While working as a social worker at a charter school in the Bronx, New York, Lyrica Fils-Aimé, ’10, discovered a gap.

The students from its large African immigrant population had near-perfect attendance (chronic absence was a problem in the area) but declined most extracurricular offerings. Moreover, she noticed that some teachers didn’t understand the differences between African and African American experiences, failed to recognize frequent and serious bullying of African students, and sometimes called child protective services on African parents for their disciplinary practices.

Inspired by the memory of her own father, who is Haitian and threw fundraisers in her school’s cafeteria to support Haiti, Fils-Aimé began organizing Celebrate Africa. She turned largely to the parents to construct the event.

“That’s how you really do community building,” she said. “You ask the people what they need.”

The result: a bustling room full of African fabrics, traditional clothing, food, drumming, and more. Within the party’s walls, parents and students were the experts, teaching the teachers about the cultures from which they came.

Families and faculty enjoyed it, participation in school programs subsequently rose, and one parent in particular went on to build a relationship with Fils-Aimé that sparked the Thérèse Dipoumbi Foundation. Benefiting schools in Cameroon, Dipoumbi’s home country, the foundation provides for educational needs from books to fans to plans for building a new school.

Today, Fils-Aimé serves as director of equity, transformation, and culturally responsive education for the New York City Department of Education. She credits Celebrate Africa as a pivotal point in her equity work, preparing her to take on culture change in the entire city’s educational system.

“Belonging is extremely important,” she said. “Do people feel like they want to be here?”