994, Russell immediately went on to earn a PhD from the University of Minnesota, and in the following years he worked as an educator at his alma mater and at North Hennepin Community College.
Before he set his sights on the political arena, Russell may have been best known within the local entertainment business as a successful entrepreneur and local events coordinator for hosting pageants and community events like the annual Miss Liberia competition.
Just two months ago Russell returned from an international tour, where he had an opportunity to meet with Liberia’s president to discuss the war-ravaged country’s policy and development strategies. Russell professed a knack for “building networks, building bridges, and harnessing relationships,” a skill that he believes will come in handy presiding over OLM.
Russell proclaimed at a September 13 press conference, “There is a new day approaching within our community.” To lead Liberians forward, he has orchestrated a five-point plan he calls the “five pillars.” His first point addresses the extended DED status — he plans to turn that into a permanent residency status for Liberians.
Second, focusing on the youth, Russell aims to structure programs around teenage issues to win the fight against teen pregnancy, and to curb the growing crime and drop-out rates by establishing a scholarship program for Liberian youths interested in college.
Third, in order to clean up OLM financially and position the organization to invest back into the community, Russell plans to raise $200,000 through generous grants, gifts, and community support.
Fourth, Russell wants more culture and community-based programs, so if elected he plans on opening a library, resource and development center for the community.
Lastly, Russell wages an attack on ailments such as diabetes, cancer and HIV/AIDS that are plaguing the community. He has initiated an effort to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS issue, particularly in the last several years, through resources like the University of Minnesota’s medical school. He wants to make more information and resources accessible to the community.
He acknowledges that he can’t do all of this alone, though. He regards “grassroots participation” and partnering with other community organizations as the keys to OLM’s success, and in turn the success of the Liberian community. “We’re an administration of inclusion. Everybody counts. Every voice is going to be heard. All of us together will make this community work.”
To the greater Minneapolis public, OLM and all the candidates extend their most sincere and heartfelt gratitude for the outpouring of support and prayers while Liberia and the Liberian Diaspora recover. Stay tuned for updates on this election and future OLM progress reports.
Caroline Joseph is a Hamline University student and a journalism intern at the Spokesman-Recorder. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.