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A Heart for Africa

Staff group wants to be part of the conversation on Africa policies

The association's president Diana Konaté is the scheduler for Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The association's president Diana Konaté is the scheduler for Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One Capitol Hill staff group attracts members who work in Washington but come from far away. No, not California. Try Africa.

The Congressional African Staff Association is “made up of people who have a heart for Africa,” according to Diana Konaté, the group’s president.

She added that it includes “those who have some kind of connection to Africa, whether they were from the continent, had parents from the continent or just had an interest in Africa.”

Konaté, 34, is a scheduler for Illinois Democratic Rep. Bill Foster and was born in the Ivory Coast to a Liberian mother and Senegalese father. She came to the United States in 1991.

Vice President Kemah Dennis-Morial, 34, is a scheduler and legislative assistant for Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond. She was born in D.C. to a Liberian mother and an American father. Dennis moved with her family to the Ivory Coast when she was seven months old, returning to the U.S. for college.

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Communications director Oumou Ly, 23, works on foreign affairs issues in Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office and was born in San Diego to an American mother and Senegalese father.

The bicameral and bipartisan group was founded in 2011. The initial board was made up of a group of staffers — including someone who was Sudanese and someone who was South Sudanese.

“Initially, they wanted to have an organization that focused on the good news coming out of Africa, versus what you generally hear — the war, famine, all types of conflicts, humanitarian issues,” Konaté said. “So the group started out wanting to just highlight that there were also great things coming out of Africa.”

The association continues to work toward that goal today by hosting events, depending on what’s happening around the world. Its present membership is made up of about 100 current Hill staffers and more than 300 people off the Hill.

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“There are so many people from the diaspora on the Hill who don’t really know that we are all here, don’t really know that we all exist,” Ly said.

The association partnered with the Brookings Institution last year for a panel on urbanization in Africa, and with the World Bank for a panel on women, business and the law. It held several events with a fellowship program made up of African leaders called the Young African Leaders Initiative.

The group also held a briefing on the food crisis and the Boko Haram extremist group in northern Nigeria, and a panel with the D.C. mayor’s office on African affairs, among other things.

“We want to reach out to staffers who are working on Africa issues for their bosses and just let them know that we’re here,” Konaté said. “Let them know that whatever they need from us, we can try to help support their members. We’ve been building relationships with agencies and nonprofits that work in this space. We can tap into our networks and see if we can make something happen.”

The association also hopes to foster relationships with embassies of African countries, Konaté added.

“As Africans, it’s just important for us to be part of the conversation in the policies that are implemented toward Africa,” Dennis said. “I feel like we have a vested interest for many reasons. So it’s really important that we come together to help and make sure that people are aware of what is needed to ensure sustainable development in Africa.”

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