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NEW MEXICO OFFICE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN AFFAIRS

Head of state African American office: Progress being made, more to do

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For Black people in New Mexico, the term tricultural “is so hard to hear,” said Amy Whitfield, director of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs (OAAA).

Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the state’s population, Whitfield said, but “our contributions to New Mexico culture have been so great. When you say it is a tricultural (Anglo, Hispanic and Native American) state, what you’re saying is, ‘We don’t recognize the contributions you’ve made to creating New Mexico culture.’”

That is “not just harmful to Black communities or Asian communities, it is also harmful to Hispanic or indigenous communities,” Whitfield said, because “people more in power … take credit for someone else’s contributions.”

OAAA was created in 1999 through a bill introduced by state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Bernalillo. Stapleton, a New Mexico State University graduate, was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1995 and has risen to the rank of majority floor leader.

Harold Pope Jr., elected in 2020 and also an Albuquerque Democrat, is New Mexico’s first-ever Black state senator.

Pope’s election “matters on so many different levels,” Whitfield said. “Once there is a first, it opens the mind to so many others. Now, little boys and girls of color will see him and say, ‘I can do that.’”

Adults Whitfield’s age and older can say, “‘I never really thought it could be me, but it could. It really could. I could do it,’” she said.

Pope’s election “is the start to more Black voices and more Black communities being represented,” Whitfield said. “It is an amazing accomplishment for him and I’m so glad that he’s there. It is access. It opens up the doors for Black people to engage in politics.”

But, Whitfield said, Pope “can only speak for those experiences that he has had. Then there are Black people who are having a totally different experience.”

Black women in New Mexico, for example, “need someone speaking with that voice,” she said, and “all these multiple voices. One Black person cannot carry all the different Black community voices.”

While the 2021 legislative session “wasn’t 100 percent successful,” Whitfield said, “it was a really great year for racial justice.”

Legislation passed during the session and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham included the Hair Discrimination Act and the Black Education Act, both co-sponsored by Pope and Stapleton.

“One of the greatest things” Lujan Grisham has done, Whitfield said, is to create the Governor’s Advisory Council for Racial Justice, which began meeting last August. The council is tasked with monitoring state institutions to end institutional racism and ensure “fair and equal treatment and opportunities” for everyone,” according to the council’s website.

Council members include NMSU Black Programs Interim Director Kimberly York and Las Cruces City Councilor Johana Bencomo.

Whitfield said OAAA has a “strong connection with NMSU Black Programs, with whom the office jointly participates in a variety of programs.”

Education is part of OAAA’s work, Whitfield said, and the office works to “connect with college students as much as possible.”

Whitfield was named permanent executive director of OAAA in January after serving as interim director.

“I think what (OAAA) wants to get across to anybody who doesn’t know who we are, we won’t be the only voice of African-Americans in New Mexico,” Whitfield said. “There are so many communities that have agendas and issues.”

“The heart of OAAA lies with the many New Mexico residents statewide who felt that there was a need to address issues specific to the African-American community,” according to the OAAA website, including “the need to improve and promote the economic development, education, health and political well-being of the African-American community throughout New Mexico.”

Visit www.oaaa.state.nm.us.