Debo Folorunsho, Executive Director, SAiD Institute. Photo by Laura Onyeneho.

Imagine entering into a space that fulfills your appetite for African history, arts, culture, education and literature all in one visit.

The Society of Africans in the Diaspora (SAiD) Institute does exactly that. SAiD Institute is dedicated to strengthening partnerships among people, leaders and institutions in Africa and the U.S.

Located in Westchase, the institute hosts poetry slams, book releases, art exhibitions, pop-up shops, workshops and panel discussions all centered around the cultural richness of the African Diaspora.

The Defender spoke with Executive Director Debo Folorunsho about expanding the institute in the Houston area.

Defender: You are a solo entrepreneur and pan-Africanist. When was this seed planted?

Folorunsho: At the core of what I do is mobilizing the African community for the betterment of the community. The seed was planted in Lagos, Nigeria. I gained entry into the University of Lagos. I attended a workshop by the British Cultural Council in Ikoyi, Lagos and French Cultural Institute that allowed me to see the world outside of Nigeria and understand the plight of Blacks in America. In Lagos, we weren’t taught about the struggles of African Americans. I had my own gossip magazine during my university days and then transitioned it to a youth magazine in 2002.

Defender: Where did the idea of SAiD originate?

Folorunsho: When I came to America, I arrived in San Francisco [and spent] two-to-three years working with a startup. I eventually moved to New York in 2007. I noticed there were no media platforms covering people of African descent during this time. Many of the stories about Africa in mainstream news don’t fully represent us as people. So I built a platform called Applause Magazine to applaud Africans who were changing their communities. We produced in-depth interviews, highlight 40 under 40 each year, discussions and host award ceremonies.

The magazine did very well and was seen in Barnes and Nobles in U.S and Canada until we struggled during the social media era. Our magazine ads were dropping and we couldn’t sustain the paper so we transitioned to SAiD Institute in 2018. SAiD is a 501c3 non-profit organization in Texas.

NYT Bestselling author, speaker, and podcaster Luvvie Ajayi accepts Africa Diaspora Award. Photo by Solwazi Olusola.

Defender: What is some of the most impactful work you’ve produced at SAiD?

Folorunsho: The first is the African Diaspora Awards, a ceremony aimed to identify and celebrate notable Africans who’ve contributed to the advancement of Africans in the diaspora. We honored people like Cynthia Erivo and Tamika Mallory. The next is the African Exchange. We do this during the UN Summit. The program is about raising awareness about Africans among Americans. So when people from Africa come for the UN Summit, we partner them with Africans in the states. Like an exchange program. Lastly, it’s our new program Act and Inform. It’s a kids’ program hosted at our institute. It’s for 5th thru 8th graders. They come together every last Saturday of the month to talk about what it means to be Black, talk about their identity and give them a voice.

Defender: Why did you move the business to Houston?

Folorunsho: Houston gives you more value for your money. Houston has the largest Nigerian population [in the U.S.]. This city in general has a vibrant Black community. We have the opportunity to have a physical space versus having to rent out other spaces to hold events in New York City. Plus, we’ve been based in New York for 10 years. We wanted to expand and hopefully own a larger building for SAiD Institute in the future.

Defender: How was the transition from New York to Houston?

Folorunsho: I believe Houston was waiting for us. Houston was eager to accept us. We moved here in 2018 and that was the year “Black Panther” came out. So many people came out supporting the positive narrative around Africa. We took about 60 kids and 20 parents in the community to the AMC theatre in Sugarland. We bought their tickets and meals so they could enjoy the experience.

People came out within one or two days of spreading the word. It gave me the encouragement to test ideas for different activities we could host in Houston. The SAiD Institute officially opened in August 2019 and it was a smooth transition because of the help from professionals in the community.

Defender: What are some important things on your agenda for the upcoming year?

Folorunsho: We have to continue to raise awareness about the institute. We are moving some of our signature events we did in New York to test the waters here. We will host art exhibitions monthly. We are increasing our archives in regard to the books we collect. Next week, we are kicking off a year long campaign called “Shared Journey.” We want people to come in and share their life stories. We are still raising funds to sustain the institute.

 SAiD Institute facts:

  1. Located in Westchase.
  2. Launched an immigration clinic to help residences with immigration related issues.
  3. Has a growing pan-African library book archive.
  4. Assisted 43 immigrants in receiving citizenship civic lessons and legal rights training.