|I have a bad habit of telling people that I decided to leave the State Department while I was flying over Africa. Somewhere between Nairobi and Ndjamena; Monrovia and Ouagadougou; Khartoum and Johannesburg…where doesn’t matter; it’s the story that resonates with strangers–by myself, faraway from others, distant and defeated.
But that isn’t true. I actually decided to leave the Department years before, after I met a black man named Eric Sheppard.
Eric is the founder and president of Diversity Restoration Solutions (DRS). DRS is a Virginia-based international trade development firm specializing in linking together U.S. and African Diaspora businesses, organizations, and individuals with their African business counterparts through trade, business, and cultural relationships. Through his network of partners, Region 7 Network Initiative, DRS is providing a solution to support the “new” Africa for business and cultural relationship-building opportunities. This solution is named Xodus 2019 Homecoming and is a movement that leads up to the 400th anniversary of the African transatlantic slave trade in 2019. This homecoming in 2019 will culminate with the opening of DRS’s first trade, business, and cultural center in Banjul, The Gambia.
Recently, I asked Eric, “Why is DRS launching its first ‘culture restoration’ success story in The Gambia?” He replied, “The time is now to ‘heal’ from the pain of this tragic holocaust through educational, cultural, and business exchange programs.”
When I asked why he felt the need to be involved in this project, Eric’s answer was short and simple. “My DNA took me to West Africa. I followed Alex Haley (he opened the door) to The Gambia because he traced his roots and inspired me to do likewise.” And it resonated.
Those within the DRS network are living and breathing reminders of our nation’s horrible slave past. And like Eric, many of them have DNA ties to The Gambia and other parts of West Africa. I had the honor of meeting many of them during a planning meeting last year outside of Washington, D.C. I learned a lot that day, not about slavery and Africa, but about the heart and soul of what this is all about: these people are not doing this to remind white America about this horrible period. They’re not doing this to point fingers and blame others. They’re doing this to restore cultural and business ties with their homeland.
There is something else that resonated when I first met Eric Sheppard. Eric walked away from his comfortable life in America, a good job with the Defense Department, and a steady paycheck.
So back to that day I met Eric…well, let me hit the “restart” button. I actually met Eric months before in Banjul; we were there to attend a trade development conference. I was sitting pretty…a comfortable job at the State Department, sending me to faraway lands whenever I felt bored and longed to travel. Eric was shifting his part-time small business focus to opportunities in West Africa. We talked that day, but that was about it.
Then, about a year later, we met in Washington and that is when Eric, with his strong and determined wife beside him, told me that he traveled to Africa only once and came back to America and decided to walk away. “Giving back to those who need the most,” is what he called it, and I could see the passion and unwavering commitment in their eyes.
I sat there that day and decided silently that I was going to do the same. I didn’t know when, or how, or who was going to be by my side. But I was also going to walk away one day…so I could also give back.
To make a long story short…Eric was much faster, braver, smarter, and more passionate than me; he went there once and figured it out; I traveled to Africa more than twenty times during my 1989-2011 tenure at the State Department; I waited until 2011 finally to walk away, begin living, and start growing passion.
It is a pleasure to recognize a brave pioneer, another likeminded believer in giving back and growing passion–Eric Sheppard.
So let me tell you now why Eric’s project is so important. I love West Africa and places like Dakar, Senegal, where nearly tiny innocent-looking islands dot the sea. During slavery, cities like Dakar were human transport centers. Just within eyesight of the city port is Goree Island, the sight of the infamous “Door of No Return.” If you’ve ever been there, it is this one small passageway through the thick rock wall that will always be etched in your brain. But beyond this tragic piece of history is the in-your-face tragedy called astute poverty. It consumes places such as Senegal, The Gambia, and every other inch of West Africa and the rest of the sub-continent.
So what does Eric and the DRS have to do with this? That’s an easy one so let me begin.
I’ve heard it all: There’s so much poverty; where do you even start? The problem is just too complex. I can’t make a difference, can I?
So this is what I say: I embrace private enterprise wholeheartedly, and I believe that the economic theory of capitalism is strong because it is the only thing that truly works. The trickle-down isn’t perfect and is never fast or heavy enough, for obvious reasons. Too few hands are reaching down to pull others up; too many people forget to send the elevator back down after they get to the top; too much greed and selfishness. But private enterprise, pulling others up, and giving back via business and trade beats handouts and government intervention hands down.
This is the reason DRS’s success in The Gambia and elsewhere in Africa–building new commercial linkages between our private sector and theirs–is so important. It might be a slow start, but it’s a start.
So let me close this one where I began–talking about my bad habit. The truth is: my bad habit wasn’t fudging my story. My bad habit was not seeing the possibilities staring me down, not feeling the passion growing inside of me, not listening to my own inspiration, and more than anything, not following the many others who had chosen to step up and walk away a long time before I came around.
Don’t let a bad habit slow you down. Step up and be a part of the solution as small as that might seem.†
It’s a small world, so write about it.
D.A. (Dennis) Winstead
Award-winning international author, inspiration blogger and
founder and head of Color Him Father Foundation
To learn more about Diversity Restoration Solution’s 2019 Homecoming Project and how you can partner with Eric A. Sheppard, go to www.diversityrestoration.com.
Also be sure to read Eric’s monthly restoration message in the New Journal and Guide newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, one of the nation’s oldest African-American owned and published newspapers. Eric Sheppard will pen exclusive monthly columns on the 2019 Homecoming Project, providing updates and progress reports leading up to 2019. Please take a moment and click on the monthly stories and share with your family and friends around the world.
January 2013 - Where is Our Promised Land?
February 2013 - African Heritage Month