Afam Ayika is Real Change’s new Vendor Program director, but he’s definitely not new. This is Ayika’s return to Real Change; he served as the organization’s community organizer from 2015 to 2017. But he also comes from an extensive background in this kind of work.
Roughly a decade ago, he was diagnosed with what his doctors said was terminal cancer. He had to wait a week for the biopsy to come back to confirm it, and during that week, he said, “I prayed a lot. I went through all the stages of grief. Why is it me? This isn’t fair! … But I made a deal with God that if I got out of the hospital, if God let me survive, I would just fight for people who can’t.”
His prayers were answered. True to his word, Ayika got out of the hospital and took on an exhausting amount of organizing work.
He describes himself as an “antiracist community organizer,” but that doesn’t quite cover it. While he is trained in running antiracism trainings via the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, he’s done a whole lot more than that. At one point, he estimates, he worked in some capacity for 20 organizations simultaneously. He’s led marches, he’s taught prisoners and he’s testified everywhere from City Hall to the state Capitol. Some of his notable policy wins included the Ban the Box campaign, which limited how criminal history could be used in employment and housing decisions, and opposition to “legal financial obligations,” which can cause released prisoners to owe thousands of dollars in fines and fees.
“I used to have a binder with 10 to 20 organizations, and I had a to-do list on every single one. I was a 14-hour-a-day worker,” Ayika said.
He also worked professionally as a social worker for many years in between his stints at Real Change. During his first go-round at Real Change, he fought hard on the campaign to preserve hookah lounges — almost universally immigrant- and Black-owned businesses — which then-Mayor Ed Murray was trying to ban. He was instrumental in the No New Youth Jail campaign. He’s mentored kids. He’s a pioneer of restorative justice in our region, having helped create some of our city’s earliest diversion programs and participated in restorative justice circles as far back as 2012 when the first one was convened following the killing of woodcarver John T. Williams by Seattle Police Department officers.
We’ll stop the list while we still have some column inches left, but suffice to say, the man’s a heavyweight. However, Ayika’s work has also been heavy on him.
Since that first battle with cancer, he’s broken his back, had a stroke (mid pull-up, at the 24-Hour Fitness across from 1811 Eastlake, where he was a social worker), been in a coma and had cancer again. While he thinks stress definitely has to do with some of it, he hasn’t shied away from his original commitment to help others.
“I just keep going. I think it’s my unnatural dislike for all the bad things in the world that keeps me alive,” he said.
He’s glad to have landed back at Real Change, where there is a bit more stability and he’s free to focus on what he feels he’s best able to do now: uplifting others to fight injustice.
“Oppression is a big giant boulder, and we all push it up a hill. And then when you get old and you get worn out, you move out of the way, and you let somebody else come up and push. … But you have to inspire that person. All the people that came before me, the Stokely Carmichaels, they were all pushing the same boulder, and then they left knowledge for me to read, to watch, and that’s [how] they’ve inspired me,” Ayika said.
He looks forward to inspiring Real Change’s vendors to fight oppression, however it affects them. Real Change’s business model, he added, is a great way to do that.
“Economic empowerment is definitely an arm of empowerment, and so every vendor that comes to Real Change and leaves Real Change to a better something else is how I mark my success,” he said.
However, he’s also got some pretty serious ambitions beyond Real Change. Ayika is building a literal palace for himself, on land in the small village in Nigeria where he was born.
“I’m going home. It’s very, very exciting because I am a Pan-Africanist, and I am unapologetically pro-Black,” he said.
For now, though, he’s here and working hard.
“It’s hard in this city to be unapologetically pro-Black,” he noted. “That’s why I like Real Change. It seems like a place where I can be myself and I [can] support people.”
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Read more of the May 17-23, 2023 issue.