The Africa Centre is a dynamic community hub that supports Edmonton immigrants’ and refugees’ ongoing integration into Canadian society. More than a cultural centre, this unique organization delivers high quality, culturally appropriate family and community services to Africans from dozens of countries, each with its own culture, traditions and languages.
The Centre is currently at a significant milestone in its evolution and is turning to Alberta Human Services to request funds to continue and enhance its programs. In this paper, we will provide a history of the organization, demonstrate what the Africa Centre’s unique model has to offer to Alberta Human Services and describe its programs. These will be followed by a summary of current needs and strategies to address them.
History and Growth of the Africa Centre
The idea for an African centre has its roots in the 1980s at a time when the idea of bringing together people of African descent was first explored. The Council for Advancement of African Canadians in Alberta (CAAC), operating as Africa Centre, was incorporated in 2006 after a series of meetings and discussions among community leaders that took place in 2005. The leaders themselves admit that they came to this endeavour as the “least organized and least equipped, but with the greatest need.” Programs that provided provincial funding for community centres in the 1980s and 1990s had been discontinued, leaving African community leaders with few resources.
The Africa Centre Board of Directors developed a business plan and approached the City of Edmonton. The City, championed by former Mayor Stephen Mandel, embraced the concept of an Africa Centre. The City first negotiated a lease for the Wellington Junior High School (a surplus school site) with the Edmonton Public School Board in 2007. It also focused on capacity-building by providing a full-time City Liaison Officer to assist the Board of Directors and Executive Director to establish sound governance and management practices.
The founding Board of Directors placed a priority on the delivery of high quality programs and services. To accomplish this, it built and continues to build creative and caring partnerships with organizations that have strong track records in the delivery of specific services. Our partners provide in-depth knowledge, capacity-building and best practices in their particular area of expertise. The Africa Centre brings an in-depth understanding of African values and customs to the partnership as well as cultural wisdom and problem-solving skills.
Why Africa Centre?
Africa Centre is the only organization in Canada, if not the world, that uses a Pan-African approach to deliver programs and services to immigrants and refugees. There are 56 countries on the continent, with highly diverse cultures where more than 2000 languages are spoken. To bring them together under one roof is a significant ongoing intercultural challenge, but very worthwhile. It is made possible by focusing on issues that are common to the members of every community: family health, education and integration into Canadian society. The inestimable value of such a venture lies in the common point of entry to all of Edmonton’s African communities that is made available to decision-makers, policy-makers, funders, politicians, service organizations and many other stakeholders that interact or want to interact with the City’s African communities. In addition, this common point of entry has the potential to introduce economies of scale to funding bodies that are approached by small communities whose population may not be large enough to justify the expense of a proposed program.
One civic engagement opportunity provided by this Pan-African approach for example, came about during the last provincial election when all constituency candidates participated in a joint meeting to present their policy platforms. Held regularly for public education and public consultation purposes, the Edmonton Police Service noticed increased participation at Africa Centre Town Hall meetings over previous such meetings with Edmonton’s culture-specific African communities
Another characteristic that adds value to the Pan-African approach is that 24 of Africa’s 56 countries are Francophone countries. As the Africa Centre begins to build a Francophone component into the programs it offers, Edmonton’s Franco-African communities will soon start making use of them as well. The Centre collaborated for example with these communities to plan this year’s closing event for Black History Month held February 28. At least 200 Francophones were amongst our 400 guests. Within three weeks, our Out of School Time program had registered 30 new children because parents had learned that the program has a Francophone African on staff. Three to five would be more typical of new registrations over a three-week period.
A Pan-African approach also means that the Centre is able to tap into a larger pool of assets to carry out its mission than can individual cultural communities, e.g., volunteers, board members, community leaders, potential employees and members of specific professions whose skills may be required for a specific project or role.
The composition of the Africa Centre’s Board of Directors intentionally reflects Africa’s diversity. Its 2014-2015 members represent the following communities in Edmonton:
Despite the size of the population it represents and serves, the Africa Centre places a very high priority on maintaining close ties with its grassroots.
- We hold Conversation Cafés, a program described later in this paper. These events involve discussions with members of the African community to ascertain their needs and to propose solutions to address them.
- We also hold a minimum of three special events each year that are open to the general public, Black History Month (February), International Women’s Day (March) and Africa Day (June), Attracting anywhere from 150 to 500 people at a given event, members of the community have access to Board members and Senior staff to discuss topics of interest or concern.
- Through its partnerships and external relationships, the Africa Centre acquires invaluable community information that is not readily available elsewhere.
- Formal evaluation of programs and informal client feedback are often used to make program modifications.
- Community leaders’ engagement both with their own communities and with the Africa Centre is yet another important source for the organization to keep its finger on the pulse of its broad and diverse community.
In summary, the Africa Centre’s unique Pan-African approach provides the following advantages to local decision-makers, policy-makers and funding bodies:
- Focus on common issues
- Common point of entry to multiple African communities
- Economies of scale
- Emerging services to Francophones
- Large pool of community assets
- Access to current information about what is trending in the City’s African communities