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January 2018: Leading Across Differences

31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #8: Risho Sapano

This story was first published by the South Seattle Emerald,


MARCH 8, 2017 South Seattle Emerald

In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.

This week’s articles come from organizers of the Celebration of International Women’s Day* event, a day-long free event designed to rejoice in the strength, resilience and creativity of women in the Seattle area.  This project is funded in part by a Neighborhood Matching Fund award from the City of Seattle, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods.

by Colleen Fulp

The opportunity to write this piece arose out of my work on the Steering Committee for the upcoming Celebration of International Women’s Day. I jumped at the chance to write about my colleague and dear friend, Risho Sapano. Risho and I work together at Mother Africa, an organization that supports African immigrant and refugee women and their families to reach their highest potentials. Here is an excerpt of the conversation I had with Risho last week:

Colleen Fulp: Please give us a background of who you are, your experience moving to South King County and what you love about living in this area.

Risho Sapano: “I came to America in 1995 from Khartoum, Sudan in pursuit of a better life. I went to graduate school at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts to achieve my dream of working in the international development arena. After graduation, I worked with Oxfam America as a Project Assistant. That helped me to learn about what international organizations are doing at their headquarters, as opposed to working on the ground in a recipient country. I got married, moved to Seattle in 2000. I started looking for organizations that serve diverse communities, and joined the Red Cross International Services/Language Bank in 2001 as an Interpreter and also took some of their classes to become a HIV/AIDs Instructor. I also started volunteering with the Nonprofit Assistance Center. That was my introduction to Seattle!

I love the diversity in this area, more so than the populations in Massachusetts at that time. There are a lot of ethnic restaurants, stores and many different people here.

CF: The title of this series in the South Seattle Emerald is called “31 Days of Revolutionary Women“. How do you see yourself as a revolutionary woman, and why?

RS: I think we all have roles in life, and I’ve always seen myself as being very capable of doing so many things. With that comes a responsibility to step up and take the lead, help others and advocate on behalf of others. I felt the need to step up and found an organization that can alter the narrative and status quo about African communities. They can be more than just the recipients of services, rather they can be contributors and make a significant impact in the greater community.

All of this is what lead up to the founding of Mother Africa in 2004. This work drives me to excel, listen compassionately to the communities’ needs, and direct them to the way forward. Through this work, we have impacted many women’s lives through our innovative, community-led approaches. One example is our Economic Empowerment Initiative- offering Employment Training Classes, Financial Literacy Workshops and scholarships to attend CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) training and driving school. These are the types of trainings and support that so many women need in order to overcome barriers to achieve their full potential, but it can be very difficult to save enough money to enroll. We have seen through our Pilot of this program that this work is helping women to achieve new careers, go back to school, and better support their children.

Mother Africa
Risho with Board of Directors (L to R) Fatima Mohammed, Kate Kaniaru, Colleen Fulp
and Risho Sapano at Mother Africa’s annual Cultural and Resource Night in 2015. Photo by Davies Chirwa

CF: What do you consider your biggest achievement so far in life?

RS: Do I have to say only one?! [laughing]. I think raising my kids is definitely one of the biggest ones. Founding Mother Africa. Being able to lead an organization like this in the United States. I always had this dream and the fact that it has come to be true is wonderful.

CF: Please share with us your vision for yourself and your community of women over the next 10-15 years.

RS: I want to do more research about African refugees and immigrants, document their experiences, histories, and stories about their lives coming to Washington State. I want to create a museum to document and preserve the African refugee and immigrant culture, timelines, and stories about where we came from. We are here yet there are no histories about us are being shared.
I also have a dream to expand Mother Africa to have more branches in the region, even nationally. The demand for social support and connection to resources is high. We can all do better together by building community support.
For the communities, we all hear that America is the land of opportunity, but some of us have not reached this yet. It is our role in the leadership to help them realize these opportunities.

Risho and community leaders (L to R) Christine Arhu, Josephine Karinja, and Fatima Mohammed speaking on a mentorship panel at Mother Africa’s Center for African Women (CAW) in Kent. Photo by Colleen Fulp

CF: What excites you about the upcoming Celebration of International Women’s Day at South Seattle College on March 11?

RS: This is going to be a very inclusive event, and many women will be participating in International Women’s Day for the very first time in their life. The intention behind creating this day is so powerful, very well thought-out and well-designed. There are multi-language flyers, interpretation, childcare; it is all very welcoming and broadly welcomes so many cultures and communities. Bringing women together for a good cause to simply have fun, and just interacting with each other as women is really great. Think of women taking care of themselves and prioritizing themselves for one day!

CF: Anything else you’d like to share?

RS: Thank you to Barbara Spraker for her brilliant idea for this celebration and to the steering committee for all of their work to make this day possible. We hope that so many of you reading this will join us! Thank you to Colleen for being a great supporter to the African community and to me personally.

Thank you so much for sharing a bit of yourself with all of us that will be reading this article, Risho. You are such an inspirational and truly revolutionary woman! I’m thankful for your leadership in our South King County community.

You can learn more about Mother Africa at


Colleen FulpColleen Fulp is the Program Manager at Mother Africa. She holds a MA in African Studies from the Jackson School of International Studies, and a Certificate in Global Health from the Department of Global Health at University of Washington. She has extensive nonprofit, community organizing and research experience in the USA, Ghana and Uganda. Her work in Ghana consisted of conducting research about the relationship between women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship in the textile industry. She also served on a program evaluation team to evaluate a medical doctor training course in tropical medicine in Uganda and Tanzania. She is now working with a team to launch a new nonprofit, Ghana International Autism Initiative, in Ghana to serve children with autism and their families. Colleen has been working with Risho Sapano in Mother Africa since 2012 and specializes in program design and delivery, community engagement, program evaluation and grant writing.

Featured image courtesy of Risho Sapano
Colleen Fulp photo by Shogo Ota, Tireman Studios