Native Liberia Finds Her Niche As Colorado’s New Lawmaker
Naquetta Ricks was 13 when three soldiers came to her family’s home in Monrovia, Liberia, in search of her mother’s fiancÃ©, a government official.
Elected in America
VOA profiles several emerging American politicians with family ties to Africa who are helping to change the face of American politics. They understand:
âThey held my mom at gunpoint for over two hours while my sister and I watched,â Ricks said, wincing at the memory. The soldiers found the official, Cyril A. Bright, hiding in the house and, after questioning the couple in the driveway, threw him in the back of a van.
âBy the grace of God, really, they left my mom and gone,â Ricks said.
The mother and daughters hurried to pack a suitcase and fled to a relative. Bright and 12 other ousted ministers were then tied to poles on a beach in Monrovia and shot dead by firing squad, victims of the 1980 military coup.
Less than two months after the interrogation, the family fled to the United States and joined relatives in the western state of Colorado.
Ricks, 54, is now a member of the Colorado General Assembly, elected in November 2020. A Democrat, she represents the 40th district just east of Denver, including Aurora, the city where she grew up.
Hers is one of the most diverse districts in a state where nearly one in 10 residents was born abroad – mostly from Latin America, followed by Asians and Africans – and another in 10 was born an immigrant parent.
Ricks is the first black immigrant elected to the Colorado Statehouse. Mortgage broker and co-founding president of the African Colorado Chamber of Commerce, Ricks said her decision to run for public office was influenced by the difficulties of “coming here as an immigrant.”
âWhen we arrived, my mother applied for political asylum, and we weren’t able to prove our case,â Ricks said. “But, you know, we’re not lawyers. We couldn’t defend ourselves in court.”
Path to citizenship
Rick’s family found a path to citizenship in 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law not only strengthened enforcement, but also made unauthorized immigrants who arrived before 1982 eligible for amnesty. Ricks became a US citizen in her early twenties.
In June 2021, she backed Governor Jared Polis as he signed a law she helped sponsor, making Colorado the first U.S. state to create a legal defense fund for low-income immigrants facing deportation.
âIt will help immigrants like my family who came here who didn’t have a lawyer,â Ricks said, remembering his late mother, Mariam Eudora Ash.
This session, Ricks also successfully championed several other pieces of legislation aimed at accelerating the growth of small businesses, diversifying the ranks of Colorado teachers, and establishing a pilot project for tenants to build credit histories and improve access to loans. Passage of the measures was facilitated by Democrats’ control over both legislative chambers and the government.
âWhat I see from Rep. Ricks is a ton of work representing her constituents, and especially those who are often overlooked in the political process,â said Michal Rosenoer, former leader of Emerge Colorado, which is part of a national organization that formed Ricks. and other democratic women to run for office.
âIt shows the importance of having people who can understand the issues in their community in a position of power to change those circumstances,â said Rosenoer.
Ricks said she never set out to become a politician, but politics âruns in my bloodâ and in my extended family.
Her paternal grandfather, John Henry Ricks, had been a state representative in Liberia “before I was born,” she said. Her maternal step-grandfather General Glakron Gblodell Jackson was Bomi County superintendent and was killed after ousted politician Charles Taylor launched a rebellion in late 1989 that resulted in years of civil war and a quarter of a million dead.
“When Naquetta said she was going to introduce herself, I smiled because I said she was going to take Papa’s place” in politics, said Adriana Henderson, Jackson’s daughter and Ricks’ maternal aunt. .
Henderson lives in Aurora outside her niece’s district, so she couldn’t vote in support. But she’s a fan.
âWhen I went to his swearing-in (ceremony), I was so thrilled,â Henderson said. “I’m very proud of her.â¦ Coming from our small African community, we try to uplift each other.”
Ricks describes herself as “a person of faith,” baptized at age 13 as an evangelical Christian in Liberia.
“I keep praying. I fall, I get up,” she said.
Ricks’ faith supported her through two unsuccessful candidacies for public office – the University of Colorado Board of Regents in 2014 and Aurora City Council in 2017 – and when she ran for the seat of the Assembly. She was the underdog, challenging an outgoing Democrat, an African American who had the support of party leaders. But Ricks enlisted friends and associates to help raise awareness of the campaign. In the legislative elections, she won 59% of the vote.
A handful of Ricks supporters, mostly immigrants from Africa, gathered one June morning at Endless Grind, an Ethiopian-owned cafe in the Ricks district. Among them was a Cameroonian-born health worker who organized a COVID-19 vaccination clinic; a local businessman who promotes African culture; a Nigerian pastor; a Kenyan-born political analyst interning in the Ricks office; and the US-born Executive Director of the African Chamber of Commerce.
Kabongo Serge-Patrick, a chief of Congolese origin, said he was “the first to jump in the line” to collect signatures endorsing Ricks. With his election to the Assembly, “we now have a voice to see how we can prosper here in America,” he said of African immigrants.
“Committed to the world”
On a driving tour of her district, Ricks drove past Aurora Central High School, where she arrived as a shy freshman. Then she was one of the few students of color. Today, the school’s 2,200 or so students are a very diverse mix, mostly Latino. The public school system reports that its students speak in more than 160 languages.
A banner near the entrance declares the school’s ambition “to develop leaders who are self-aware, active locally and globally engaged.”
Ricks embraces these ideals. In addition to her work in the Assembly, she continues to advocate for entrepreneurs and small businesses across the African Chamber. She has brought investors to Liberia, hoping to create opportunities for them, as well as “get people to start businesses” and jobs in the West African country, he said. she declared.
She took care of her home country in other ways. When the deadly Ebola virus swept through Liberia in 2014, Ricks “was on almost every radio station soliciting material,” said Daniel Moore, former president of the Liberian community in Colorado. âWe were able to ship a container of medical supplies and food items. ”
Two years later, Ricks established a nonprofit foundation to support the socio-economic empowerment of Liberian youth and women. “I am passionate about helping young people reach their full potential,” she said.
In Colorado, Ricks’ legislative efforts are recognized. In October, the Colorado LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce honored her as Government Representative of the Year for championing “inclusion and diversity within the broader business community.” The state’s Independent Bankers Association and the non-profit housing group Habitat for Humanity both honored her for championing the pilot program legislation to help tenants improve their credit scores.
In the next legislative session, Ricks plans more work on consumer protection, education and immigration issues. She stressed that she works on behalf of all her constituents.
âI talk a lot about underserved communities and underrepresented communities,â she said, âbut I care about my whole community.â¦ We have the same needs, whether it’s education, health care, you know, financial opportunity, jobs, small business. We all want a place that works, where we can all thrive and grow. ”
Betty Ayoub of the Africa division of VOA contributed to this report.