Interview with Jamii Founder & Executive Director
Adwoa: What is Jamii and why did you start the organization?
Jamila: Jamii is a multi-service social enterprise that promotes foreign language acquisition and academic achievement for people of the African Diaspora and in communities impacted by poverty. Our work is designed to strengthen a global movement for social, racial justice and economic justice. The word Jamii actually means community in Swahili.
Our founding is very much rooted in my personal experiences in the workforce and in social justice movements like immigrant rights movements, LGBT movements, and working with political organizing and grassroots community activism. Almost every job I’ve had was because of my ability to speak Spanish. Learning Spanish has been the best financial investment I’ve made, and it definitely had a higher ROI than my law degree. I was often the link between predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrant communities and English-speaking African-American communities who could not directly share their stories with one another and this had a huge impact on mobilizing folks around common issues. I saw ineffective strategies for building cross-cultural connections including an overwhelming lack of understanding about and connection to the experiences of black immigrant communities and a lack of visibility for Afro-Latinos. Also, working in the nonprofit sector fed my soul but having the ability to speak another language and use that as a source of additional income helped me feed my family. So, these experiences made me want to be part of producing the solutions to the obstacles I saw our social justice movements facing because they are solvable. I knew that an organization like Jamii could serve as a source of capacity building for organizations and institutions as well as a resource to promote financial independence for individuals.
Adwoa: What is your background?
I am African-American born and raised in the United States. I was born in New Haven, CT and raised between Hartford and Manchester, CT. If you asked me where I’m from, I’d probably just say Hartford though. My family is a mix of Afro-Colombian and Trinidadian – my daughter is Afro-Colombiana and I have siblings and other family members of Trinidadian heritage.
Professionally, I’ve multi-tasked a lot over the years. It’s rare that I’ve performed only one job or worked in one occupation. My background includes being a Spanish teacher. I am also a barred attorney. I have worked as a political organizer and community organizer.
The legal and political connections between education and social justice have been very much a part of my work. My entry into language services started in 2002 when I received a certification of simultaneous interpretation from Howard University. At that time, I started working as a Spanish translator and interpreter. Education, language and social justice have been integral in everything that I do and I think that the multicultural mix of my family and my personal background has a lot to do with the professional choices I have made.
Adwoa: What current projects is Jamii working on?
Jamila: We are working on translation projects, as always. We just finished community outreach for an online professional development platform for early childhood educators. It started as an English-based consulting project. At Jamii, part of what we know from our work is that even when you think the work only requires one language, the more you reach out to people the more you find that an additional language will creep up as a resource—or an obstacle. We strive to make it a resource. During this project, there ended up being a significant Spanish speaking teacher population we were reaching out to. As a result of hiring Jamii, our client was able to access everyone regardless of whether they spoke English or Spanish and we helped them with a low-cost English to Spanish translation for their online platform.
We’re also very involved in working with a coalition of partners on a project in Colombia, South America. It’s a community economic development initiative for Afro-Colombians and the first phase includes foreign language acquisition. The entire initiative is really about quality healthcare, education, workforce development, Afro-Colombian community engagement, and promoting visibility for Afro-Colombians in the global community. Imbedded into the foreign-language curriculum is an emphasis on pride in being afrodescendiente. Part of the health intersection includes ensuring that there are multilingual doctors who can travel and learn internationally and bring that skill set home to promote equitable access to quality healthcare in Afro-Colombian communities. It includes a critical global community-building component that will also engage African-descendants from the U.S. and other Native-English speakers as ESOL teachers. There’s even opportunity for monolingual English speakers who participate to learn Spanish by being a language partner with students in Colombia who need to practice conversing in English and who can help their partner practice Spanish. Jamii is supporting with fundraising, program design and curriculum development as well as partner mobilization, coordination, teacher training and consulting through the process of developing a comprehensive program that will be sustainable for years to come. So, yeah, I could go on and on. It’s an exciting program with the potential to have a significant and positive impact for Afro-Colombian communities.
Adwoa: Where do you see the organization ten years from now?
Jamila: In 10 years, I see Jamii recognized internationally as a social enterprise that is an exceptional language service provider who supports multilingual community social justice initiatives, social entrepreneurship and multilingual education. Also, in 2026, when someone thinks of the places where they can find exceptional black linguists, I want Jamii to be one of the top names on their mind. Also, we are currently located in the US with a growing organization in Colombia, and in ten years, I’d like to see that extended to other countries (I’m absolutely fanatic about the opportunity for making more connections in Cuba). Of course, by then we will also have more partnerships in the Caribbean and in Africa.
But, now that we’re launching the new website and the social media, I’m really excited to connect with more people and hear their thoughts and ideas. Collaboration sparks innovation!
Adwoa: Is there anyone you’d really like to collaborate with?
Jamila: Pretty much any K-12 school, college, or university in the country that wants to promote multilingual education and multilingual family engagement will be on my radar. I’d also really love to connect with organizations like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration – they do amazing work. There are a lot of organizations doing great work in California and New York that I’d like to connect with. There is the UN International Decade for People of African Descent and I have some other folks internationally as well, but I suppose I don’t need to put my entire list on blast. And of course, as a graduate of the Howard University Simultaneous Interpretation program, I’d really like to connect with a couple of the talented #afropolyglots leading their program.
Adwoa: This really sounds exciting and needed. So, if someone wants to hire Jamii or partner with Jamii what should they do?
Jamila: Contacting us online at www.jamii.co or emailing email@example.com is best. If they want to join our online community they can subscribe to the mailing list, connect with us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.