The much-anticipated Liberian community dialogue town hall forum sponsored by the Advocates for Human Rights ended successfully Wednesday, with major actors in the community’s long running conflicts and tensions defining the nature of countless problems that have slowed the collective progress of Liberians in Minnesota.
The open dialogue, held at the Brooklyn United Methodist Church in Brooklyn Park, attracted the participation of US Congressman Erik Paulsen of Minnesota’s Third District, Robin Phillips, and Michelle Garnett-Mckenzie, Executive Director and Director of Advocacy, of The Advocates for Human Rights.
As predicted, the meeting began with tensions--with some participants unleashing attacks on their opponents-- real or perceived--and ended with suggestions, as to how a more sustained process can be created, with Advocates as a partner in a new journey.
“I think this effort is great. For the first time in the Liberian community…we had the chance to voice out our differences and explain why we have so much problems, all in one setting”, said Robert Sayon Morris, publisher of the Liberian Media and Advertising Services.
To the delight of many, the well-attended forum also drew the contributions of the heads and members of the two contending boards of the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, OLM--headed by Clarence Yaskey and John Tarley-- a broader representation of leaders of county and ethnic organizations, heads of social service organizations, and a diverse group of Liberians.
In opening remarks, Robin Phillips welcomed participants to the dialogue, calling on Liberians to engage one another in frank but civil exchanges, to find common ground on issues that affect their collective interests.
“Advocates for Human Rights has always partnered with Liberians and their organizations every step of the way”, said Robin, whose institution has gained enormous respect amongst a growing number of Liberians in Minnesota. “We thanked all of you for coming and look toward to a healthy and productive discussion”.
In separate remarks, Rep. Paulsen thanked the community for giving him a chance to be a part of the discussion, saying “I am here to listen, to get more advice and input on how I can help find answers to many of your problems”.
“The potential of this community is great”, he added, “and there is a need to build on it”.
Few minutes before the start of the dialogue, Ahmed Sirleaf, a Program Associate with the Advocates for Human Rights and the brain behind the success of the event, set few defining markers, including time allotment, and the tone of the discourse, appealing to participants “to take advantage of this moment, to address issues that are critical to the progress of our community”.
Discussions and Suggestions
As if the dialogue presented a rare opportunity for participants to vent out their long-held anger and frustrations, Kamaty Diahn, a member of the Yaskey board questioned why his team was not acknowledged by the organizers.
Predictably, a swift rebuttal followed. “Your board has been impeached. You guys insulted the pastors when they tried to make peace between the two parties”, said Kirkpatrick Weah, as Rep. Paulsen adjusted his chair to understand the nature of the back-and-forth. “You have no legitimacy here, so don’t even talk about recognition”.
Yaskey disagreed. ”The pastors choose to intervene the wrong way. They presented very unreasonable options [either John Tarley is restored to the chairmanship of the board or the entire OLM board leadership be subjected to a community referendum]”, he explained. ”They even cancelled the OLM July 26 Liberia’s Independence Day celebration at one of their churches, to force us into playing by their roles”.
Yaskey argued that he felt that the approach the pastors adopted was unreasonably demanding, making it difficult to reach a common ground on a crisis that has divided the community along many fault lines.
But those were just about OLM.
Momodu Kemokai, President of the Liberian community in St. Paul, also called LCM, said his organization was prepared “to work with any and all organizations”, to achieve peace and harmony.
Richard Parker, a member of the Yaskey board, had likened the existence of LCM to “a break-away group”, provoking a chorus of negatives responses from members and officials of LCM, especially Kemokai.
“We’re a non-profit organization, supporting the aspirations and needs of Liberians in our geographical areas”, Kemokai explained. ”We’ve always been the one to offer partnership, and there are enough records to prove just that”.
Even in the midst of charges and counter charges, and the reactions they provoked, the lack of leadership as a critical piece, in almost all of the conflicts, gained special attention.
“Our problems and conflicts are complicated, because of “ the incompetence, lack of leadership, of our elected officers,” said Wynfred Russell, pointing towards members of the Yaskey board. “I feel embarrassed to know that they [our leaders] just don’t get it”.
Angelique Cooper seemed to share similar sentiments. She argued that it was almost “urgent” to get involve in the activities of the community “to push our leaders to do the right things, especially resolving many of the endless conflicts in our community”.
“Every time you read The Liberian Journal or Bushchicken, all you read is our leadership is engulfed in conflicts upon conflicts, with no end in sight”, she added, with a sense of disappointment and outrage echoing through her voice. “Our leaders need to step up, and very soon”.
From discussions on the temporary legal status of Liberians in Minnesota to concerns about the depth of personal vendettas, participants made their cases to a larger audience with passion and conviction.
At long last, participants offered suggestions as to the best way forward, to continue the process. Angelique Cooper proposed that the organizers establish a working team, to build on the new effort, volunteering to contribute to her time and ideas as a potential member.
Harriet Badio, a well-respected opinion leader, said the idea is good, and that the organizers “need to collect all suggestions to effectively facilitate the next step”.
In many words, participants and leaders of the various groups felt there was a need to build on the momentum the process had generated, praising the Advocates for Human Rights--for providing a forum--to work through and overcome their differences.
“We think it was a great exercise, and we need to continue this process”, said Hamilton Kayee, President of the Sinoe County Association in Minnesota.
This line summed up the views of majority of participants.
Edwin Kruah, President of the Nimba community in Minnesota, the largest Liberian ethnic group in the state, said he was optimistic about the process, saying “I think we have a great opportunity to make progress, and achieve a breakthrough”.
In an earlier release, The Advocates for Human Rights said the community dialogue process was structured in two parts.
“The first meeting would allow members of the community to identify conflicts and challenges facing the community and where they would make commitment to work together to address the critical issues impeding community progress”, said a letter bearing the signature of Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.”
Liberians in Minnesota have had their share of prolonged divisive conflicts, often related to power struggles and personal vendettas associated with the running of community groups, especially OLM and ethnic-based associations.
Before the dialogue, a number of stakeholders had expressed optimism that this new effort could represent the best opportunity to create a template, to begin the resolution of old conflicts in new effective ways.
Many observers believe the meeting produced the intended results, especially identifying the key players and the critical issues at the heart of the community conflicts.
But how the organizers intend to manage the expectations they have raised is another tricky question.