DIASPORANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Featuring Okey K. Enyia
I had the honor of sitting down with Mr. Okey K. Enyia. He has been abundantly blessed to have such an influence in transforming the lives of many through his roles on Capitol Hill, and his roles in the community. Journey with us as we have a real conversation about Okey’s role as a Christian, Black man and the obstacles he’s overcome, leading to the victories of his legacy.
Enjoy Loves! ❤️
NDIDI LOVE: So Okey, tell me a little bit about yourself…
OKEY ENYIA: Sure. I am the first born of Nigerian immigrants to the United States. I’m the oldest of six children with two brothers and three sisters who grew up in the Chicagoland area. I now live in Prince George’s County Maryland. My background is medicine, public health, health policy, politics, research, and teaching. I currently work on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC where I worked both on the House side and the Senate side before my current position at the Department of Health and Human Services, where part of what I do is advise the Director of the Division of Policy and Strategic Planning legislative strategy when it comes to national and global health security. At a high level, that’s what I’ve been doing most recently, and that brings me to where I am now in my career.
NDIDI LOVE: Can you tell me a little bit more about the work that you do on a daily basis, and what inspired you to do it?
OKEY ENYIA: I was a medical student several years ago, and that was my opportunity to experience direct patient care. Growing up, I always envisioned myself becoming a medical doctor. After having applied to medical school three times and taking the Medical College Admissions Test four times over the better part of a decade, I was finally able to get into med school. But even going into med school, I knew that my vision was going to be greater than just seeing patients as a physician. I went from being able to see patients as a medical student, where I was able to appreciate the importance of health equity, and health disparities; to public health, where I was able to really get into the community and broaden my perspective and influence in terms of social justice, race, ethnicity, and culture. This, in turn, evolved to health policy where I found myself asking the question “how can I make a much broader meaningful impact on a larger scale?” So after I got my Master’s degree in Public Health from Chicago State University in 2014, I was considering what that next step would be. So I applied to a few fellowship programs and several doctoral programs. Out of all of the applications I submitted, the only program that accepted me was the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Louis Stokes Health Policy Fellowship program. My four-year transition from medical school in Springfield, Illinois to graduate school in Chicago; and then to Washington DC was absolutely remarkable and divinely orchestrated. I distinctly remember a trip to Capitol Hill as a medical student that confirmed to me that part of my destiny would be doing something in Washington DC. So fast-forward, I was able to secure a two-year fellowship on Capitol Hill having now worked for three Members of Congress. I wrapped up my fellowship in June of 2016, and I started my time at the Department of Health and Human Services in July of 2016. Some of my passions are health equity, health disparities, men’s health, and social justice – where I approach all of my work looking through an equity and resilience lens. Further, I’m able to put voice and language to the work that I do in my current space when it comes to emergency preparedness, natural disasters, emerging threats, Zika, Ebola, Flint, and things that will have an impact in terms of national and global security. That’s part of what drives me. I also had the opportunity to help to draft several pieces of legislation that actually were signed into law. The most recent one being the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016. It’s been a phenomenal experience to effect this kind of change, and I’m looking forward to even greater impact on the world stage.
NDIDI LOVE: Okey, what does the African Diaspora mean to you, and how do you connect best with the Diaspora?
OKEY ENYIA: I’m a man of strong faith and I believe that it’s important to know who and whose you are. From a cultural standpoint, it’s important to know your roots, your history; and then from a spiritual standpoint as a man of faith, it’s important to know who you are as a child of God. I’ve always had a passion for making sure that I’m able to pay it forward as far as giving back to the communities that I serve. Having grown up in a Nigerian household with the values that they’ve instilled in me – all of the culture, all of our history, our grandparents, great grandparents, that information has been very empowering and has allowed me to navigate different circles, appreciate differences, and to hold on to my roots. For example, I’m still able to speak my language which is Igbo, I love my traditional food-my favorite probably would be fufu, and jollof rice always as a staple. I was taught to cook by my mom, so just those values and also having my dad – he’s been a great example for me. I haven’t been home (Nigeria) for several years, but I do look forward to going back as my career progresses to make sure that I’m giving back to my country and my people. I extend that same heart, passion, to serve wherever I happen to be planted.
NDIDI LOVE: Tell me a little bit more about your experiences working in public policy as a black man and how you’ve had to navigate the spaces that you’re in.
OKEY ENYIA: Having the benefit of growing up in a two-parent household, and knowing who I am as a Christian Igbo man, I’ve been able to navigate various spaces rather astutely. Having gone to Predominantly White Institutions for college and medical school, I’m usually going to be the only one of a few black men in any classroom setting. I’ve experienced all types of racial incidents, micro-aggressions, and constant questioning of my competence and character. This extends from the classroom to the boardroom. As a conscious black male, I’m more likely to have to prove myself, fend off insults, be ignored in the course of a conversation; and to be made to feel unwelcome in different spaces. I’m also less likely to be given written or verbal credit for ideas and suggestions I may bring to a conversation or meeting. More often than not, I’ll be perceived as a threat – where my very presence illicits various types of reactions. So, if you’re not particularly able to cope or manage when this behavior occurs, it can take a toll on you emotionally, mentally, and physically in terms of stress. What has always kept me grounded is my faith, my family, spiritual mentors, and my fraternity brothers – I’m a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. I’m a strong believer in surrounding yourself with individuals that can encourage me and also challenge me to be a better man. Having a strong support system in place is very critical to one’s success; especially as a conscious black male who knows who he is and where he’s going – those elements are really important to cultivate. Because of my experiences, I’ve really been able to leverage the barriers and obstacles and overcome in the very face of adversity. Kudos go to my parents (Dr. Sam and Mrs. Irene Enyia), my family, my siblings, and my church family. I also have to give a special shout out to my spiritual mentor, Apostle Matthew Stevenson III who pastors a church on the Southside of Chicago, All Nations Worship Assembly. He and his ministry prophesied what I would be doing now in terms of my career. All of those circles of community have helped to keep me grounded, focused and motivated to walk in the fullness of my calling as an emerging servant-leader on the world stage.
NDIDI LOVE: Okey, if you could give back to your community, what would that look like specifically?
OKEY ENYIA: I live by the notion of paying it forward, having a heart to serve, and seeing people succeed. I have several mentees across the country that I’ve helped get into college, med school, law school, and grad school. In fact, recently I helped a few of my mentees to get into med school, and again, part of it is because of what I have received growing up. Part of my purpose is to encourage and speak to the destinies of people’s lives. Those that need some guidance, some direction, I’m able to help to unpack what their vision might look like for them and to push them towards fulfilling what they’ve been called to fulfill. On a more local level with my fraternity, our local chapter in Prince George’s County, Maryland mentors youth as part of our programming efforts. In fact, we recently had a closing ceremony for a group of 20 young men that we’ve been mentoring for the past few months -teaching them life skills, dining etiquette, social media etiquette, and other skills that allow them to learn about themselves and the world around them. It’s very important that they see positive male role models that look like them doing great things. We are very intentional about sharing our stories, our backgrounds, and also serving as chaperones to a museum or a college campus because it’s important to expose our youth to these types of activities. Children tend to become what they see whether it’s good or bad so it’s important to lead by example. This is just one of a whole host of other activities that allows me to give back and to pour into the next generation.
NDIDI LOVE: Where do you see all the work that you’re doing, but specifically the public health work in like the next 10 years?
OKEY ENYIA: Two routes that I’m going to be taking soon is to 1) monetize my gifts and talents to prepare for the world stage. I’m looking to monetize all of my background, experience, contacts, relationships, skills, and passions, into a consulting firm so that wherever I go on the planet, I will be a resource; and 2) get a Ph.D. in Health Policy and Management . I would look forward to being trained on how to produce scholarship, potentially teach, and continue to mentor. I also look forward to becoming a subject-matter expert in the field of black men’s health, public policy, Health In All Policies, and social determinants of health; further exploring how all of those areas intersect on a much deeper level. Right now I’m at the place where I’m exploring the nexus of national health security, and public health – bringing to that space the health equity and social justice lens while moving the needle for people of all backgrounds, and more specifically, African Americans. In the current political climate, there may be some potential for me to consider serving as a statesman in terms of principled public service. My vision is global and part of it is a matter of synergizing all of my background and experience, and really being impactful while leaving a meaningful legacy with the time that I’ve been given to serve.
NDIDI LOVE: Can you explain a little bit more of what a statesman is?
OKEY ENYIA: I am enjoying my current space, but I’m open to the possibility of running for elected office at some point down the road. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a politician in the purest sense of the word; although, I do love politics and policy. A statesman is someone who makes every effort to put people and principles before politics. I also enjoy working in a bipartisan fashion; as evidenced by my helping to draft the bipartisan 21 Century Cures Act of 2016.
NDIDI LOVE: Do you have any advice for the people that will be reading this interview about how to go about finding your purpose?
OKEY ENYIA: Absolutely. What I usually try to do when I connect with my mentees, colleagues and friends that I’m in relationship with – is ask them a few key questions. 1) If money or fear were not issues or obstacles, what would you envision yourself doing? 2) What things have you seen in family, community or in the world that frustrate or anger you? Those are signs or signals of where and how you’ve been called to make a difference. What things make you happy? What activities bring you joy? What hobbies excite you? Those are signs and signals that let you know what you should be cultivating. I always encourage my mentees to make every effort to write down and revisit your vision at intervals. Put pen to paper and sit quietly at some point, and really be intentional about envisioning what an ideal job or career would look like for you. Those are seeds that I plant that have been helpful in fleshing out where someone wants to go.
From a spiritual stand point, my parents are involved in ministry. So I grew up with a very strong spiritual heritage. For the Biblical scholars out there, I wear the mantles of Joseph the Dreamer and Daniel the Prophet. My grace or anointing runs parallel to their lives primarily. We know Joseph was sent off to Egypt and God was preparing him for ultimately becoming the second-in-command to Pharaoh as a resource; but before he could get to that place of national stewardship, he had to learn a lot about himself, about people, and endured several character building lessons that helped him to operate in his gifts and talents where he was. It’s one thing to be gifted. Your gift can certainly open doors for you, but it’s your character that will keep you operating at your highest capacity. That’s definitely been part of my experience. As a visionary dreamer, I’ve gone through very similar challenges, whether it’s with family or friends in terms of learning about myself; and getting to a place where I’m still able to flow in my gifts in whatever space I happen to be planted. Daniel, being a man of prayer served in a spirit of excellence in government. Both of these gentlemen knew who they were as men of integrity and served in strategic and influential governmental capacities.
Recently I became a member of the BMe community. BMe was founded by black men in 2013 who wanted to change the narrative around who we are as black men. Part of the strategy is to drive the narrative from a deficit–framing context to an asset–framing context. The BMe community values all members of the human family, recognizes black men as assets, reject narratives that denigrate people, and work together for the common good. This is the type of impact and influence that I look forward to having on the world-stage and around every decision-making table.
Edit: connect with Okey at enyiastrategies.com
Thank you, Okey, for your awesome interview. Continue inspiring more change agents in the world!