Akua Soadwa (pictured) was on what was suppose to be an inconsequential walking tour of Springfield, Mass., during an undergraduate urban sociology class when she first felt the need to channel her academic training into grassroots activism.
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As Soadwa recalls, the town was not only sharply divided by race, with Black people on the poor side and white people on the better half, it was separated by a highway on which the poor walked with baby strollers as speeding cars raced by. There was also a school between the highway that townspeople often used as safe passage to cross over to the other side of town. For Soadwa, it was urban planning at its worst.
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“I was so pissed,” Soadwa told me. “I was thinking, Who would create a community like this, where people have to walk through a highway? A place that is unsafe for our youth or just letting anyone go through the school to get to the other side.”
The experience motivated her to earn a Master’s degree in urban planning and pursue a career in community development with a focus on strengthening minority communities weakened by poorly planned public policy. But early on in her career, Suadwa didn’t feel like her 9-to-5 grind was doing enough to help the communities she desired to uplift. She had to do more.
So Soadwa started sending off resumes to women and minority-focused non-profits, hoping they’d eagerly call back once they saw her advanced education and professional experience. Sometimes, people would respond and say, “Oh, we’re very interested. We’ll get back to you.” But far too often, no one ever did. So Suadwa did what any ambitious sista would do: She founded her own non-profit, Gye Nyame Empowerment Project (GNEP)
Started in 2007 with a handful of like-minded Black women, GNEP focuses on giving young people of the Pan-African community in New York City access to resources she was fortunate to have access to as a young girl growing up in a two-parent home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
With only faithfuls giving what they could and GNEP members coming out of pocket to support the group’s efforts, this small group of devoted women has helped roughly 500 young people, mostly girls and young women, through hosting community development conferences, college awareness programs, and summits.
One of the GNEP’s top initiatives is their annual “Sista 2 Sista Summit” that brings young and teenage women together for a day of empowerment activities aimed at cultivating Black womanhood. This year’s theme is “Celebrating the Sista’ Within.”
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Soadwa, whose family background is Ghanaian, says that young women are acknowledged for their achievements and accomplishments that their parents praise them for. One of the features of this year’s summit, to be held on Saturday, March 31st, is a time and space for women to tell their peers how they themselves want to be seen by others. It is a key affirmation exercise Soadwa feels so many Black women yearn for.
“As sistas, we’ve endured a lot,” she said. “Our perseverance, our resilience is like crazy so it’s really an opportunity for us to celebrate the sista within ourselves and the sista within other women.”
Soadwa says more than 150 women of different age groups are expected to attend this years summit at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. While GNEP is known for working with young women, GNEP wants to pull more men into their programming. Soadwa doesn’t know exactly why she can’t get more men to help out. She only knows that she needs them.
“We need men to support the programming for our other young men,” she said. “[Young men] listen to men. They’ll hear us as women, but they listen to men who are at the table saying, ‘Look dude, do this this this.’ It’s a whole type of conversation.”
This year, Soadwa says GNEP is pursuing foundation money to expand the services their organization is able to offer. Her motivation for using her weekends for the the betterment of women is rooted in her resolve to lift up one more sista in her community who will one day follow in her footsteps.
“I always felt like I had resources,” Soadwa told me on a Sunday afternoon. “People always provided me with access to things. I was never at a loss or a shortage for things and I wanted to offer that to people who look like me. That’s why I started the organization. It was really opportunity for people to not reinvent the wheel and have to figure things out on their own. It’s like, ‘Why?” If we got it and know how to do it, just pass the torch.”
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