Asha Richards is a Master’s student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in the Development Practice program, specializing in International Organization and Latin America. She is also the incumbent for the Northeast USA Regional Lead position in the Global Jamaica Diaspora Youth Council (GJDYC). As the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and her position as regional lead, Asha is very interested in small island development and curious about how migration can be leveraged to boost development in Jamaica and the Caribbean as a whole. During her year as regional lead, Asha has advocated for the embracement of Jamaican diaspora youth and sought innovative ways to advance Jamaica’s development, with interest in strategies that leverage the diaspora. This was displayed through her opening speech for the Jamaica 60 Diaspora Conference, as well as her research and championing of collective remittances. Ultimately she wishes to advocate and assist in the development of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean in ways that minimize inequality and empower marginalized communities.
Prior to her current academic pursuits, Asha studied Political Science and International Studies, receiving her BA in 2021. She also worked with the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, a US Department of State initiative to support African partner nations in obtaining the capacity to independently rapidly deploy United Nations Level 2 Hospitals in times of crisis. In the summer of 2022, she worked with the Inter-American Dialogue in the Migration, Remittances and Development Program, where she analyzed migration and remittance trends for Jamaica and the greater Latin American region. Currently for her capstone project, Asha and a team of SIPA students are working with the Inter-American Development Bank and the Transformation Implementation team within the Jamaican Ministry of Finance to design a tool for public sector workers to transfer skills and upskill to meet the new demands of the public sector digitization process. She also serves as the Vice President of the SIPA Black Student Union and as a Program Assistant for the IO/UNS specialization at SIPA.
What is your connection to Jamaica? Have you been involved in the Jamaica Diaspora Movement or Jamaican related organizations before?
While I was not born on the island, nor did I grow up there, Jamaica has played a pivotal role in my life and upbringing. I was christened in Jamaica, my family is in Jamaica, almost all of my summers were spent in Jamaica, and my mother ensured that Jamaican culture was alive and strong at home. While my connection to Jamaica might be different, it is far from unique. There are many second generation Jamaicans that have had similar experiences to me. What connects us all is our love and affinity for Jamaica. No matter where we were born, where we grew up, or where we currently reside, we all view Jamaica as our home. Many of us wish to not only connect with the island through family and culture but be active participants in the country’s advancement. This is why I joined the Global Jamaica Diaspora Youth Council (GJDYC) in the summer of 2020. I had not heard of the diaspora movement before, as I was an undergraduate student at the time, but quickly became invested.
Upon joining the council, I was quite active, from moderating part of the youth session during the 2021 Diaspora symposium, to assisting in the initiative to exonerate Marcus Garvey, and spearheading the college and international student subcommittee in the Northeast USA. This was noticed by the former Northeast USA regional lead, Mona-Lee Belizaire, and when she decided to step down, she recommended me to complete her term. As regional lead, I assisted in the promotion for the Jamaica 60 Diaspora Conference and represented the GJDYC during the opening ceremony as well as the Diaspora Business and Investment in Jamaica plenary session. Following discussions during the conference, I also contacted the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport in regard to programs for diaspora youth to learn traditional Jamaican art forms. I am awaiting correspondence. In September, I organized for members to join the Jamaican consulate to walk during the New York West Indian Day Parade. Outside of my capacity as regional lead, I have been researching ways to leverage the Jamaican diaspora, recently found to be the 5th largest in the world, to propel Jamaica’s development1. Recently I have been looking into collective remittances, of which I hope to present a concrete scheme in the near future.
If elected what will be your main goal in this role for your constituencies?
My main goal is to empower diaspora youth with helpful resources and networking and ultimately revamp engagement in the region. An empowered and engaged diaspora is an informed, well-equipped, and connected one. Ultimately, this form of strong and united diaspora contributes to a stronger Jamaica; whether that be through collective initiatives, direct investment, entrepreneurship, knowledge sharing, service rendering, or just promoting brand Jamaica as we all excel in our fields.
Many in the Jamaican community abroad don’t know much about the Jamaica Diaspora movement and its goals. What will you do to change this perception and get all Jamaicans in the Diaspora involved?
The first and arguably most important step is grass-roots recruitment. I found out about the GJDYC from an instagram DM sent by Mona-Lee to the page of Virginia Wesleyan University’s Caribbean Student Association, of which I was the co-founder and president at the time. Reaching out to Caribbean associations in universities and potentially high schools is a great way to increase membership and general knowledge of the diaspora movement. Thus far, a list has been created with contacts for multiple university caribbean/Jamaican associations in New York and Massachusetts. It is my hope that in the upcoming year we can expand this list and reach out to the respective organizations. Another key to reaching the greater diaspora is through social media. Youth are increasingly turning to social media for entertainment and news alike, especially when it comes to trends and news from Jamaica. Not only does the council need to leverage social media more, but reach out to influencers and popular Jamaican pages such as Westindiemade, ProudJamaicans, Knowyourcaribbean, and yourself (Jamaicans.com) to spread the word and garner interest for initiatives and the movement as a whole. Even consider Jamaican based accounts and influencers, as they have a substantial following from diaspora youth as well. While I do not have access to the GJDYC social media accounts, as a content creator I have a few contacts in the Caribbean content creation/influencer community that may be willing to help promote the diaspora movement.
Recently there have been some who have expressed concerns about the lack of funding of The Global Jamaica Diaspora Council and if the position has any power without direction from the Jamaican Government. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I believe the concerns are valid. The terms of reference explicitly state that posts are voluntary with no monetary compensation. All diaspora leaders accept these terms once assuming their positions; however, in practice this is blocking a lot of potential for the councils, particularly the GJDYC. No successful large organization runs off of no operational/administrative costs, the Diaspora councils are no exception. Additionally, as a council with an emphasis on youth empowerment, it is a bit contradictory to expect young adults, fresh in their careers or in school such as myself, to take significant time away from work and academics as well as foot the bill for travel, events, etc., without any form of compensation. These factors bar many qualified and highly invested diaspora youth from taking up leadership positions, constrains the scale and impact of diaspora-led initiatives, and limits the overall functionality of the council.
To the second point, the government has many priorities. As such, at times there is an understandable backlog when it comes to correspondence, directives, and proposals.
With that said I do not believe that the council or council leadership is powerless. What I’ve learned during my year as regional lead is that it is best to work proactively. As leaders, regardless of financial constraints, we have the ability to mobilize people and generate ideas with perspectives from around the world. Additionally, diaspora councils have mutual goals with many companies, organizations, and nonprofits. If adequate partnerships are established, there are limitless possibilities for initiatives, projects, or even funding. Ultimately, this is the first term of operation for the GJDYC and as such, it is not perfect. In partnership with the government, the Diaspora Advisory Board is actively discussing how to make the functionality of the councils smoother and more effective moving forward.
Is there a goal that you believe the global Jamaican Diaspora can rally around?
Part of my goals as regional lead and a goal the Jamaican diaspora from anywhere in the world can rally behind, is working toward achieving greater development in Jamaica. No matter where we reside, our socio-economic class, our age, or what our expertise is, Jamaica and our love of Jamaica binds us all. As aforementioned, the Jamaican diaspora is the 5th largest in the world (excluding 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations such as myself)1. As of 2020, Remittances accounted for 22.2% of the national GDP, the 13th highest in the world2. The diaspora is a unique asset to Jamaica and if we are able to come together and find ways to concretely and effectively share our ideas, expertise, and resources, the impact could be massive. The motto of Jamaica is “out of many, one people.” A win for Jamaica, is a win for all of us. A better Jamaica, is a better home for all of us. Therefore if there was one goal the whole Jamaican diaspora can rally around, it is Jamaican advancement.
Thanks for your time and all the best in the election. Do you have any closing thoughts?
The diaspora councils are an investment. While not a monetary investment (though finances are necessary), output is based on what is put in. I am willing to put my all into the council but for it to be successful and effective, I will need help from you, the diaspora. Whether that is investment of time, resources, or just general engagement, all are appreciated and necessary for an impactful GJDYC. The first investment you can make is voting for who you want to represent you in the council. For those registered to vote, please check your email (and junk or spam mail) for your ballot and if you have any questions about the council, me as a candidate, or the diaspora movement as a whole, feel free to email me at [email protected].