Environmental activist serves as community leader, mentor to girls

This story is part of an on-going series spotlighting 2014 Washington Fellows at FIU.

Afua Prempeh, 28, is one of 25 participants in a group of young leaders visiting FIU as part of President Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). As a program officer for the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency, Prempeh works tirelessly to resolve disputes between industries and communities. From working with those in the head office of governmental agencies to educating those in the community about issues such as wetland management, conservation, climate change and water management, Prempeh has learned that most communities can develop sustainable programs from within.

by Eduardo Merille

“I studied in Israel to learn about policy strategies and support systems for rural revitalization,” she said. “Traditionally, everyone looks to government to do stuff for them. Most African governments look to get stuff from outside with conditions. But, if you’re able to manage your resource, you’re able to develop yourself without so much dependence on others. Many people don’t know that they don’t need the money, they need the know how to do it.”

After working in the head office, Prempeh’s interest peaked when she started working more closely with rural communities to present solutions to environmental problems. This work aligned to what had always driven her to go further in her own career: serving as an example to empower other women and young girls to dream big. Through monthly presentations at her office and involvement with her Church, she seeks to combine both of her passions to lead her community in environmental management and encourage young girls that the sky is the limit.

“I remember the day Barack Obama became President of the United States,” she said. “And now I sit back and think six to seven years later, I have the opportunity to meet him. It’s exciting for me! But I think it should be exciting for other people too, to show them anything is possible.”

Prempeh’s mentor, Maria Ilcheva, senior research associate with The Metropolitan Center, says that working with the Fellows has been a rewarding experience.

“It’s inspiring to see so many people, young people in particular, who have the drive to change things,” said Ilcheva.

The Metropolitan Center is an applied social science research and training institute focusing on economic development, planning and policy solutions for public, private and non-profits in South Florida. In addition to serving as mentors for the Fellows, several people from The Metropolitan Center have been instrumental in connecting the program with county officials and provided the basis for the syllabus. The partnership was a perfect fit for the Fellows, whose six-week course focused on public administration and included visits to the Miami-Dade County Public Works and Solid Waste facility, Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation, the Water and Sewer department and other public work facilities.

Click here to view a Google+ Hangout with YALI participant Afua Prempeh and the U.S. Department of State

Prempeh found the visits to be insightful and educational, noting that she feels she can now contribute more meaningfully to conversations around waste management and emergency response from government.

Afua Prempeh, YALI Washington Fellow, with FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg.

Afua Prempeh, YALI Washington Fellow, with FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg.

“She has the capacity to be a good politician,” Ilcheva said of Prempeh. “She has the communication skills and even though she considers herself reserved, she’s very likable. The things she says makes sense and are applicable in various settings. Coming from her experience, sharing her background and challenges – the way she communicated that to others made her contributions valuable to the them as well.”

Ilcheva said Prempeh and her peers have come a long way in learning to refocus their attention not just of the challenges that lay ahead of them, but in the solutions.

“They’re incredibility bright and driven people, but it’s important for them to understand that there is a lot at stake in their countries,” said Ilcheva. “They do have a role to play and that will be a very important role for them going forward in the future.”

Prempeh certainly seems to acknowledge the roadblocks that she may find in her path, but with the continued support of her parents, peers and friends, she is determined to keep moving forward.

“I’ve had to think about a lot of things in five weeks,” said Prempeh. “My career, how I want to build it, what to look for, what my vision is, what my mission is, what my values are and how that feeds into what I do. That’s something I’m taking back and I’ll start preaching about when I go back home. When it gets hard, something has to keep you going. Passion and love is what keeps people going.”