The Africa America Institute (AAI) — the premier U.S.-based organization connecting Africa to America through education, training, and dialogue — celebrated its 70th year anniversary milestone with an epic gala event last week at Cipriani’s 42nd Street. AAI’s 70th Anniversary Gala gathered a host of distinguished notables including heads of state, diplomats, government officials, business and civil society leaders, scholars, journalists and other leading figures.
Hosted by longtime AAI supporter Bozoma Saint John, this year’s Gala was centered around spotlighting AAI’s distinguished alumni, its historic programs and partners in commemoration of the institution’s rich legacy and seven decades of global bridge building.
Kicking off with a chic pre-reception, the evening included an elegant sit down dinner and awards ceremony. Mayor Eric Adams made a special guest appearance to provide opening remarks for the ceremony in which he praised AAI’s work and far-reaching impact and its unwavering commitment to the global community.
AAI President & CEO Kofi Appenteng also welcomed guests in his remarks and reflected on the significance of the 70th anniversary declaring, “From our beginnings in 1953, AAI has sought to establish a definitive break from earlier centuries of harmful U.S. engagement with the African continent. Our broad vision is to enrich the social fabric of humanity by connecting students, educators and leaders across sectors, through education, all with a goal of transforming the way we understand Africa and its worldwide diaspora. The vision of our founders was also to build a better world by connecting Americans and Africans to create a bridge of understanding and collaboration between Africa and the United States. We have seen our work in action around the world, from the thousands of individuals who have been educated and trained through our programs, to the creation of economic opportunities, to the development of vital networks among our alumni and partners.”
For the first award of the evening, AAI honored lifelong educator and civil rights activist Evelyn Jones Rich — who oversaw educational programs at AAI from the mid-to late 1970s — with the Legacy of Teaching Africa and Excellence Award. Presented by AAI President Emerita & Historian Mora McLean and AAI Senior Education Advisor and Coordinator Dr. Olivia Lynch, the award recognizes an individual with extraordinary scholar-activism in promoting Africa-focused curricula and pedagogy in and beyond schools.
From her role as a student activist in the 1950s through to her career as an educator, foundation executive, and advocate, Jones Rich has always fought for justice, equity and equality for all. In her capacity as an educator with AAI, the programs she oversaw were largely responsible for outreach efforts to infuse Africa in K-12 education across the United States and also helped to shape the content of elementary and secondary curricula in Africa. She advanced the idea that Africa should be taught in schools not simply as an object of foreign policy but as a source of knowledge essential to any meaningful understanding of humankind and the modern world.
Presented by AAI Vice Chair & Trustee Becky Edwards and Executive Director, NEAR Hibak Kalfan, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation received the 2023 Philanthropic Impact Award in acknowledgement of the profound impact the organization has made through its remarkable work on the African continent and commitment to localization in its grant making.
The Foundation’s unwavering dedication to improving the lives of individuals and communities in Africa through its programs has been integral in addressing pressing social challenges while promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in real time. Conrad N. Hilton Foundation President and CEO Peter Laugharn accepted the Award on behalf of the Foundation. Under his leadership, the Foundation’s commitment to reaching 25% localization in its international grant making by the end of this year is leading the field where the current commitment is 25% by the end of 2030 under the ‘Grand Bargain.’
Debra Lee received the 2023 Business Leadership Award. Presented by AAI Trustee Humble Lukanga and Director General of The World Trade Organization Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Lee was honored for her lifelong commitment to promoting diversity and inclusivity, fighting for representation and to supporting the next generation of Black women leaders.
Through her work, Lee has created spaces that further position Black men and women to climb industry ladders while providing a concrete example of what is possible, not only in the United States, but also across Africa and the globe. Her 30+ year tenure at BET also extended to roles as General Counsel and COO. She is also the founder of Leading Women Defined and the co-founder of Monarch Collective — both organizations wholly dedicated to mentoring, supporting, and empowering both women and the BIPOC community at large.
AAI Vice Chair & Trustee Robert McCarthy and CEO of Schneidman Associates Witney Schneidman presented the final award of the evening – the 2023 Corporate Responsibility Award – to the MTN Group which was accepted by the company’s President and CEO Ralph Mupita.
Since its founding in 1994, MTN has been at the forefront of telecommunications in Africa and, as Africa’s largest mobile network operator, MTN’s expertise and success has contributed to a revolution in the way Africans communicate with each other and the world — bridging the digital divide, catalyzing economic growth, and raising living standards across the continent. Additionally, MTN’s work has been integral in supporting collaboration and the continent’s ability to share its achievements and history, something that is at the core of AAI’s mission.
For the first time in the event’s history, AAI introduced a special Presidential Fireside Chat centered around the importance of education and scholarship across Africa with H.E. Hage Geingob, President of the Republic of Namibia and AAI alumnus, and H.E. Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, President of the Republic of Botswana. The conversation was moderated by Bloomberg News correspondent and reporter Jennifer Zabasajja.
The ceremony also included an incredible performance by much lauded mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja and an original poetry reading by Storyteller & Narrative Architect at the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT Donovan Beck.
Established in 1953 by co-founders that included Dr. Horace Mann Bond, the first Black president of Lincoln University, Professor William Leo Hansberry, a pioneering Africanist at Howard University, and Henrietta Van Noy, of American University, the purpose of AAI is to enrich the social fabric of humanity by connecting students and leaders across sectors and facilitating access to reliable information about Africa.
Held annually during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), AAI’s Annual Awards Gala has been the most anticipated African-centered event in New York City since its début in 1984.
Throughout its 70-year history, AAI has provided over 23,000 scholarships and fellowships to African students. The Annual Awards Gala raises funds to support AAI programs and initiatives, such as its work to assist K-12 districts and schools in the United States that want to expose students to scholarly, unbiased knowledge about Africa, and advanced education and training scholarship programs for professionals across the African continent.
For more information about AAI’s 70th Anniversary Awards Gala and Ceremony, visit aaiafrica.org