As the national advisor for Black engagement for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, Temple graduate Adjoa B. Asamoah knew that for many Black people, a win for the former vice president was the difference between living freely and living in fear.
So as part of the team that helped convince 87% of Black Americans to choose Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, Asamoah galvanized voters like her life depended on it. And in the end, it was the Black vote that helped turn blue crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan.
Biden was grateful: “The African American community stood up again for me,” he said in his acceptance speech. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Asamoah was overjoyed: “I helped another Black woman ascend to the second-highest office in the land,” Asamoah said, referring to Harris, who will become the nation’s first female, Black, and South Asian vice president “I was just so proud. The weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders.”
Her work on the Biden-Harris ticket was just one of her political endeavors. In her role as a legislative consultant, Asamoah spent most of this year and last working with state and federal lawmakers to introduce the CROWN Act — a law that makes it illegal to discriminate against Black people in the workplace or school because of their hair. CROWN is an acronym for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
Under Asamoah’s leadership, New York and California became the first states to pass the CROWN Act last year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act in September, but it is stalled in the U.S. Senate. It has been introduced in more than 20 states — including Pennsylvania — and is law in seven, including New Jersey.
Asamoah “is an important part of our journey,” said Esi Eggleston Bracey, head of personal care for Unilever, the parent company of Dove, a sponsor of the CROWN Coalition that helped kick off the legislative fight. “She is a part of the grassroots efforts and a key part of the work that we’ve all done to fight hair discrimination.”
Fighting for the right to wear your hair in natural styles may seem trivial compared with galvanizing the vote during one of the most contentious elections in American history. But Asamoah knew it wasn’t.
This is just one of the many ways Black and brown people are discriminated against, said Asamoah, as schools and employers force them to alter their natural hair with heat or chemicals, instead of allowing protective styles like locs, braids, or Bantu knots that honor the hair that grows out of their heads. “It’s about choice,” she said. “It’s wrong that so many of us didn’t have a choice and there were no laws to protect us.”
Walking a tightrope
Asamoah, 44, can seem as steadfast as old-school freedom fighters Shirley Chisholm and Fannie Lou Hamer. At the same time, she’s driven by the same impatience that defines today’s progressive leaders, such as Stacey Abrams and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and influenced by call-to-action hashtags like #Blacklivesmatter and #Metoo, both started by Black women.
Like many Black women, she often finds herself in a simultaneous fight for racial equity and gender equality. But Asamoah’s work places her at another intersection: policy and politics.
As a consultant who develops policy for legislative consideration, she finds it tough to talk about her work on Democratic political campaigns for fear of turning off potential Republican supporters. But it’s the Democratic Party that usually champions issues that can change the quality of life for Black people, Asamoah said, from improving schools in poor neighborhoods to eradicating voter suppression. “It’s a very tricky space,” said Asamoah, who splits her time between Philly and D.C., and heads her own firm, ABA Consulting, through which she works with both politicians and corporations to help craft legislation. “And I navigate all of these spaces with the intention of moving Black folks forward.”
Her ability to walk this fine line is why U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D., La.), cochair of the Biden campaign, said he recommended Asamoah for the role of national advisor. “It was because of her Pennsylvania ties and her work with the CROWN Act that I knew she’d be exactly what the campaign needed,” Richmond said. “I knew her work would speak for itself.”
She certainly had her work cut out for her. Democrats faced an uphill battle trying to convince Black voters — many of whom felt the party was taking them for granted — to vote at all, especially while a pandemic was raging.
Asamoah worked on virtual and drive-in rallies featuring celebrities including Sheryl Underwood, DJ D-Nice, and Philly rapper Freeway. She organized socially distant canvassing days. And she helped create the agenda for the Shop Talk program that traveled to Pa. barbershops to encourage Black men to vote.
“Adjoa was a wealth of knowledge and a great person to have on our team,” said Keyva Clark, the Biden-Harris coalition director for Pennsylvania’s African American outreach. “She knew exactly what we needed to be focusing our energy on so that we were able to have visibility in the [Black] community.”
A freedom fighter is born
As a young child, Asamoah remembers sitting on the shoulders of her dad, Kwame Botwe-Asamoah, at political rallies in her hometown of New Haven, Conn., in the 1980s. Asamoah’s dad, a Ghanaian immigrant who would eventually receive his doctorate in Africana Studies at Temple, simply wanted to expose his daughter to all aspects of the Black experience in what was now their country.
Botwe-Asamoah took his daughter to Ghana when she was in fourth grade, and they visited the Cape Coast Castle where Africans were held prisoner during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, waiting to take the Middle Passage into enslavement. To this day, she’s haunted by the dehumanizing space. “I didn’t have the degrees of the sophisticated language back then, but I decided at the age of 9 that I would spend my life fighting for Black people,” Asamoah said.
While in high school at Connecticut’s prestigious Hopkins School, she started a movement to remove the term “headmaster” because the name was too closely linked to oppression. The school eventually changed the language to “head of school” after she graduated.
Asamoah arrived at Temple University in 1994 to major in African American studies and psychology. Within her first year there, she started advocating for North Philly residents in danger of being displaced by the university’s expansion. “I didn’t want Black people to lose their homes on account of people like me being there,” Asamoah said.
After graduation she found work as a behavioral specialist working mostly with Black children in Philadelphia. She became dismayed by the number of children wrongfully placed in special education, and in 2011, she started her doctoral studies at George Washington University. The goal: “To get a better handle on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.”
A member of Delta Sigma Theta — a Black sorority founded at Howard University that, much like the vice president-elect’s Alpha Kappa Alpha, has a robust social network — Asamoah began making a name for herself among D.C.’s elite.
In 2016 she became a senior policy adviser in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s executive office. Later that year Asamoah was was appointed to the Mayor’s Commission on African American Affairs, where she led the community effort to establish the Mayor’s Office on African American Affairs. She thought it was important for the District to have a permanent office to advise government policies that impact the Black community, especially when Chocolate City, as the city was affectionately known, was getting more white.
It was that work that caught the attention of members of the Democratic National Committee. “She really gets into the weeds of political work,” Richmond said. “And her big strength is that she brings coalitions with her. She has a great network of young, elected officials and young activists.”